Gun sales and accidental deaths by firearms soared in the months following the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, says new research. The study suggests that the more people are exposed to firearms, the more likely someone will die.
Using Google trend data, Wellesley College researchers detected an increase in searches for phrases such as "buy gun" and "clean gun" in the five months after a shooter in a primary school killed 20 children and six adults. Based on an increase in background checks, the researchers estimate that 3 million more guns were sold than the average during this five-month period. That corresponded to an increase of 60 accidental deaths of firearms, including 20 children, the authors reported today in the journal Science .
"They find a fairly dramatic increase in accidental weapon deaths in the five months after Sandy Hook," says Christopher Poliquin, a graduate student at the Harvard Business School who studies underlying patterns of gun violence. "They really go out of their way to show that there is likely to be an increase in exposure to guns."
"It's almost the iron law of guns," agrees John Donahue, a professor at Stanford Law School. who wrote a commentary arguing evidence-based weapons policies were also published today at Science . "You can not believe how many times something incredibly terrible happens just because a person carries a weapon, be it a two-year-old boy who shoots his mother or a father who has shown his gun to his son and killed his daughter . "
Weapons killed 36,000 people in the United States in 2015. But it is difficult to study gun violence because funding for weapons research was withdrawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1996, and the key data may be difficult to access. But these obstacles have not stopped all scientists, and lately there has been a resurgence in arms research, according to the commentary published today in Science .
Today's study by economists Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight at Wellesley College is part of this growing body of work. After seeing a chart from the New York Times showing a massive increase in arms sales after the Sandy Hook shootout, Levine says: "We thought to ourselves, I wonder what impact it had?"
So they repeated the analysis of the New York Times by going through the background check records to find out about how many weapons were sold before and after the Sandy Hook shooting. "It's not a perfect proxy," says Levine. "It is correlated with almost all other arms sales measures that we know about, but it's not really about arms sales." Not all sales require a background check, for example; and a background check does not tell you how many weapons the person who bought it finally bought, says Poliquin. But because there is no formal database of arms sales in the United States, it is the best information the researchers had. From it, they estimate that 3 million additional weapons were sold in the months after the shooting.
That corresponded to an increase in Google searches for "buy gun" and "clean gun" during the same five-month period. The researchers interpreted this increase in Google related to weapons as a greater interest in firearms. Although it is also possible that people have been curious. But it is an exhaustive analysis, says Poliquin. "They are quite careful in establishing that the patterns they are seeing are displayed in multiple data sets."
Researchers also investigated the Vital Statistics system, a record of every death in the United States. UU They found that this estimated increase in exposure to firearms corresponded to an increase of 60 accidental firearms deaths during this period, including 20 children. That's "the same number that died at Sandy Hook's school," says Levine. And it's probably an understatement; These death records do not include injuries related to firearms, for example.
The findings are contrary to the recent decline in deaths from accidental firearms, despite the general increase in arms sales, but it is difficult to draw conclusions from that trend, says Poliquin. There may be other changes in education with firearms, or state gun laws that could make clear connections difficult to find. That's why this new study is particularly informative, he says: the authors use the increase in arms sales after Sandy Hook as a kind of natural experiment, says Poliquin. "That's really what allows them to make causal claims about exposure to firearms and accidental deaths with weapons."
Levine believes his findings support the development of stricter weapons storage laws across the country, says Levine. "What the results of our document really show is that weapons are not always stored properly," he says. "If the weapons were stored all the time correctly all the time, even if there were more weapons, there would be no more accidents."