Firearm deaths among Black men at 28-year high, doctors are taking steps to reframe gun violence as one of America's major health crisis

Black men between 20-40 years of age at greatest risk, study finds.

December 6, 2022, 11:18 AM

There's been a substantial increase in firearm-related deaths in the United States over the past three decades and Black men are the most affected, according to new research from a team of emergency room doctors. They're 23 times more likely to experience firearm-related homicide than white men, the study showed.

"Gun violence is an incredible scourge in our country. Gun violence affects everybody, and that's an important thing to recognize. However, it affects certain groups far more than others. Black men speak to one of the greatest disparities, if not the greatest disparity," co-author Eric Fleegler, associate professor of pediatrics and emergency physician at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

In a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, Fleegler and colleagues analyzed disparities in firearm-related deaths between 1990 and 2021. They showed firearm-related homicides are greatest among Black men between 20 and 40 years of age. Firearm-related violence for Black men is at a 28-year high, the analysis found.

PHOTO: FILE - Semi-automatic rifles are displayed at Coastal Trading and Pawn, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine.
Semi-automatic rifles are displayed at Coastal Trading and Pawn, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP, FILE

"There are these hotspots where firearm fatalities are happening more frequently, and interventions need to be catered to where those are happening. We're seeing huge rates of firearm-related homicides among young Black and African American males -- that's the population where we may need to think about implementing violence prevention strategies," said co-author Chris Rees, an assistant professor of Pediatrics and Emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

To reframe firearm violence as a public health crisis, the American Medical Association, one of the nation's largest doctor associations, established the first taskforce on firearm violence prevention in November.

"We cannot continue to live this way…In movie theaters, houses of worship, hospitals, big cities and small towns, firearm violence has shattered any sense of security and taken lives. As physicians, we are committed to ending firearm violence by advocating for common-sense, evidence-based solutions, and this task force will be key to that ongoing effort," Jack Resneck Jr. president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement at the launch of the taskforce.

Experts say there's a range of factors contributing to the high rates of gun deaths among Black men.

"Weak gun laws cause more damage in places that have been subjected to systemic racial inequalities," said Jeffrey Gardere, a clinical psychologist, and an associate professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine.

PHOTO: FILE - A collection of illegal guns is displayed during a gun buyback event, May 22, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
A collection of illegal guns is displayed during a gun buyback event, May 22, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Bebeto Matthews/AP, FILE

Medical associations like the AMA have called for more gun laws over the years to combat firearm violence -- but there was no governmental action until this past June, when Congress passed the first gun law in 30 years.

But gun laws alone will not solve the societal issues that contribute to firearm violence among Black males.

In places where unemployment rates are higher, where there isn't equal access to safe housing, and where public infrastructure is neglected, people may be more exposed to dangerous behavior, Gardere said. Addressing those issues "would help Black and Brown people, especially males, be able to avert gun violence -- whether as victims or as perpetrators," he said.

Reframing firearm violence as a public health issue means affected communities need to be at the table as vocal members of any taskforce.

"The next step I'd like to see is addressing things at the community level and taking into account what communities think is feasible. I don't think any community wants to see higher rates of firearm fatalities," said Rees.

All hands are needed to solve this continually escalating problem.

"Unfortunately, in our country, the firearm epidemic is getting worse at an accelerating pace," Fleegler said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the last names of both Chris Rees and Eric Fleegler.

Faith Crittenden, MD MPH is a resident physician in pediatrics from Yale–New Haven Children's Hospital and contributing correspondent of the ABC News Medical Unit.