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America's Top Killing Machine

Gun deaths are poised to surpass automobile deaths in the United States this year.

For the better part of a century, the machine most likely to kill an American has been the automobile.

Car crashes killed 33,561 people in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Firearms killed 32,251 people in the United States in 2011, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control has data.

But this year gun deaths are expected to surpass car deaths. That's according to a Center for American Progress report, which cites CDC data that shows guns will kill more Americans under 25 than cars in 2015. Already more than a quarter of the teenagers—15 years old and up—who die of injuries in the United States are killed in gun-related incidents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Young People Have an Increased Risk of Gun Violence

A similar analysis by Bloomberg three years ago found shooting deaths in 2015 "will probably rise to almost 33,000, and those related to autos will decline to about 32,000, based on the 10-year average trend." And from The Economist, which wrote about the projection over the weekend:

Comparing the two national icons, cars and guns, yields “a statistic that really resonates with people," says Chelsea Parsons, co-author of the report for the Centre for American Progress. Resonance is certainly needed. There are about 320 [million] people in the United States, and nearly as many civilian firearms. And although the actual rate of gun ownership is declining, enthusiasts are keeping up the number in circulation.

The figures may say more about a nation's changing relationship with the automobile than they reveal about America's ongoing obsession with guns.

The number of fatalities on the roads in the United States has been going down for years as fewer young people drive, car safety technology improves, and even as gas prices climb. (Lower gas prices are correlated with more deaths. A $2 drop in gasoline is linked to some 9,000 additional road fatalities per year in the United States, NPR recently reported.) Though even as fatal transportation incidents dropped in 2013, they accounted for two in five fatalities in the workplace in the United States that year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

CDC data on firearms offers a more complicated picture, in part because of how the agency categorizes causes of death. Gun deaths can include suicides, homicides, accidental firearms discharges, and even legal killings—but the overall data picture is incomplete. Since 2008, some county-level deaths have been left out to avoid inadvertent privacy breaches. And the number of police shootings—including arrest-related deaths, which are recorded but not made public, according to The Washington Post—are notoriously evasive.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

The record of firearm deaths in the United States is murkier still because of how much is at stake politically. Firearm safety remains one of the most divisive issues in the country, with advocates on both sides cherry-picking data to support arguments about the extent to which gun regulation is necessary. It's not even clear how many guns are out there in the first place, as the Pew Research Center pointed out in a 2013 study: "Respondent error or misstatement in surveys about gun ownership is a widely acknowledged concern of researchers. People may be reluctant to disclose ownership, especially if they are concerned that there may be future restrictions on gun possession or if they acquired their firearms illegally."

We do know American gun ownership far outstrips gun ownership in other countries. “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to 35-50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns,” according to the Small Arms Survey.

And while the number of firearm homicides dropped dramatically over a 20-year period ending in 2011, the percentage of violent crimes involving firearms has stayed fairly constant, according to the 2013 survey. In other words, even when fewer people die from gun violence, violent crimes involving guns are still happening at the same rate. It's also true that as the gun homicide rate has declined in the United States, suicides now account for the majority of gun deaths, according to Pew.

Data complexities aside, there is much to learn about a culture from the technologies that kill its people. In the 19th century, before modern labor laws were established, thousands of American workers died in textile mills and other factories. Heavy machinery was hazardous—and violent deaths often made headlines—but chemicals and asbestos killed many workers, too. Workers who made baked enamelware died after inhaling powdered glaze, and textile workers warned of the "kiss of death" from a loom that required its operator to suck a thread through the shuttle's needle—which meant breathing toxic lint and dust, too.

Americans have been drawing connections between guns and cars for more than a century, since the dawn of the automobile age.

In 1911, The New York Times cited new traffic laws and gun regulations—including imprisonment rather than a monetary fine for people caught carrying pistols—as responsible for driving down the firearm and automobile death rates compared to the year before. But the larger public health risk in those days was infectious disease, which were responsible for almost half of the deaths among Americans in large cities at the turn of the century. It was around that time that officials began collecting reliable annual mortality statistics, according to a 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research paper about public health improvements.

Today, overall accidents are the fifth leading cause of death, according to CDC data. Americans are most likely to die from heart disease—followed by cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and stroke.