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Guns were the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens in 2020

In the two decades prior to 2020, motor vehicle traffic was the leading cause of death among U.S. children and teens, CDC data show.

A gunman shot and killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, sparking renewed calls for additional gun legislation in the United States. 

Following the shooting, posts circulating on social media claimed that firearms are the leading cause of death for American children and teens. The statistic was shared by politicians and celebrities, among others. 

THE QUESTION

Are guns the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This needs context.

This claim needs context. While it's true that firearms surpassed motor vehicles as the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens for the first time in 2020 – the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic – more current data for 2021 and 2022 does not exist.

WHAT WE FOUND

Nationwide death certificate data compiled by the CDC show that firearms were the leading cause of death for Americans ages 1-19 years old in 2020. The public health agency hasn’t shared data for 2021 or 2022.

In 2020, firearms led to the deaths of 4,357 children and teens compared to 3,639 deaths from motor vehicle traffic, according to CDC data. An analysis of the data by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence Solutions shows that nearly two-thirds of children and teens who died by guns were homicide victims.

Gun-related deaths among children and adolescents (ages 1-19) increased by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, “more than twice as high as the relative increase in the general population,” according to an analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)

The claims around this data need context because it’s unclear what impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on shooting and traffic deaths, making it more difficult to predict 2021 and 2022 data. 

For the past two decades prior to 2020, motor vehicle traffic was the leading cause of death for people ages 1-19 by a significant margin, followed by firearms and suffocation. The gap between motor vehicle traffic and gun-related deaths in children and teens began to narrow in 2016, the NEJM analysis says. 

The reasons for the 2020 increase in gun-related deaths among children and adolescents are “unclear,” according to the NEJM analysis, but “it cannot be assumed that firearm-related mortality will later revert to pre-pandemic levels.”

“The increasing firearm-related mortality reflects a longer-term trend and shows that we continue to fail to protect our youth from a preventable cause of death,” the analysis says. 

Gun-related deaths among Americans of any age also increased to a record high of 45,222 in 2020, the Center for Gun Violence Solutions found. Gun violence was the leading cause of death for people under the age of 25, and people under 30 were “nearly 10 times more likely to die by a firearm than from COVID-19” in 2020, experts with the Center for Gun Violence Solutions said

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