U.S. gun violence in 2021 rose to its highest levels in the decades

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More than 48,000 Americans died by gun violence in 2021. See how this trend hit its highest levels in decades.

Firearms deaths in the United States spiked to record levels in 2021 amid the covid pandemic and rising consumer demand for guns, according to provisional data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency reported 48,000 deaths from gun-related suicides, homicides, accidents and other incidents, an 8 percent increase over what had already been an alarming uptick in 2020.

The death rate per 100,000 residents climbed to 14.8 last year, eclipsing decades-old rates of high gun violence, according to the CDC.

“When you see these new records, which are well above the 1990s, it is really disheartening,” said Charles Branas, who chairs the epidemiology department at Columbia University in New York.

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The data, which remains provisional, was quietly published to the agency’s Wonder database of mortality trends over the summer as first reported this week by the Trace, a nonprofit newsroom focused on gun-related news.

Here are five charts that help explain the resurgence in gun violence — starting with the overall trend line for deaths, which declined during the 2000s but increased again in recent years for reasons researchers are still seeking to understand.

Suicides vs. homicides

Most gun deaths then and now involve homicides and suicides, with the agency reporting more than 26,000 and 20,000 in 2021, respectively.

Suicides are now at record levels, and homicides have surged during the pandemic, approaching rates the country experienced in the early 1990s, an especially violent period in our modern history.

In fact, homicides now represent an increasingly greater share of overall gun deaths.

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Racial disparities

African Americans appear to be bearing a disproportionate brunt of the firearms death increase. During the first year of the pandemic, for example, the largest increase in homicide was among Black people, according to the CDC.

“Long-standing systemic inequities and structural racism limit economic and education opportunities. They contribute to unfair and avoidable health disparities among some racial and ethnic groups,” its researchers wrote last year.

That disparity is evidence in the 2021 data, with Black Americans experiencing a level of gun death that far outpaces their share of the nation’s population.

Geography

The places with the highest rates of gun deaths in 2021 were in the Deep South and West.

Mississippi had the highest rate — twice the national figure. The Northeast and other coastal areas, such as California, had lower rates. (Massachusetts had the lowest rate, according to the data.)

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Researchers are still uncertain about precise causes for the surge in violence since the mid-2010s, pointing to a number of factors, including the availability of guns.

“The opportunity to get firearms easily has grown dramatically, and the demand for firearms has grown dramatically,” said Branas, whose gun-violence research has been cited by the Supreme Court. “The more permissive laws are at a state level, the more gun violence is correlated there.”

Then, of course, there’s the pandemic, which strained communities across the country amid disruptions to education, increases in stress and social isolation and the economic pain of job losses and housing instability, as the CDC has noted.

“This trend started before the pandemic,” said Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation who also directs the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research. “It may have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

But many agree it’s a serious public health issue affecting not just people in cities but those in rural areas and those from every racial and ethnic group.


“It’s a really widespread crisis,” he said.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Matt Stiles
    Matt Stiles

    Senior Data Visualization Reporter

    Matt Stiles is the senior data visualization reporter for Grid.