In the spring of 2019, as the state mourned the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch and lawmakers began eyeing a raft of new firearms-related legislation, The Colorado Sun analyzed 38 years of state data on gun deaths.
At the time, The Sun found that 20,669 people died from firearm-related injuries between 1980 and 2018, and the death rate, after dipping in the early 2000s, was on the rise.
Now, with the reverberations from a shooting at Denver’s East High School still ringing and lawmakers again hotly debating a slate of gun bills, The Sun decided to revisit that earlier analysis.
The number of those who have died from firearm-related injuries has increased, of course. Between 1980 and 2021 — the most recent year for which finalized mortality data is available — 23,493 people were killed by gunshot wounds, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
But more surprising is that the firearm-related death rate in 2021 was the highest since at least 1980. The new analysis shows the state recorded 18.2 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, far exceeding any other year in that time span. The previous high was in 1981, at 16.3 deaths per 100,000 people.
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These numbers include all deaths caused by firearms — homicides, suicides, accidents and incidents where the intent cannot be determined.
Though still preliminary, the firearm-related death rate appears to have declined slightly in 2022. The state will likely have final data on 2022 deaths next month, and it is possible that the preliminary figure — 16.8 deaths per 100,000 people — could rise as more deaths are officially recorded.
The reason we stop the analysis at 1980 is because that’s how far back CDPHE has data on firearm-specific causes of death.
The state does have data on suicides going back to 1940 and homicides back to 1970. But, because those numbers do not record whether a gun was involved in the deaths, they are not comparable to post-1980 numbers.
Here are six charts that explain 42 years of gun deaths in Colorado.
2021 was the worst year on record for gun deaths in Colorado
The peak in the firearm-related death rate in 2021 capped a 13-year run of more or less steadily rising numbers.
The trend remains even when accounting for changing demographics
The chart above shows what is sometimes called the crude death rate — its formula looks at just the number of deaths and the number of people living in the state. But often with health statistics, it is more informative to look at the age-adjusted death rate.
People tend to die of different causes at different ages. For that reason, changes in demographics — whether a population skews younger or older — can sometimes warp the crude death rate. Demographic changes can make it appear as if certain types of deaths are occurring more or less often even though the trend is ultimately steady and it’s just the age breakdown of the population that is changing.
Using an age-adjusted death rate solves that problem. But even taking into account changing demographics, 2021 was a historically bad year for gun deaths amid a rising swell of them.
The increase in the raw number of gun deaths has been dramatic
In 1980, 418 people died of firearm-related injuries in Colorado. By 2000, that number had risen just slightly, to 442 people, even though the state’s population had grown by approximately 1.4 million people.
Between 2000 and 2021, the state’s population grew by about 1.5 million people. The number of people dying by firearm more than doubled.
Most gun deaths are suicides
Nearly three-quarters of firearm-related deaths in Colorado are suicides. This proportion has remained relatively consistent for each year since 1980.
People under age 45 make up most of those who die by firearm
Gun deaths are increasing across most age groups in the state. The only age group where a trend is difficult to discern is for children from birth through age 9. Deaths in that age range can be few enough in a given year that CDPHE won’t release the actual numbers — it is common in health statistics for small numbers to be withheld for privacy reasons.
Men make up the overwhelming majority of gun deaths
More than 8 out of every 10 people who die by firearm in Colorado are men. This pattern, too, is largely unchanged since 1980.