Gun homicide and suicide rates in the U.S. each increased by more than 8% from 2020 to 2021, according to a report published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both hit highs not recorded since the early 1990s.
Firearm homicides reached the highest level documented since 1993, while gun suicides were the highest since 1990.
Gun homicide rates increased among both men and women, the report said, with the highest numbers among people 25 to 44 years old. In that age group, there were increases in all racial and ethnic populations. Overall, Black people continued to experience the highest firearm homicide rates across every age bracket.
The upward trend builds on a huge jump in gun-related homicides observed from 2019 to 2020. A CDC report released in May showed a 35% increase in the firearm homicide rate year over year, the highest level recorded in more than 25 years.
"We had hoped after a 35% increase in one year, that it would either level off or go down," said Thomas Simon, the lead author of the new study and the associate director for science in the CDC's division of violence prevention. "But instead, it continued to climb in 2021. And now the suicide rate also climbed."
Simon said disparities in gun homicide rates among racial groups have widened.
"The firearm homicide rate for Black people in this age group, 10 to 24, in 2020 was about 20 times as high as the rate among white people," Simon said. "But in 2021, it was almost 25 times as high."
That gap grew, he said, because the homicide rate for young Black people "increased in 2021, while the rate among non-Hispanic white people in this age group actually went down slightly."
The report also found that the share of all homicides attributed to guns rose to 81%, the highest percentage in more than 50 years.
In terms of gun suicides, patterns are somewhat different. The rates for people 44 and younger were highest among American Indians or Alaska Natives. For those 45 and older, rates were highest among non-Hispanic white people.
"The firearm suicide rate did not change much between 2019 and 2020, but it was already near a record-high level," Simon said. "So now, we're using the provisional data to try to get as early of a look as possible at what happened in 2021."
Simon said the reasons for the increases are not certain, but a few explanations have been proposed, including stressors associated with the Covid pandemic.
"When you think about what we all went through as a country, there were substantial changes and disruptions to a range of services, to our educational system, lots of opportunities for increases in mental stress, increases in social isolation, not to mention the economic stressors and job losses and housing instability that we've been experiencing as a country," Simon said. "And all of these factors could have potentially contributed."
Some of those stressors impacted minority communities more heavily, Simon added.
"We have in our country long-standing systemic inequities — with housing, education, employment and structural racism that contributes to unfair, avoidable disparities among some racial and ethnic groups," he said. "And the Covid-19 pandemic kind of made that worse and could be contributing to the disparities we're seeing in this report."
Simon suggested it's also possible that the increases in firearm homicides could be, in part, attributable to strains in relationships between communities and law enforcement.
Alongside its new report, the CDC highlighted its existing set of evidence-based technical packages for violence prevention, which offer strategies for addressing the needs of people at greatest risk of experiencing violence.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.