Mass shootings trigger waves of accidental deaths, study finds

Charlotte vigil and others to mark Sandy Hook tragedy

Studdert put the effect down to heightened fear about personal safety and security. According to a new study, the number of guns purchased during the first five months following the Sandy Hook school shooting spiked by 3 million.

Here, Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight sought to better understand how this tragedy affected people's behavior surrounding guns.

When looking at state data, Levine and McKnight found that the states with the biggest spikes in gun sales also saw the highest spikes in accidental death rates. After seeing a New York Times graphic showing a massive increase in gun sales after the Sandy Hook shooting, Levine says, "We thought to ourselves, gee I wonder what impact that had?"

Using Google trends data, researchers at Wellesley College spotted an increase in searches for phrases including "buy gun" and "clean gun" in the five months after a shooter at an elementary school murdered 20 children and six adults. In the aftermath, President Barack Obama spoke passionately about the need to prevent future tragedies through gun control. Lobbying by the National Rifle Association has influenced Congress to avoid funding research that could justify heavier gun control. McKnight estimates that 3 million additional guns were sold in the four months following Sandy Hook, above the sales that normally would have taken place during that timeframe.

The topic of guns was present in the news cycle, with President Barack Obama announcing new gun control action on January 2013 and speaking again about the proposed legislation at the State of the Union address that February. But instead of offering protection, at least in some cases, the sales increased the chances that people would be accidentally shot and killed, according to a study published Thursday in Science magazine. Google searches that included the term "clean gun" spiked post-Sandy Hook.

Analyses have also been conducted on "right to carry" laws, which require states to issue concealed-carry permits to anyone who is allowed to own guns and can meet minimum conditions (as opposed to holding concealed carry status to stricter standards).

The researchers attribute numerous deaths to improper or inadequate gun storage. "That's part of the risk as well".

The researchers then looked at mortality data at both the national and state level over time, to understand how the resulting increase in exposure to guns might be related to accidental gun deaths.

Charlotte vigil and others to mark Sandy Hook tragedy

"It also shows the unintended consequences of public policy", said Levine, noting that it wasn't the shooting itself that caused an increase in gun sales and deaths but the political debate over potential legislation.

Essentially, the United States faces a conundrum in dealing with gun violence. 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.

"It's basically a catch-22", McKnight said.

The safest way to enact tougher gun control in America might be to move fast when the time is right, McKnight said. "But I don't think this will be the final word", said Philip Cook, a leading gun policy expert at Duke University. "You don't want to have a lengthy debate about them".

In a further analysis, the researchers divided USA states into those, post-Sandy Hook, that had an increase in gun sales either greater or less than 1000 per 100,000 head of population.

"It's a serious and provocative study, but it's important to keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things, accidental deaths are relatively rare", said David M. Studdert, a professor at Stanford Law School. "One plausible reason people buy is because they are scared".

It's been well-established by now that gun makers and vendors rely on fear of legislative action to sell their products. "It's correlated with pretty much every other measure of gun sales that we're aware of, but it's not actually gun sales".

The findings were published December 8 in the journal Science.

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