Mass shootings trigger waves of accidental deaths, study finds

Olive Hawkins
December 8, 2017

Firearm sales surged following the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, when it appeared the United States might adopt tougher gun control laws.

About 60 additional unintended shooting deaths, roughly 20 of them in children, occurred in the 5 months after the shooting, conclude the study's authors, economists Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight of Wellesley College in MA.

The researchers then used the National Vital Statistics system, which records every death in the USA, to estimate death rates from accidental shootings during that five-month window.

On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, and opened fire.

"If you have an estimated 3 million more guns in homes, in all likelihood, not all of those guns will be safely stored and may be loaded and accessible, and that results in unintended harm". But because so many other factors influence gun violence, it's extremely hard to sort out any trend, says Levine. He and McKnight suggest that increased exposure to guns after Sandy Hook, whether through new guns being purchased or through stored guns being taken out, handled, and cleaned, likely led to the increase. They also attribute thoses deaths, in part, to improper gun storage.

McKnight and Levine embarked on their study to understand how the Sandy Hook tragedy and the resulting gun debate affected the American public's behavior surrounding guns.

It's nearly like having more guns leads to more people killed by guns.

The findings were published December 8 in the journal Science. In particular, Kleck finds the statistical associations implausible. "The public health consequences of the increase in gun sales are probably larger than what we found in our paper". "It's surprising that such a small increase in the overall gun stock could have such a large effect on one category, accidental deaths, and yet no effect on other categories", he said. "That is really what allows them to make causal claims about firearm exposure and accidental gun deaths". "The difference between 0 and 1 is enormous". "And that is true, at most, in this unusual period that is the focus of the study".

For more on gun violence, visit the U.S. They ask: "'We know in this [post-Sandy Hook] period an exceptional number of guns were added to those already in circulation; did anything unusual happen?'" "Again, keep in mind, it is only one study".

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That increase in guns led to at least 57 additional firearm-related deaths, the researchers said, 18 of which were among children. "It would make common sense to some people to think 'what I need to do to protect myself is to have a gun, ' but the unfortunate truth is that this normal reaction is wrong", said Fielding, who was not involved in the new study.

The authors have responses to numerous critiques.

Researchers have also looked at the impacts of the Lautenberg Amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act, which disqualified people with a conviction for domestic violence from buying or owning weapons. "For example, if they were less experienced gun owners, then they might be at greater risk" of accidents, she says. The policy was challenged in certain states, but data shows the states that did ban domestic abusers from gun ownership reduced gun murders by 17%.

The two scrutinized weekly search data from Google, which showed that terms like "buy a gun" increased fourfold as President Barack Obama began pushing for new gun restrictions.

These combined data, write the authors, "show that exposure to firearms increased substantially in the post-Sandy Hook window". They have grappled with what conditions would best determine the factors - gun sales, different state laws, the type of guns available - that might affect gun violence and death.

That means there's no national database of gun purchases, so it's hard to tell how many guns are sold. They chose the 5-month window because it corresponded with a surge in gun sales.

But there are other serious limitations to studying gun deaths too. 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?" They divided US states into two groups: those where more than 1000 additional guns were sold per 100,000 residents over the 5-month period, and those with fewer sales.

Levine thinks his findings support developing more stringent gun storage laws nationwide, Levine says.

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.

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