June 6, 2022

Are firearms the leading cause of death in children?

In a speech on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., recounted details of two recent mass shootings, one in a Buffalo supermarket and the other at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. He called on his colleagues to tighten the nation’s gun laws.

“America doesn’t stand out when it comes to the rate of mental illness, but we are unique among the world’s developed nations in that today the leading cause of death among children is no longer a car accident, is no longer illness or malnourishment. The leading cause of death among children is a firearm,” Schumer said.

Schumer is correct, depending on you define children, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and analyses from researchers at three academic centers.

The CDC publishes data on the leading causes of death among different demographic groups, providing the most reliable data. In 2020, the leading cause of death among children ages one through 18 involved a firearm. There were 3,219 such deaths in 2020, followed by motor vehicle traffic deaths, of which there were 2,882.

In their report about gun violence, “A Year in Review: 2020 Gun Deaths in the U.S.,” researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions analyzed CDC data from 2020 and found that gun violence was the leading cause of death among children, teens, and young adults under age 25. Firearms were also the leading cause of death for children and teens ages 1 to 19, taking the lives of 4,357 young people, they wrote.

The report also found that gun violence claimed more lives in 2020, more than 45,000, than it had during any year on record.

Researchers at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, Leigh Wedenoja and Jaclyn Schildkraut, used CDC data, and found that if “children” are defined as people 19 and under, as they said the CDC tends to do, then firearm deaths exceed traffic deaths. Their analysis did not take into account infant-specific types of deaths, such as congenital abnormalities or short gestation.

Rockefeller and Johns Hopkins researchers said that when analyzing the leading causes of death among “children,” infants are typically not included because of certain fatal conditions unique to children under a year old.

If infants are included, rankings of the leading causes of death for children up to age 18 change. Congenital abnormalities are the leading cause of death in infants, and surpass the number of firearm deaths among all children up to age 18. In 2020, there were 4,403 deaths from congenital abnormalities, 3,141 deaths from short gestation, or preterm birth and low birth weight, and 1,389 deaths from sudden infant death syndrome. There were 11 infant deaths caused by a firearm in 2020.

We approached Schumer’s office, and Director of Communications Justin Goodman said the office relied on a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, written by researchers at the University of Michigan, as its source. The researchers wrote that among children and adolescents, defined as people ages 1 to 19, firearms overtook motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death in 2020.

“From 2019 to 2020, the relative increase in the rate of firearm-related deaths of all types (suicide, homicide, unintentional, and undetermined) among children and adolescents was 29.5% — more than twice as high as the relative increase in the general population,” they wrote.

Our ruling

Schumer claimed that the leading cause of death among children is a firearm.

Among children between the ages of one and 18, and ages one and 19, this is true, based on several analyses of CDC data, the leading source for data regarding causes of death.

There are significant causes of death unique to babies up to a year old, such as congenital abnormalities, which is why researchers typically don’t include infants when studying causes of death among children and adolescents.

We rate his claim Mostly True, because what he said is accurate but needs some clarification.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.

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Jill Terreri Ramos is a staff writer for PolitiFact New York and the Buffalo News.
Jill Terreri Ramos

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