Motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death for children, teenagers and young adults in the US for most of the past few decades.

There was a reduction in vehicle-related deaths and a rise in gun-related deaths that led to the switchover. From 2000 to 2020, the number of firearm-related deaths in the one-to-24-year-old age group increased from 7.3 per 100,000 people to 10.28 per 100,000, age-adjusted data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal. Motor-vehicle-related deaths decreased from 13.62 to 8.31 per 100,000.

The crossing of the trend lines shows how a concerted approach to injury prevention can reduce injuries and deaths.

Line chart shows U.S. death rates from firearms and motor vehicle crashes among people ages one to 24 from 2000 to 2020.
Credit: Amanda Montañez; Sources: Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; “Crossing Lines—A Change in the Leading Cause of Death among U.S. Children,” by Lois K. Lee et al., in New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 386, No. 16; April 21, 2022

Efforts to track and study traffic accidents have led to a decline in vehicle deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established in 1970 to save lives and prevent traffic-related injuries. One of the agency's key actions was to create and maintain a public database of automobile deaths on U.S. roads.

It took decades just to develop a national database for tracking firearm deaths, but no federal agency exists to regulate the safety of firearms. CDC funding for research on preventing gun injuries was discouraged by a rider in a government spending bill. The CDC was forbidden from using its funds to advocate or promote gun control, which resulted in a freeze on gun violence research at the agency. The directive was extended to the National Institutes of Health in late 2011. Funding for such research was granted in late 2019.

There is robust funding for motor vehicle related research and interventions, yet we have not seen federal funding for firearm research in 25 years.

A number of safety improvements in vehicles were credited by Lee and her colleagues for saving lives. The measures include graduated licensing, booster-seat laws, and automatic braking. Although all U.S. states require that people get a license and registration in order to drive a vehicle, a loophole in federal law allows people in many states to buy a gun from an unlicensed dealer without a background check. According to Lee and her team, federal law shields gunmakers from some liability when guns fall into the hands of children.

Linda Degutis is a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health and the former director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. We haven't focused on that kind of strategy with guns.

Many experts say that the high rate of gun deaths among young people is not an inevitability and that it is possible to prevent deadly accidents by gathering data and doing research.

Lee and her colleagues wrote that they don't have to accept the high rate of firearm-related deaths in the U.S.