Opioid Use and Firearm Violence in Kentucky

Bearded man in Kentucky cabin looking at cabin
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If you believe everything you see on the news, read in your media feeds, or see on your social media sites, then you’d think that here in the U.S., we live in a state of perpetual crisis.

While the news media has a vested interest in reporting on topics that will generate interest, the fact is that over the past several years, we have indeed moved from one national crisis to the next.

The opioid crisis, which began around 1999, is now in its fourth wave, and has been an ongoing public health emergency for close to twenty-five years. It’s a legitimate crisis and has claimed the lives of over a million people over the past 23 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic – which is still with us, but has turned into an endemic virus, like the seasonal flu, rather than a worldwide pandemic – also counts as a legitimate crisis. COVID-19 has also claimed the lives of over a million people, and that happened in less than three years.

Then there’s the crisis of gun violence.

Here’s the data on firearm-related fatalities between 2015 and 2020, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Firearm Related Deaths in the U.S.: 2015-2020

  • 2015: 36,252
  • 2016: 38,658
  • 2017: 39,773
  • 2018: 39,740
  • 2019: 39,707
  • 2020: 45,222

That’s almost a quarter of a million deaths firearm related deaths over a six-year period. The totals are not as extreme as those associated with the opioid epidemic or the COVID-19 pandemic, but we need to remind ourselves – and anyone reading this – that every death is a tragedy.

Preventable deaths are even more painful, because they’re preventable – and one preventable death is one too many.

A group of researchers in Kentucky – in an effort to help mitigate the harm caused by the opioid crisis and the gun violence crisis – decided to find out if these two crises are related in any way.

New Data in Kentucky: Opioid Overdose Visits and Firearm-Associated Deaths

In the paper “The Influence of the Opioid Epidemic on Firearm Violence in Kentucky Counties” a team of researchers analyzed information on county-level opioid overdose emergency department visits (ODED) and firearm-associated emergency department visits (FAED) visits in Kentucky for the years 2010-2017, based on data obtained from the Office of Health Policy and, Census Bureau, and the CDC.

Their goal was to identify correlations – if any existed – between increases in opioid use/overdose and violence related to firearms.

Here’s what they found.

Opioid Overdose Emergency Department Visits (ODED), Heroin Overdose, And Firearm-Associated Deaths (FAD) in Kentucky, 2010-2017

  • 2010:
    • ODED: 1.6 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 555
  • 2011
    • ODED: 1.6 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 617
  • 2012
    • ODED: 1.6 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 655
  • 2013:
    • ODED: 1.6 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 622
  • 2014:
    • ODED: 1.9 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 634
  • 2015:
    • ODED: 2.2 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 694
  • 2016:
    • ODED: 2.5 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 772
  • 2017:
    • ODED: 3.0 visits per 1,000
    • FAD: 730

What this data tells us is instructive: there was a correlation between opioid-related emergency room visits and firearm deaths in the state of Kentucky between 2013 and 2017.

Note: Due to incomplete data reporting in the published material, our data on ODED from 2013 to 2017 is extrapolated from a reported increase from 1.6 visits per 1,000 people per year in 2013 to 3.0 visits per 1,000 people per year in 2017. That’s an increase of roughly .35 per year, as reflected in the figures we offer above. In addition, we used firearm fatality data from the CDC to support and confirm firearm-associated death (FAD) statistics.

Despite the deficiencies in data reporting, we can see that as opioid-related emergency room visits almost doubled between 2013 and 2017, firearm related deaths also increased. As ODED visits increased by roughly 20 percent per year, firearm deaths increased at the following rates:

  • 2013-2014: 2% increase
  • 2014-2015: 10% increase
  • 2015-2016: 11% increase
  • 2016-2017: 5% decrease

Firearm fatalities did decrease by 5 percent from 2016 to 2017 as ODEDs continued to increase. However, the total for 2017 represents a 17 percent increase over the total for 2013, which correlates with the steady increase in ODEDs over the same period.

What Does This Study Tell Us?

Based on this data, the lead researchers on the study offer this conclusion:

“In addition to recognized nonfatal consequences of the opioid crisis, firearm violence appears to be a corollary impact, particularly in rural counties. Firearm injury prevention efforts should consider the contribution of opioid use and abuse.”

This is an important public health observation. We know that guns and any kind of intoxicants are not a good mix. The risk of fatal mistakes and accidents, as well as the risk of poor, impulsive decisions made while under the influence of a substance of misuse, is simply too great. Now we know that as opioid misuse increased in the state of Kentucky between 2010 and 2017, firearm deaths increased at the same time.

As individuals, families, and communities move forward to address the opioid crisis, they can add another layer to their efforts to reduce the harm caused by opioids: increase firearm safety and awareness initiative, and inform community members about the correlation between opioid use and firearm fatalities.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.