Gun deaths are tending to outpace auto deaths

January 28, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service Staff writer Mike James contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- If current trends continue, firearms will be killing more Americans than motor vehicles will within the next few years, federal officials said yesterday.

In six states and the District of Columbia, guns have already surpassed motor vehicles as the leading cause of deaths by injury. In Maryland, the two causes equaled each other in 1991.

Nationally, more Americans ages 25-34 are killed by guns than by motor vehicles, said Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services.

"It is appalling that in the world's strongest and wealthiest country, death by firearms is increasing at the alarming rate these studies find," Ms. Shalala said.

From 1968 to 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gun-related deaths rose 60 percent nationwide, while auto-related deaths declined 21 percent. There were 43,536 vehicle-related deaths in 1991, compared with 38,317 firearm-related deaths.

Firearm deaths exceeded motor vehicle deaths in California, New York, Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, Virginia and the District of Columbia in 1991, according to the report.

In Maryland, the number of firearm and motor vehicle deaths were identical, with 708 in each category. And in Michigan, vehicle deaths exceeded firearm deaths by only 1 percent.

(Maryland State Police figures for auto deaths in 1991 differ slightly from the report's, listing 711 fatalities. State police figures for shooting deaths were not available last night.)

In more than half the states, more blacks were killed by firearms than by motor vehicles.

The findings come at a time when the public is expressing increased concern over violent crime and public officials are scurrying to respond.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Clinton highlighted the crime problem and proposed more police, mandatory sentencing and fewer guns.

Yesterday's study could add impetus to anti-crime proposals in Congress. Sarah Brady, chairwoman of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, said the statistics demonstrate the need to regulate guns the same way the government regulates cars.

Paul Blackman, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, denounced the findings as "pseudo-science."

"You are looking at accidents and comparing them to injuries," Mr. Blackman said. "There are different motives at work." He blamed federal officials and the news media for presenting a biased picture.

Dr. Ann Dellinger, a CDC epidemiologist, defended the report. "Our agenda is looking at the problem from a public health perspective," Dr. Dellinger said.

Since the 1960s, a comprehensive focus on traffic deaths has spurred changes in automotive design, stepped-up law enforcement efforts and higher public safety awareness. The effort has been credited with reducing fatal auto accidents.

But no comparable strategy has arisen to cut down gun-related deaths, federal officials said.

The CDC report calls for similar educational campaigns and technological advances that would focus on gun safety, and for legislative efforts aiming at stricter gun control.

"We need some kind of national system so we can look at firearm-related deaths the way we look at motor vehicle-related deaths," said Dr. Dellinger.

Among the firearm deaths, 47 percent were homicides, 48 percent were suicides and the rest were classified as unintentional. If the trend recorded from 1988 to 1991 continues, firearms will displace motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of deaths by injury by the mid-1990s.

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