As cars get safer, gun deaths eclipse traffic fatalities

killed_gun_2If you live in Michigan, you’re more likely to die from a bullet than from a motor vehicle accident.

In 2010, the death toll from motor vehicle traffic accidents in Michigan was 942, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported. That same year, 1,056 people died from gunshot wounds, including 440 homicides and 599 suicides, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Michigan is one of 10 states where gunshot deaths outnumbered those from motor vehicle accidents, the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center reported. In the past, motor vehicle deaths in Michigan far exceeded those from firearms.


“Those lines have been converging over time as cars have gotten safer,” said Susan Morrel-Samuels, managing director of the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center in Flint, a research project funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One way to reduce firearm deaths is by framing it as a safety issue, rather than gun control versus gun rights, she said.

In 2011 (the most recent state statistics available), 3,758 Michigan residents died in accidents, 2,741 died from diabetes and 954 died of infections. The two leading causes of death in Michigan were heart disease (29,416 deaths) and cancer (20,048 deaths).


In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, universal background checks have been proposed by President Obama and others and are under debate in Congress. The NRA and other pro-gun groups oppose them.

Such checks are the firearm equivalent of requiring every driver to pass a driving test before obtaining a driver’s license, Morrel-Samuels said. Persuading gun owners to lock up their weapons and ammo also could reduce the numbers of deaths and injuries, she added.

“Some of these are very common-sense measures,” Morrel-Samuels said. “In public health, we see gun violence in the broader context of injury prevention. That’s what we’re trying to do: put the emphasis on prevention and on the conditions that lead to violence.”

The Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center,  a five-year project funded by the Centers for Disease Control, offers a variety of programs to reduce violence in a crime-ridden Flint neighborhood.

While Morrel-Samuels says it’s too early to draw conclusions about the pilot program, she said: “All the data we have show victims and perpetrators most often know each other.

“A lot of the violence seems to be retaliatory,” she added. “Somebody gets shot, so someone goes out and shoots someone else.”


Many of those who obtain illegal guns say they need them for self-defense.

That’s consistent with statewide figures. Victims and suspects were strangers in only 19 percent of the homicides in which the relationship was known, a 2006 study by the Michigan Department of Community Health found. The firearm homicide rate for African Americans was 20 times that for whites. For black men between the ages of 20 and 24, it was 34 times the overall rate.

The study was ordered by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm to address an alarming number of firearm homicides and suicides.

“That study was done, and nothing was followed up on it,” said Thomas Largo, a state Department of Community Health epidemiologist who co-authored the report.

Among recommendations made were a collaboration with a now-defunct nonprofit, the Michigan Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, and a public education program on preventing firearm violence. The state had hoped to pay for implementing the recommendations with money from a CDC grant, but did not qualify for the grant.

Firearms were used in slightly more than half the suicides committed in Michigan in 2011 and a little more than 78 percent of the homicides. From 2004 through 2010, an average of nearly 1,200 people were hospitalized each year for treatment of nonfatal firearm injuries, according to the state Department of Community Health.

Most of the handguns used in Michigan crimes were purchased in the state, although some were bought in states with lax gun laws and brought into Michigan. Michigan imports more guns used in crime than it exports to other states, about 12 guns imported for every seven exported, according to a Washington Post investigation. Most of the illegal guns imported to Michigan came from Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana and Mississippi, according to the Post.

Americans owned an estimated 310 million firearms in 2009, or about one for every man, woman and child, according to the National Institute of Justice. That includes about 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 82 million shotguns.

At that rate, Bridge estimates that Michigan residents likely own more than 9 million firearms of all types. In 2001, the CDC estimated that 38.4 percent of Michigan households had a gun. And a 2002 survey by the Michigan Department of Community Health found that 40.5 percent of respondents said they had a firearm in the home.

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

Firearm_deaths (final version)

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Tue, 04/09/2013 - 10:48am
Ref. your "Total Firearm Deaths" graph: Does your vehicle death total # include automobile asphyxiations by suicide? If not, I question the inclusion of firearm suicide data as a comparison between gun deaths and auto accident deaths.
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 1:54pm
I'm curious as to Ms. Morrel-Samuels' preferred approach to reducing the homicide rate. Does she advocate stricter gun control, or would she find the stop and frisk policy used in New York City acceptable? Since 1990 the number of murders has dropped 80%, from 2,245 to 419 in 2012. The city has added one million residents in that period, and reduced the police force from 41,000 in 2002, to 35,000. Additionally, there is mandatory prison time for illegal possession of a gun. Does she think treating homicides as a health issue, or a law enforcement matter more effective?
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 4:46pm
From a public health perspective, a comprehensive approach to gun safety, that includes both prevention and enforcement, will be the most effective. Prevention includes a wide range of behavioral and policy approaches to minimize the risk of firearm deaths and injuries, while proactive enforcement can reduce the number of illegal guns in circulation and deter potential offenders. No single program or policy will solve the problem. Increasingly, law enforcement personnel and health professionals are working together to create safer communities for everyone.
Wed, 04/10/2013 - 1:00pm
It is always disappointing when data is manipulated to prevent people making a fully informed decision. The idea of comparing vehicle deaths to gun deaths ignores many facts that undermine the comparison. Greg makes an excellent point in that if the suicides by CO asphyxiation are excluded then the comparision is skewed. If there were an interest in working to aIter the fatality rates and not promoting a political agenda then it would seem more informative about influences on the contributing factors to the changes in deaths would be included, have enforcement of laws changed, has education changed, have vehicles been made safer, etc. If vehicle accidents have been lowered by an increased effort to enforce laws on DUIs then maybe that would suggest that improved enforcement of current gun laws may have a positive impact. Using a single number without offering information about the why and how that number is infleunced can (most commonly does) mislead the reader/audience rather thaninform them.
George Williams
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 11:40am
Several questions here. 1. Does the motor vehicle deaths include motorcycles? 2. Are pedestrian \ vehicle deaths included? Also Susan Morrel-Samuelsstates that a back ground check is equalivent to a drivers test? Really. A back ground check looks only at ones crimminal record, not their proficiency with a firearm.