Motor vehicle deaths long have been the leading nonmedical cause of death across the country.
Not in Missouri in 2013.
Firearms proved more deadly, and by a wide margin — 880 to 781 — according to the most recent federal data available. And Missouri appears to be a harbinger of things to come.
Some experts predict that for the first time in decades, firearms will kill more people nationwide this year than motor vehicles.
That prospect upsets Rosilyn Temple, who buried her 26-year-old son three years ago after he was fatally shot in his Kansas City apartment.
“I’m angry,” said Temple, now the executive director of Mothers in Charge, a Kansas City group that advocates for safer communities. “How did we as a community get to this point and everybody still be OK with it?”
One explanation: It didn’t happen overnight.
Several long-developing trends caused firearm and motor vehicle deaths to converge.
One trend is a slow growth of firearm deaths nationwide over the last decade. Although such deaths remain down about 15 percent from their 1990s peak, the fatalities include an increasing percentage of suicides. By 2010, suicides accounted for about six of every 10 firearm deaths.
Meanwhile, motor vehicle deaths have decreased dramatically since peaking at 54,589 nationwide in 1972. By 2013, they had fallen 35 percent, to 35,612.
The decline follows long-sustained campaigns by consumers, highway safety advocates and law enforcement officials to make the driving experience safer. Advocates credit seat belts, padded dashboards, airbags, highway median guard cables and road-edge rumble strips, among other things.
Those successes encourage safety advocates working on gun issues, said Jennie Lintz, director of public health and safety for the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“It shows us that it is possible to have a dramatic reduction in deaths and injuries if we apply the right approaches,” she said.
“So that is the model. But that currently doesn’t exist in our field because we are not looking at guns rationally. It is a very emotionally charged issue for a lot of people, and that is clouding the effort to reduce gun deaths.”
But Kevin Jamison, head of the Gladstone-based Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, doesn’t believe that the motor vehicle safety strategies apply to firearms.
“The people who are talking about car safety are not trying to outlaw cars,” he said. “But the people who talk about gun safety are trying to outlaw guns.
“Most of these people really don’t know how guns work, and what they have promoted is nonsense simply designed to make guns more expensive or less available.”
Before Nov. 23, 2011, Temple had been unaware of the growing number of firearm deaths.
That day, someone fatally shot her son Antonio Thompson. Temple stood outside his apartment building during the eight hours it took police to process the scene and remove his body. At one point, she accepted oxygen from an emergency medical technician.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
Her son’s killing, one of 111 homicides that year in Kansas City, remains unsolved. It occurred during a 10-year period when homicides dropped nationally by 17 percent, according to a study of data from 2003 through 2012.
Overall, however, firearm fatalities grew by 13.75 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The culprit: gun suicides, which have been on the rise in recent years and helped push the overall firearm deaths total to 33,636 in 2013.
Consider these stark Kansas statistics: In 2013, the state had 80 firearm homicides — but 240 firearm suicides.
“Firearms as a method of suicide is overwhelmingly more dangerous and fatal than other methods,” said Chris Maxwell, project coordinator for the Kansas Suicide Prevention Resource Center. “The lethality rate is in the high-80s percentile.”
Accordingly, suicide prevention workers emphasize keeping weapons away from suicidal people.
“That could mean locking up a gun, or having a friend take care of it for a while,” Maxwell said.
Young people are bearing a disproportionate share of gun deaths, according to a 2014 study by the Center for American Progress in Washington. In 2010, 21 percent of victims were younger than 25 even though young people typically make up less than 3 percent of all deaths nationwide each year.
“I don’t think people have a real understanding of the scope of gun violence in this country, particularly as it affects young people,” said Chelsea Parsons, the study’s co-author. “We only tend to hear about the most sensational aspects of gun violence, such as mass shootings.”
Unintentional shootings, meanwhile, claimed nearly 3,800 lives nationwide from 2005 through 2010. More than a third were younger than 25.
In January, a 9-month-old northwest Missouri boy died after his 5-year-old brother found a gun in a bedroom drawer in Nodaway County. The gun fired as the boy handled it, according to investigators.
Temple confronts firearm fatalities in her own way.
She sometimes visits homes shortly after a shooting to talk to stunned family members. Or she walks the neighborhood days later, knocking on nearby doors.
“A lot of times, those people don’t want to even open the door,” Temple said. “Or they will open it just a little. So I will sometimes put my shoulder in the door and explain that I am a mother dealing with grief.
“What is more powerful than that?”
Sometimes she hands out gun locks courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“If I can give somebody something that might prevent a young person from getting shot later on, I feel really good about it,” Temple said.
Last year, traffic accidents claimed 759 lives in Missouri.
Motor vehicle fatalities haven’t been that low in Missouri since the 1940s, said Sgt. Collin Stosberg of the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Lee’s Summit office. And there were approximately 2 million licensed Missouri drivers back then, compared to about 4.2 million today.
In the last decade alone, fatalities declined about 37 percent statewide.
Stosberg credits driver education as well as steady enforcement and engineering advances, such as the high-tension guard cables installed in highway medians to reduce cross-over crashes. In 2002, such crashes along Interstate 70 killed 24 people. In 2007, a year after cables had been fully installed, one person died.
Yet too many people still die from distracted driving, impaired driving and a refusal to buckle up.
Missouri law prohibits drivers age 21 or younger from texting while driving. Missouri Department of Transportation officials want the General Assembly to expand that law to all drivers, said Holly Dentner, MoDOT spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, only 80 percent of Missourians wear their seat belts, below the national average of 86 percent, according to MoDOT.
This year, of the 54 traffic fatalities the Highway Patrol had handled as of Sunday, 71 percent of victims had not been belted.
All vehicles should come equipped with a seat belt reminder system covering all seating positions, including the back seats, said Janette Fennell, head of KidsAndCars.org, a Kansas City-based nonprofit.
Although Congress has approved that mandate, Fennell said, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to write the formal regulation.
Fennell plans to monitor the agency’s progress. Her small organization previously has helped convince Congress to require safer power-window switches, glow-in-the-dark trunk releases to avoid trunk entrapment, and rear-view cameras by 2018 in all vehicles.
“We have the truth on our side,” Fennell said.