Why Young Men Die

May 22/2019

U of T Professor Prabhat Jha finds race and education strongly correlates with a young man’s chances of dying from guns in U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Brazil

An epidemiologist with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health has published a ground-breaking study of the young men who die from gun violence. Prahbat Jha, known for his Count the Dead surveys in the Global South, is a world leader in collecting and analysing why people die – as a way to help governments create policies and direct resources to best help the living.

headshot of Professor Prabhat Jha

Professor Prabhat Jha

Working with Dr. Anna Dare, a surgical resident at U of T and Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, Jha analysed more than 106 million deaths among men 15 to 34 in these four countries, looking at how firearms-related mortality corresponded with race and education. He expected to find a correlation with lower education and non-white races. But he was shocked at the strength of the connection – especially in the U.S. Jha, who is also Director of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s,  published his findings in The Lancet Public Health Journal May 21. He spoke to writer Heidi Singer about his findings.

What surprised you most about these results?

The most surprising result was how big the ratio in equalities were between young black men in the US and other groups — including young black men in these other countries. I was surprised by the extent to which the risk was so much higher in the US.

In the US the differences are really driven by race, so a young black man with a post-secondary education has 30 times the risk of being killed by firearms than his white counterpart. He’s even 14 times more likely to be shot and killed than an uneducated white man. We didn’t see anything like this in other countries we studied.

I was also surprised how much gun deaths varied within a country by time and space, with factors such as drug wars. We saw that in Mexico and Colombia, where they were able to reduce mortality through firearms restrictions and broader social policies. It suggests if the US and Brazil were able to do the same, you could avoid huge numbers of deaths.

That said, generally firearms mortality has improved over time — the risk was much higher in the past.

Do you think these results could bolster gun control advocacy in the U.S.?

I’ve never taken the approach of trying to influence a political agenda. The only thing I do is rub the noses of politicians in the data. And the data here really jump out in saying that reducing young black men’s deaths requires a reduction in firearms. If it’s important to reduce young black men dying before their time in the U.S., then yes, gun control would follow.

Was this really the first time anyone thought to correlate gun deaths with education and race in some of these countries?

Differences in education have been documented before. But differences in race and education and how much they contributed to the life expectancy has not been studied. Young men are generally healthy – we shouldn’t have many deaths at that age group. But when they do die, up to half of it is attributed to guns.

Counting the dead is an extremely powerful way to improve public health.