Gun Deaths Reach an All-Time High

Gun show

Gun Deaths Reach an All-Time High

A study shows that both firearm homicides and suicides have risen across Tennessee in the past decade.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 7, 2023

Gun show
(Photo by M&R Glasgow/Creative Commons 2.0)

Deaths from firearms in Tennessee have risen by 66 percent in the past decade, according to a new report, hitting an all-time high of 1,569 in 2021.

Homicides are most prevalent among younger Black men, suicides among older white men.

The report by the nonpartisan Nashville-based Sycamore Institute shows that gun-related fatalities from all causes have risen since 2011, with the largest increase in homicides. Firearms fatalities are now the leading cause of death among Tennesseans aged 1 to 18.

The analysis of data from cause-of-death reports comes as calls for gun safety regulation have grown across the state. Gov. Bill Lee has said he will call a special session of the Legislature to discuss possible gun-related measures next month, although he has encountered significant resistance from its Republican supermajority.

Brian Straessle, executive director of the Sycamore Institute, said that with so much public fervor about the issue, the report aims to provide factual context for policy discussions.

“What we were really responding to was an opportunity that we saw to help ground conversations already happening with the best available data on who is dying from gunfire in Tennessee,” Straessle said in an interview.

The report analyzed data from 1999-2021. It found that there was relatively little change in firearms fatalities in the state during the first decade of this century. They rose from 848 in 1999 to 948 in 2011 — a 12 percent increase, and when adjusted for population growth during that decade, only a 1 percent rise in the gun-death rate per 100,000 people.

In contrast, the jump to 1,569 by 2021 represented a 66 percent leap — which is a 52 percent increase in the gun-death rate, adjusted for population growth. Firearms are now the 10th-highest cause of death in the state. (In contrast, there were 1,280 traffic fatalities statewide in 2021.)

“It’s pretty much a steady state from 1999 to 2010, 2011,” Straessle said. “And then you start to see sort of a gradual uptick and then really in the last 6, 7, 8 years for homicides in particular.”

The upward trend puts Tennessee apart from the United States as a whole — although 2021 was a record year for total number of gun deaths nationwide, the rates of both gun homicides and suicides remained below all-time highs set in the early-to-mid 1970s.

According to the report, Tennessee had the overall 11th highest rate of gun deaths among U.S. states and the District of Columbia, ranking 7th in homicides and 18th in suicides. 

Suicides accounted for 52 percent of gun deaths in Tennessee in 2021, with homicides 46 percent and accidents or undetermined causes making up the other 2 percent. Although rates of both gun-related homicide and suicide have gone up in Tennessee over the past decade, homicide rates have risen more — up by 113 percent, compared to a 25 percent increase in suicide — so that murders now make up nearly half of gun deaths. 

There are significant demographic differences between the impacts of firearm suicides and homicides. Homicides are most prevalent among Black men between the ages of 19 and 34, while suicides are more common among white men over the age of 35. Both Black and white women have much lower rates of gun deaths than men, but the same racial disparities persist — white women are more likely to die by suicide, Black women by homicide.

Straessle said the disparate race, gender and age impacts suggested that there is unlikely to be a single policy solution to reducing gun deaths overall.

“There may be some reason to think about, how is this policy going to affect suicides among a certain cohort, or how might it reduce homicides among a certain cohort?” he said.

Other key findings:

  • Although children and adolescents make up the smallest number of gun deaths, they have had the fastest rate of increase, with firearms surpassing car accidents as the leading cause of death for that age group in 2017.
  • About 77 percent of deaths among people under 19 are concentrated in the 15-to-18-year-old range. Sixty-eight percent of deaths in that age group in 2021 were homicides, and 26 percent were suicides.
  • The highest total numbers of gun deaths came in the state’s most populous counties, but the highest rates were concentrated in a handful of mostly rural West Tennessee counties. Of the major metro areas, only Shelby County ranked in the top 5 in gun death rates.
  • Of the 80 Tennessee counties with reliable data, gun death rates have risen in about three-quarters of them over the past two decades.

The report does not attempt to identify either underlying causes or policy solutions, both of which Straessle acknowledged are complex challenges.

But the rise has come as the state has reduced its regulations on gun ownership and carrying, and as the overall number of guns in the population has increased. According to the RAND Corp., Tennessee ranks 18th in gun ownership, with 47 percent of households owning at least one firearm compared to a national average of 32 percent.

Of the 10 states with the lowest gun ownership rates, eight rank at 40th or below in total gun deaths.

Although the Sycamore Institute has not analyzed the possible impacts of any potential policy or regulatory changes, Straessle said the data helps illustrate why the issue has become so prominent in public discourse.

“Sometimes something can dominate the news cycle or political conversation, and you look in the data and there’s really no there there,” he said. “That’s not the case here.”

Since releasing the report at the end of June, Straessle said he has heard appreciative feedback from people of all political persuasions.

“I think there’s something in here that will pique everybody’s interest,” he said. “And hopefully, at the end of the day, what that leads to is better, more productive conversation when it comes time for the Legislature to meet.”