Study: U.S. Gun Deaths Surge, Except for Two States With Restrictive Gun Laws

Guns for Sale
Semi-automatic weapons for sale are on display at a Texas gun store in 2009. Gilles Mingasson/Getty

U.S. gun deaths have have surged over the last several years, according to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs.

Since 1999, researchers from the University of Michigan found that the annual rate of people killed by firearms had remained relatively stable, hovering around 10.4 deaths per 100,000. But from 2015 to 2017, a new pattern emerged, and the rate began to skyrocket, ultimately increasing by around 14 percent over the previous 15 years.

Nearly one-fifth of all people living in the United States who died at the hands of a firearm since 1999 were killed over a three-year period.

The study reported that only two states, California and New York, and the District of Columbia saw firearm mortality rates decline across most demographic groups (such as race, sex and age) in recent years. This is notable considering these jurisdictions' relatively strict gun laws.

New York observes several key restrictions on gun ownership that severely curtail access to firearms. The state outlaws the possession of so-called "assault weapons," a category of military-style semi-automatic rifle that was dramatically expanded in 2013 with the passage of the NY SAFE Act in 2013. That legislation also implemented universal background checks for private sales and strengthened safe storage requirements.

In 2016, California enacted a statewide ban on the possession of high-capacity magazines, defined as holding more than 10 cartridges. A federal judge recently upended the ban, which extends back to an initial 2000-era law that prohibited future sales, but that ruling has been put on hold as the case moves through the appeals process.

Some states noted for their restrictive gun laws did not see reductions in firearm mortality similar to those achieved in New York, California and D.C.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2013, Connecticut enacted a sweeping package of gun control legislation, expanding the ban on assault weapons and limiting magazine capacity. While the state saw some decreases in firearm mortality, it was less pronounced than that of California and New York.

Massachusetts, which has strong gun laws including purchaser permitting and school safety measures, did not see a decrease in rates of gun deaths. In fact, the state's firearm mortality rates increased during the periods studied.

Rates of firearm-related suicide rose even faster than the overall increases. Suicide rates increased by 16 percent during the three-year period beginning in 2015, according to the study. The trendlines for firearm deaths do not track with data on suicide overall, which shows a steady increase in the rate from 1999 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This implies that in recent years firearms are increasingly becoming the method of choice for people who wish to take their own lives.

Guns are already the deadliest mechanism of suicide, with nearly 83 percent of attempted suicides reaching completion when carried out with a firearm, one 2000 study found.

Suicides comprise the vast majority of gun deaths, too. Around 60 percent of people who are killed by guns are individuals who take their own life, CDC data showed.

The only demographic group that saw mortality rates from firearms decline in recent years were white Hispanics, the University of Michigan study found. Whites without Hispanic heritage, blacks and Native Americans all saw firearm death rates surge since 2015.

This story has been updated to clarify the difference between California's and New York's reduction in mortality compared with other states.