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A young girl on March 28, 2023, places an item at a growing memorial for the victims of the shooting at the entry to The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. (AP) A young girl on March 28, 2023, places an item at a growing memorial for the victims of the shooting at the entry to The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

A young girl on March 28, 2023, places an item at a growing memorial for the victims of the shooting at the entry to The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 29, 2023

Gun violence surpasses car accidents as the leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 19

If Your Time is short

  • CDC data for 2021 shows that for people ages 1 to 19, firearm-related deaths ranked No. 1, followed by deaths from car accidents.

  • That’s for the age range as a whole; it is not the leading cause of death for each age in that group.

  • For decades, car crashes were the leading cause of death for young people.

A woman who survived a mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, in 2022 made a passionate plea for gun safety legislation in front of TV cameras after a mass school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee.

After a police official finished a briefing on the deadly school shooting that left three 9 year olds and three adults dead, Ashbey Beasley stepped in front of the microphones. 

"How is this still happening? How are our children still dying and why are we failing them? Gun violence is the number one killer of children and teens — it has overtaken cars," Beasley said March 27.

Beasley told PolitiFact that she was in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to attend the Generation Lockdown rally, where activists and lawmakers gathered to support an assault weapons ban, and then traveled to Nashville to see family and a friend. Beasley became a gun safety activist after she and her son, then 6 years old, survived the Highland Park mass shooting during a July 4 parade.

After previous mass shootings, including at a school in Uvalde, Texas, we fact-checked U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who said that "the leading cause of death among children is a firearm." We rated his statement Mostly True based on analyses of 2020 federal data. The same finding holds true for 2021 data on children and teenagers ages 1 to 19. 

Data shows firearm deaths surpassed motor vehicle deaths 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes data on the leading causes of death among different demographic groups. 

CDC data for 2021 shows that 23,198 people ages 1 to 19 died in 2021. Firearm deaths, 4,733, were the No. 1 cause. Motor vehicle traffic deaths ranked second at 4,048. 

This data is similar to what researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions found when they analyzed CDC data for 2020 deaths. The lead researcher for that report confirmed that the same point held true for 2021.

Beasley told us she is careful to say "children and teens" because she has heard people dispute the statement when someone refers only to "children." She told us she got the 2021 statistic from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group. 

Generally, researchers say they don’t include infants in their analyses because of certain conditions unique to babies. 

It is technically correct to say that firearms are the leading cause of death for people aged 1 to 19 when they are combined into a single group, said Veronica Pear, an assistant professor in the Violence Prevention Research Program at University of California, Davis. 

"This is an eye-catching and powerful statistic, so I get why people use it," Pear said. 

But Pear warned that someone could wrongly interpret the statement to mean that firearms are the leading cause of death for each individual age within the 1 to 19 range.

Firearm-related deaths are exceedingly rare among babies and young children, while teenagers, especially older teenagers, have very high rates of dying from firearm-related injuries, Pear said.

"When all these ages are pooled together, the very high rates among teens are swamping the very low rate among young kids, such that firearms are the leading cause of death for the group as a whole," Pear said.

The Nashville shooting occurred at The Covenant School, a small private Christian school serving preschool through sixth grade. If we look at death data for ages 3 to 12, it shows firearms as the sixth leading cause.

However, researchers we interviewed said it is valid to look at firearm deaths for ages 1 to 19. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, told us there is no official definition of "children."

Hemenway co-wrote a perspective article for the New England Journal of Medicine about causes of death for people ages 1 to 24. 

"For more than 60 years, motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of injury-related death among young people. Beginning in 2017, however, firearm-related injuries took their place to become the most common cause of death from injury," the article said. "This change occurred because of both the rising number of firearm-related deaths in this age group and the nearly continuous reduction in deaths from motor vehicle crashes."

The CDC cites the 15 leading causes of death for people ages 1 to 19, but it does not pluck out firearm deaths. This data shows the top causes of death are accidents, homicide and suicide — all cagetories that include some firearm-related deaths.

The CDC does not classify firearms as a cause of death, but rather as a mechanism by which death occurs. "So, while our data does not allow us to say that firearms are the leading cause of death for this age group, it does show that firearms are the leading mechanism of injury mortality," Brian Tsai, a CDC National Center of Health Statistics spokesperson, told PolitiFact.

Patrick M. Carter, co-director of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention at the University of Michigan, and Philip Cook, a professor emeritus at Duke University and gun researcher, both told us they agree it is accurate to say that in the 1 to 19 age category firearms are the leading cause of death.

Our ruling

Beasley said, "Gun violence is the number one killer of children and teens — it has overtaken cars."

CDC data for 2021 shows that for people ages 1 to 19, firearm-related deaths ranked No. 1, followed by deaths from car accidents.

That’s for the age range as a whole; it is not the leading cause of death for each age in that group. Firearm-related deaths are far more common among older teenagers than among young children.

We rate this statement Mostly True. 

PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird and Senior Correspondent Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.
 

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Our Sources

Former President Barack Obama, Tweet, March 27, 2023

Chicago Tribune, Highland Park parade survivor finds herself at another mass shooting after latest lobbying mission, March 27, 2023

Washington Post, Survivor of Highland Park gunfire crashes Nashville shooting news conference, March 27, 2023

New England Journal of Medicine, letter, "Current Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States," April 20, 2022. Accessed May 25, 2022. 

University of Michigan news release, "Firearms now top cause of death among children, adolescents, U-M analysis shows," April 21, 2022. Accessed May 25, 2022. 

The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, "A Year in Review: 2020 Gun Deaths in the United States," April 28, 2022. Accessed May 25, 2022.  

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WISQARS, 10 Leading Causes of Death, ages 1-18, 2020. Accessed May 25, 2022.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saved search, injury mechanism and all other causes of death ages 1-18 in 2020. Accessed June 2, 2022 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 leading causes of death ages 1-19 in 2021, Accessed March 28, 2023

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Underlying cause of death ages 1-19 in 2021, Accessed March 28, 2023

Scientific American, Guns Now Kill More Children and Young Adults Than Car Crashes, May 5, 2022

New York Times, Childhood’s Greatest Danger: The Data on Kids and Gun Violence, Dec. 14, 2022

Everytown for Gun Safety, Firearms are the leading cause of death for American children and teens. Feb. 13, 2023

PolitiFact, Among children, firearms the leading cause of death in 2020, June 4, 2022

National Institutes of Health, Preventing Gun Violence, the Leading Cause of Childhood Death, July 5, 2022

Email interview, Daniel Webster, Bloomberg Professor of American Health in Violence Prevention Distinguished Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, March 28, 2023

Email interview, Veronica Pear, assistant professor in residence in the Violence Prevention Research Program Department of Emergency Medicine University of California, Davis, March 28, 2023

Email interview, Brian Tsai, spokesperson for the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, March 28, 2023

Email interview, David Hemenway, professor of health policy, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, March 28, 2023

Email interview, Cynthia Cox, vice president at Kaiser Family Foundation, March 28, 2023

Email interview, Philip Cook, professor emeritus in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, March 28, 2023

Email interview, Ari Davis, policy advisor, Center for Gun Violence Solutions, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, March 28, 2023

Telephone interview, Ashbey Beasley, March 28, 2023

Email interview, Patrick M. Carter, Co-Director, Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Michigan, March 28, 2023

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Gun violence surpasses car accidents as the leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 19

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