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December 19, 2018

Car crashes are killing fewer American children, but gun-related deaths show no sign of falling

New research examines the leading causes of children and adolescent deaths

Children's Health Firearms
Stock_Carroll - Handgun with Bullets Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

9mm Ruger handgun.

Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading killer of American children and adolescents, according to new research from the University of Michigan. 

But researchers found the second highest cause – firearm-related deaths – to be a more worrisome factor.

That's because the death rate for motor vehicle crashes has been cut in half within the last two decades thanks to prevention efforts and improved trauma care – though it has been rising since 2013. But the fire-arm related death rate has mostly remained stagnant since 1999.

About four in every 100,000 American children and teenagers die from a firearm-related death. That rate is 36 times higher than the average rate of 12 other high-income countries, researchers said.

And after bottoming out in 2013, the firearm-related death rate has been increasing.

Gun-related deaths claimed the lives of 3,143 children and teenagers in 2016, the most recent year examined in the study.

Homicides account for about 60 percent of those deaths while suicides make up another 35 percent. Unintentional fatalities account for about one percent. Mass shootings comprise slightly less than one percent.

Across the country, firearm-related deaths occur at about the same rate in urban, rural and suburban settings, researchers found. But the types of firearm-related deaths differ across those communities.

Urban adolescents are twice as likely to die in homicides as rural teenagers, researchers found. But rural teens have a suicide rate that is twice as high as the rate for urban youth. In the suburbs, teens die of homicide and suicide at about an equal rate.

For children between ages 1 and 9, most firearm deaths are unintentional.

"Firearm deaths of children and adolescents are an 'everybody' problem, not a problem for just certain population(s)," Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "By using a data-driven approach to studying these deaths, I hope we can guide the U.S. to apply our resources to help us understand what we can do to prevent deaths across the country."

To complete their study, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Michigan's Injury Prevention Center used data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's WONDER database.

Researchers found the deaths of most children and teenagers are caused by preventable injuries. Sixty percent of the 20,360 children and adolescent who died two years ago fell victim to preventable deaths.

Motor vehicle crashes accounted for the deaths of 4,074 children and teenagers in 2016. But the crash death rate is now 5.21 per 100,000, down from more than 10 per 100,000 in 1999.

Cancer, with 1,853 deaths, ranked third among children and adolescent deaths. Its death rate has fallen to 2.37 per 100,000 since 1999, when the rate was nearly 3.0 per 100,000. Suffocation came in fourth, with the vast majority due to suicide.

Rounding out the 10 leading causes: drowning, drug overdoses and poisonings, birth defects, heart disease, fire or burns, and chronic lower respiratory disease. The death rates associated with many of the leading causes have steadily declined since 1999, including cancer, heart disease and fire.

Cunningham noted that billions of dollars have been spent to decrease car crash fatalities while scores of researchers have worked to reduce pediatric cancers, congenital conditions and heart diseases. Those efforts have worked, she said.

"We hope these data help put firearm deaths of young people in the proper context, so we can study and test potential preventive measures while respecting the Second Amendment rights of gun owners," Cunningham said.

All three authors of the study are members of the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium. Known as FACTS, the organization collects and shares research data on firearm-related topics in children and adolescents.

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