Life Expectancy for Blacks in U.S. Is Driven Down by Guns

Columbia Professors contribute to new research on the racial disparities in firearm-related life expectancy loss

December 13, 2018

Young black Americans are two times more likely to die from firearms than whites, according to a new study published in BMJ Evidence-Base Medicine. Columbia University Professors Charles Branas and Jeffrey Fagan contributed to the study, which is among the first to evaluate firearm injury deaths based on life expectancy and quantify the magnitude of years lost among black and white Americans.

“Our results point out the glaring and long under-recognized gap between white and black Americans in terms of life expectancy years lost due to assault and suicide from firearms, said Charles Branas, PhD, Gelman Endowed Professor and chair of Epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and co-author. “What the data show helps us understand the magnitude of the problem and can inform more precise prevention programs.”

The study‘s lead researchers from Boston University used data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2000 to 2016 to calculate life expectancy loss due to firearm deaths. They found the overall life expectancy loss was 4.14 years greater for black Americans versus a 2.23 year-loss for whites—and driven by substantially higher homicide rates among blacks up to age 20, in particular. The researchers also reported that suicides occurred mainly among older whites contributing to a relatively lower life expectancy loss while assaults occurring among young black Americans contributed to a substantial life expectancy loss.

“Our work shows that the inequalities that separate black and white Americans in several indicia of health extend to life and death itself. The gap in firearm mortality rates suggest that policies to regulate firearms have uneven effects, and uneven failures,” said co-author Jeffrey Fagan, PhD, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School. “The evidence points to the need to develop policies specifically to protect those at greatest risk for lost years.”

Bindu Kalesan, PhD, MPH, first author and assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and community health services at Boston University School of Public Health, said the study “shines a light on the magnitude of the problem in terms of how many years of life are lost due to guns, and there is an impervious gap between white and black Americans that has been left to grow. We hope that as much as gun ownership is a constitutional right, there should be an awareness regarding the burden of death due to guns and action to prevent these deaths.”

Co-authors are Yi Zuo and Mrithyunjay Vyliparambil, Boston University School of Medicine; Jeffrey Siracuse, College of Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, and Sandro Galea, Boston University School of Public Health.