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Gun deaths hit their highest level ever in 2021, with 1 person dead every 11 minutes

The silhouette AR-15-style rifle is displayed on signage for the Firearms Unknown Guns & Ammo gun store in Yuma, Ariz., last week.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
The silhouette AR-15-style rifle is displayed on signage for the Firearms Unknown Guns & Ammo gun store in Yuma, Ariz., last week.

Gun deaths in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021 for the second year in a row, with firearms violence the single leading cause of death for children and young adults, according to a new study released by Johns Hopkins University.

The annual study, which relies on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a total of 48,830 Americans lost their lives to gun violence in 2021. The latest data works out to one gun death every 11 minutes, according U.S. Gun Violence in 2021: An Accounting of a Public Health Crisis.

The report found 26,328 suicides involving a firearm took place in 2021 and 20,958 homicides. The gun suicide rate represented an 8.3% increase from 2020 — the largest one-year increase in more than four decades. The gun homicide rate was up 7.6%.

Further, the gun homicide rate rose 45% from 2019 to 2021, while the rate for homicides not involving a gun rose just 7% in the same period. Likewise, while the rate of suicides by firearm increased 10% over the same period, it was down 8% when looking at suicides by other means.

"Guns are driving this increase," says Ari Davis, a lead author on the study.

"I think in some ways that's not surprising, because we've seen large increases in gun purchasing," Davis says. "We've seen a large number of states make it much easier to carry a gun in public, concealed carry, and to purchase a gun without having to go through some of the vetting process that other states have."

The report outlines alarming increases of gun homicides among racial and ethnic minorities. From 2019 to 2021, the gun homicide rate increased by 49% for African Americans and 44% for Hispanics/Latinos. That figure rose by 55% among American Indians/Alaska Natives.

In 2021, the deadliest year in U.S. history due to the pandemic, guns also outpaced COVID-19, car crashes and cancers as the leading cause of death among children and teens — most notably among Black children and teens. While there were more suicides than homicides for the general population, nearly two-thirds of gun deaths for children and teens were homicides.

The study points out that the rise in gun deaths coincides with record gun sales.

"Millions of first-time purchasers, including Black and Hispanic/Latino people, and women of all races and ethnicities, bought guns during the pandemic at unprecedented levels," it says.

It also notes that "states with the lowest gun death rates in 2021 have some of the strongest gun violence prevention laws in the country," with someone in Mississippi — with the highest rate of gun violence, according to the study — 10 times more likely to die of gun violence than in Massachusetts, which ranked lowest.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives Massachusetts a grade of "A-" for the strength of its gun laws, compared to an "F" for Mississippi.

Davis, the study co-author, says that looking ahead to the CDC's provisional data for the first nine months of 2022 offers little in the way of optimism.

"We're [seeing] about the same level as in 2021," he says. "So, it's smoothing off, but it's not dropping back down to what we saw pre-pandemic."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.