Guns kill a lot of young people in the United States. Not just in school shootings or horrific “accidents” between toddlers that tend to garner the most media attention, but in every day shootings in communities around the country that result in the deaths of thousands of children and teenagers.
In 2010, 6,201 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 died by gunfire. Guns were a close second to the leading cause of death among this age group, car accidents, which took the lives of 7,024 young people that year. But, while car accident deaths among young people have been steadily declining over the past decade, gun deaths have remained relatively unchanged. And, as described in a new Center for American Progress report released Friday, if current trends continue, gun deaths will surpass car accident deaths among young people sometime in 2015:
How can we explain these numbers? For car accident deaths, these numbers represent a significant victory. Deaths of young people as a result of car accidents have dropped dramatically in the last two decades, from a high of more than 12,000 deaths among this age group in 1990. This decline is not an accident: billions of dollars have been spent on public health and safety research to understand motor vehicle accidents and how to prevent them from becoming fatal. This research has resulted in design innovation, changes to cars and roadways, and new laws that have led to a significant and steady decline in such fatalities among all age groups, including young people. There was no silver bullet for reducing vehicular death: airbags, seatbelt laws, anti-lock brakes, better signage, and tough drunk driving laws all contributed to it. But, in combination these measures have saved tens of thousands of American lives.
For guns, these numbers represent an enormous failure. The United States has experienced a dramatic decline in violent crime over the last two decades, yet the rate of gun violence, particularly among young people, has barely moved. Why? We don’t know.
Unfortunately, since the early 1990s, very few public health researchers have been trying to find out. Restrictions on such research imposed by Congress have had a substantial chilling effect, which has resulted in the almost total abandonment of this issue by our nation’s public health research institutions. Without this research, policymakers, legislators, community leaders, and parents are left without much direction regarding how to best protect children and teenagers from gun violence.
As we approach that morbid milestone next year when gun violence kills more American children and teenagers than car accidents, it’s time to start approaching this problem in the same manner as we addressed car accident deaths. We know how to do this –-through a combination of public health research, technological innovation, legislative change, enhanced enforcement, and transforming cultural norms we were able to make motor vehicle transportation safer while at the same time preserving American’s unique car culture. We can do the same thing with gun violence by adopting laws and policies designed to prevent gun deaths while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
Chelsea Parsons is the Associate Director for Crime and Firearms Policy at the Center for American Progress.