Both accidental and violent deaths and injuries had been on the decline for decades — but that trend reversed, with a particularly large spike in firearm-related homicides and suicides and motor vehicle accidents between 2014 and 2016, according to new research.
The increase, which reduced survival gains that the United States had seen since 2001, is confounding researchers.
“It’s disturbing that it seems to have affected every single mechanism,” said lead author Dr. Angela Sauaia, who is a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. “Both violent and unintentional [injuries], which have very different motivations.”
The research, which was published in JAMA Surgery and used U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System) data, found the distinct uptick while looking at data collected between 2000 and 2016.
Sauaia said that as a scientist, she wished she had better tools to explain what was causing the rise in such disparate areas of health. While there’s no single explanation for such a wide-ranging trend, to glean insight into possible theories behind the each of the injury categories in question, HuffPost talked to gun violence, motor vehicle and crime experts about what’s happening in their areas of expertise:
The Cop Theory
“It all sort of goes back to 2014 being the start of a year of a lot of controversial police shootings,” Justin Nix, an assistant professor at University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said of the recent uptick in firearm-related homicide spike.
Nix pointed to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer in the summer of 2014, followed by a wave of deadly force incidents that sparked public criticism of the police, which he said may have shifted the community’s attitude toward the police at large.
“There’s been an erosion of trust and confidence in the police, specifically in minority communities,” Nix said.
When people fear that police presence may hurt them, rather than help them, they may be more likely to retaliate in a high-conflict situation, instead of getting the police involved.
“In their minds, ‘We don’t trust the police. They’re not going to do anything anyway,’” he explained.
While this is Nix’s theory, there is some evidence to support what’s been called the “Ferguson effect.” A 2016 study, for example, found that 911 calls in black neighborhoods in Milwaukee fell 20 percent following a high-profile case of police violence against Frank Jude, an unarmed black man.
Nix also pointed to the rise of social media. Before social media, an incident like the fatal shooting of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer might not have rippled wider than the town of the shooting, or the surrounding communities. Instead, it was live-streamed on Facebook, and instantly became national news.
“Now all of a sudden they are in the national spotlight immediately,” Nix said. “People are sharing them on Twitter and Facebook. I just think it opened the floodgates.”
The Gun Theory
Dr. Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and dean at the Boston University School of Public Health, thinks the recent uptick in gun violence and injury could be related to the massive number of guns in the United States.
Gun production more than doubled during Barack Obama’s presidency, driven by fears of firearm regulation and the National Rifle Association, which called Obama “the most anti-gun president in modern times.”
“My general thinking is that this is all and always about availability ― the more guns in circulation, the more opportunity for the worse angels of our nature to have lethal consequence,” Galea said.
Although President Donald Trump’s election to the presidency eased regulation fears and gun production and sales subsequently fell, the number of civilian firearms in the United States today remains high in the post-Obama era, standing at roughly 393 million guns, compared to 326 million people.
“At heart, this will always remain the same unless we limit availability and access to lethal means,” Galea said.
The types of guns that are now in circulation may matter as well: High-capacity magazines can do more damage, causing greater injury and death.
Dr. Martin Croce, a trauma surgeon at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, said that anecdotally speaking, the wound injuries he sees in the trauma center are more serious today than what he’s seen in the past.
Often his patients have been shot more than once, which means they’ll require more care to treat.
“I think that there is clearly an uptick in gun violence and it has to do with the increased availability of weapons,” Croce agreed.
The Car Theory
David King, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who researches transportation, attributed the spike in motor vehicle accidents to economic recovery after the 2008 recession.
“Over the past eight years or so, more and more people are getting back into the workforce,” King said, noting that for most people in the United States, the only reliable way to hold a job is to have access to a private vehicle.
More people in the workforce inevitably leads to more driving, and more cars on the road ultimately results in more crashes and injuries, King explained.
For Sauaia, the unexplained new research indicates a need for more funding in all areas of injury, but particularly firearm injury, a notoriously underfunded field. Without that support, answers to what’s driving the injury and death spike may remain a mystery.
Sauaia said that she and her colleagues wrote their paper in one night following the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff members were killed, because they wanted their findings to be available to the public.
As for why we should look at guns and cars together, Sauaia pointed out that injury and violence is the leading cause of death for people 44 and younger.
“Injury is a big killer for young, healthy, productive people with a future ahead of them,” she said.