C.S. Mott's Children Hospital stands tall as a part of the medical campus at the University of Michigan.
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University of Michigan researchers Jason Goldstick, Rebecca Cunningham and Patrick Carter found that firearm violence is the current leading cause of death in children and adolescents in the United States. Published on April 20 in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, their findings served as an update to a 2018 article finding that motor vehicles were the leading cause of death in this age group. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Carter and Goldstick discussed the implications of this research for public health policy and advocacy. 

Carter, co-director of the University’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, pointed out that there has been a recent rise in funding for firearm injury research. He said although the historical underfunding of this research area leaves much work to be done, there are tried-and-true public health approaches that can effectively tackle this issue. 

“We need to apply the science of injury prevention to the problem of firearms in the same way we have for motor vehicle crash injury prevention,” Carter said. “Recently, the federal government has begun to fund firearm research again, and so we’re really at the beginning stages of that. We’re at the beginning stages of uncovering and understanding what was essentially a drought of research for 25 years.” 

In the article, Goldstick, Cunningham and Carter addressed the uptick in firearm purchases, injuries and deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Although the new data are consistent with other evidence that firearm violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the reasons for the increase are unclear, and it cannot be assumed that firearm-related mortality will later revert to pre-pandemic levels,” the article reads. “Regardless, 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.” 

Goldstick, director of statistics and methods at the University’s Injury Prevention Center, discussed research showing the increase in firearm purchases during the COVID-19 pandemic. He cited a 2021 study that found criminal background checks for firearm purchases, which can help indicate overall trends in firearm purchases, increased 42% from March 2020 to June 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. 

“The CDC mortality data does corroborate some other evidence that’s been published in the last year or two, showing that the start of the pandemic coincided with increases both in firearm sales and in firearm injuries,” Goldstick said. “Background checks … (are) not a perfect proxy for sales, because laws vary on whether that’s required, but there was an increase in background checks for firearm purchases after the pandemic started, which would suggest that there were increased firearm sales too.”

LSA freshman Zoey Rector-Brooks, an organizer for the state of Michigan’s chapter of March For Our Lives, said they were not shocked by the results of this research given recently observed trends in gun violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’m not surprised,” Rector-Brooks said. “There were so many guns that were purchased (in 2020) and now we’re seeing the effects of that. More guns often leads to more violence and now we’re seeing that … our children are dying because of it.”

A challenge in addressing firearm injury prevention, Carter said, is how to balance firearm safety with legal gun ownership. 

“How do we develop programs and policies and solutions to those problems that have a clear basis in science and data and move the needle on reducing death without necessarily infringing upon legal gun ownership?” Carter said. “Because there are lots of people who own and have guns in legal ways and use them for things like hunting and target shooting and protection … and it’s really about how do we reduce the potential for harm and injury?”

Goldstick and Carter also expressed concern over the racial disparities that exist in firearm violence victims, a burden that is heavily placed on Black youth. Carter spoke to the historical trends that produced these inequities, which he emphasized have existed for many years but have not been properly addressed. 

“We know, and this has been true for a long time, that firearm deaths disproportionately affect people in communities of Color,” Carter said. “We know those health disparities have largely gone unaddressed and they stem likely from a legacy of structural inequality and racism and disinvestment in urban communities.”

Goldstick echoed this sentiment and described the importance of taking these disparities into account when considering how to address firearm violence.  

“This burden is disproportionately put on Black youth and also in more metro areas, as opposed to rural areas,” Goldstick said. “That’s another angle that’s really pretty critical for addressing this … addressing this problem would also address a major driver of health disparities among kids in the U.S.”

Summer News Editor Samantha Rich can be reached at sammrich@umich.edu