Sandy Hook shooting aftermath: Increased gun sales, more accidental deaths by firearms

December 07, 2017

In the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, the number of guns purchased in America spiked compared to baseline levels, and there were 60 additional accidental deaths related to firearms - 20 among children and 40 among adults, a new study estimates. The results begin to explore the question of whether greater exposure to guns can increase the risk of related accidents, which has been challenging to evaluate. The shooting at Sandy Hook left 20 children and six adults dead, stirring controversy over gun laws across much of the country. Here, Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight sought to better understand how this tragedy affected people's behavior surrounding guns. They looked at Google data between 2010 and 2014, finding that weekly search volumes for the terms "buy gun" and "clean gun" surged in the four months following the shooting, and particularly following two occasions when President Obama was vocal about the need for new gun control legislation. What's more, when the researchers looked at gun sales data (using background checks as a proxy), they found that an additional 3 million guns were sold during this same four-month window, compared to baseline sales. To understand how the resulting increase in exposure to guns might be correlated with deaths related to firearms, Levine and McKnight then looked at two different datasets capturing deaths across the country. Their results show that, as gun sales were increasing, and so, too, peoples' exposure to guns, accidental deaths related to firearms also increased - by 27% in such deaths overall, and by 64% among children. Spikes in accidental firearm-related deaths were concentrated in those states with larger increases in per capita gun sales, the authors found. The analysis provides evidence indicating that the spike in gun exposure that followed the Sandy Hook school shooting increased the incidence of accidental firearm deaths, the authors say.

In a related Policy Forum, Philip Cook and John Donohue discuss the challenges surrounding gun research in the United States, highlighting some progress, too. First, they discuss how funding through universities and private donors has helped fill the void of federal funding on gun research, one that has largely persisted since the 1990s (with a brief exception during the Obama administration). However, funding aside, comprehensive analyses of gun regulations are methodologically challenging, the authors say; variations in crime are driven by many factors, making it challenging to attribute changes to a specific policy. Researchers can take advantage of "natural experiments" in which changes across various jurisdictions and over time are accounted for, to isolate the specific impacts of gun-related policies. The authors discuss a study that suggested that "right-to-carry" (RTC) laws reduced crime, citing a number of technical shortcomings, including how the study dealt with the wave of crack cocaine-related crime during the 1980s/90s; these shortcomings have since been addressed in subsequent work, which predominatly suggests that RTC actually increases crime. Evidence also suggests that add-on sentences for gun use in violent crime have yielded positive results, for example by reducing robberies involving guns; as well, bans on gun possession by those convicted of do­mestic violence have resulted in a reduction in deaths among women by their partners. Moving forward, it's important that policies are rolled out with an eye toward experimental design, facilitating data collection to support causal inference on the impacts of gun-related policies, Cook and Donohue say, a tactic that the Califor­nia Department of Justice is adopting by starting a violence-pre­vention initiative in stages.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

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