Twenty children and six adults died in the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut.
But the gun deaths of about 60 other people, including 20 children, may have also occurred, at least indirectly, as a result of that tragic, horrific event. The reason: Gun purchases surged in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook, as gun enthusiasts worried (unnecessarily, it turned out) that Congress might limit their access to such weapons.
With more guns in people’s hands — and homes — the rate of accidental firearm deaths jumped sharply, especially for children.
Those are the findings of new research published Friday in the journal Science. The study apparently marks the first time that researchers have reported a link between a surge in gun purchases after a mass shooting and a rise in accidental gun deaths.
The study’s findings also build on earlier research that has found higher rates of firearm-related deaths — homicides and suicides, as well as accidents — among people living in households with a gun or who have easy access to one.
For the study, economists Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight of Wellesley College in Massachusetts focused specifically on a five-month period after the Sandy Hook shooting, from December 2012 to April 2013. It was during those months when calls for new gun control legislation were strongest, beginning with an impassioned and emotional speech by President Obama in which he spoke about the need for legislative changes to prevent such tragedies and ending with Congress’ voting down of those changes.
Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Levine and McKnight compared the number of accidental gun deaths during that five-month period with the number during the same time period in other years between 2008 and 2015.
They estimated that there were 57 additional accidental gun deaths during the five months after Sandy Hook, a number that represented a 27 percent increase in such deaths overall. They further estimated that 18 of those deaths occurred among children up to the age of 14, a number that represented a 64 percent increase.
The increase in deaths coincided with a spike in gun sales. Using background-check data, Levine and McKnight estimated that 3 million additional guns — 949 for every 100,000 people in the U.S. — were sold in the five months after Sandy Hook. The jump in sales started immediately after the shooting, peaked in January 2013, and then remained constant through April of that year.
The researchers then mapped where the increases in accidental gun deaths had occurred. They found the deaths were concentrated in states where the post-Sandy Hook spike in gun sales was very high (a group that included Minnesota) — evidence that appears to underscore the association.
An additional trend
The researchers also analyzed Google search data. They looked for how many times Americans searched using the terms “buy gun” (as in, “where can I buy a gun”) and “clean gun” (as in, “how often should I clean my gun?”).
The researchers found that the frequency of these searches spiked in the five months after Sandy Hook. This finding suggests, they say, that not only were people more likely to buy new guns during that period, but established gun owners were also more likely to remove an already-owned gun from storage.
“Previous research has demonstrated that accidental shootings are more likely to occur when there are more guns in the home, during routine handling of a firearm, when a gun is not stored properly, and when people are playing with guns or demonstrating their use,” Levine and McKnight point out.
“Children may be particularly at risk,” they add.
Improper storage may be key issue
As Levine and McKnight note in their paper, their study has several limitations. The CDC mortality data they used is known to understate accidental firearm deaths, they point out. The study also focused only on gun-related injuries that resulted in accidental deaths. It didn’t look at the impact of increased gun purchases on suicides and homicides — or even on injuries that don’t result in death.
The study is not without its critics. Three million guns represent only 1 percent of the total number of firearms in the U.S., one of those critics told Science reporter Meredith Wadman. So the fact that the study found those added guns led to a 27 percent increase in unintentional firearm deaths is “astounding,” he said.
The real issue, however, “is not the number of guns, but the number of guns that are stored improperly,” McKnight told Wadman. Many of the individuals who raced to purchase guns in the wake of Sandy Hook may have been new owners with little knowledge or experience with handling guns safely — a factor that would put them at greater risk of accidents, she explained.
“Taken as a whole, our analysis provides evidence indicating that the spike in gun exposure that followed the Sandy Hook school shooting increased the incidence of accidental firearm deaths, particularly among children,” McKnight and Levine write in their paper.
“Our findings support the recommendations of the American College of Prevention Medicine, which include safe gun-storage laws and physician counseling of their patients about approaches that can help reduce deaths associated with the accidental discharge of a firearm,” they add.
FMI: You can read the study in full online on Science’s website.