Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Surge in gun sales after Sandy Hook led to more accidental gun deaths, study finds

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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.

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.

Study details

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.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/11/2017 - 09:25 am.

    Just one quibble….

    A reference to higher incidences of gun related injuries and death in homes where guns are present is circular since gun related death and injury cannot occur in the absence of guns. It’s kinda like saying you discovered more drownings around water than where there is no water. What we’re looking for is a higher incidence of death and injury in homes with guns compared to homes without guns… and the research DOES reveal that.

    The most diabolical fallacy that gun enthusiasts and the NRA promote is the idea that firearms are “safe”. They are in fact incredibly dangerous and lethal instruments. The idea that having a gun in the home in many cases actually increases danger can easily qualify as common sense.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/11/2017 - 10:12 am.

    I’m tempted

    What first occurred to me when I read the headline was an argument I encountered many years ago, but which seems relevant here:

    “Just because ‘A’ occurred before ‘B’ doesn’t mean that ‘A’ **caused** ‘B.’

    I agree with Paul Udstrand on both counts. There’s a certain circularity to the article’s argument on its face.

    At the same time (speaking as the owner of multiple firearms) the notion that having a gun (especially and particularly a **loaded** gun) easily accessible at home somehow makes that home more safe is demonstrably ludicrous, and those who advance that argument deserve far more ridicule than they normally get. Evan a cursory examination of the evidence (number of children and adults accidentally shot versus the number of home invaders shot by homeowners) shows that what is presented as “evidence” to support that argument is, at best, anecdotal. More often, it’s simply fiction.

  3. Submitted by mark nupen on 12/11/2017 - 11:43 am.

    surge in gun sales

    2 themes I have been hearing:
    1. I need a gun to protect against intruders. A few years ago here in Minnesota a grandfather shot his granddaughter who was ‘sneaking back into the house’ at night and was mistaken as a break in by grandfather. Some of my friends think burglary or home break ins should be a ‘capital offense’, Really????
    2. “Always be ready” The accident of a loaded gun is extremely common! I have lost one classmate’s brother to an accidental gunshot and another lost his toe. I have never encountered a home break in or a burglary or life threatening encounter! Encountering a person with a loaded gun is dangerous ALWAYS! Add in some booze, drugs, and a temper problem, BAMB!

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 12/11/2017 - 12:09 pm.

    Living up north on a secluded lake

    having a gun in our house has made us feel safer. Everyone here knows how to use a gun but more importantly how not to handle a gun. There have been 3 break ins up here by meth heads and all were stopped by homeowners that were armed. The average response time for sheriff dept is over a half hour. Nobody I know up here has shot someone accidentally but I know folks who have protected themselves with a gun. So bottom line on are you safer with a gun in your house is simple, where do you live and do you know how to use your gun.
    The only thing more dangerous than a gun owner who doesn’t know how to use his gun is a criminal that doesn’t know how to use his gun!

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/11/2017 - 01:58 pm.

      Just wondering

      I think it’s Mark Twain’s line: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

      Never having lived on a secluded lake anywhere, but having heard the “I / We feel safer with a gun in the house” argument many, many times, it occurs to me that the statistics don’t support that “feeling.” But maybe that’s because the statistics are incomplete. How many of the 3 break-ins you mention were reported to local law enforcement? If all of those kinds of incidents are reported we might get better numbers, or at least numbers that, if not **better,** at least provide some support for the “make us feel safer” line of thinking.

      As it is, it’s no contest. You may **feel** safer, but based on what’s reported to law enforcement (not to mention what shows up in hospital emergency rooms), you are **not** safer, but in fact are putting yourself and your family at greater risk. Sincerity of belief often bears no relation to truth.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/12/2017 - 09:42 am.

        You know

        Ray, you can’t argue with feeling, especially with folks that don’t believe in logic/science, or believe in very little of it. For them 1 data point represents the entire picture, i.e. they argue the picture from the single data point, Per example, me and my kids are all trained in firearms, the statement suggests that “safety” is checked, no chance that anything will go wrong, But they cannot guarantee the future, similar to above, Grandpa shot and killed his grand daughter, (If my old brain is still working, this actually happened in River Falls and the guy was a pastor) Might we presume he was properly trained in gun safety, and kept a gun to feel safe, but as other folks said, one moment of poor/miss judgment, destroys an entire life of good intentions. Next time the”meth-head” may be a neighbor in trouble, or a stranded motorists, and hopefully no one experiences a lapse in “good judgement” because they “feel” threatened. .

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 12/11/2017 - 04:11 pm.

    I’ve had 6 decades of handling guns,

    taught my children to use guns and have yet to shoot anyone or have anyone shot in my house. You don’t need statistics to understand my neighbors feeling safer after the meth heads ran off. Yes they called the sheriff and 25 minutes later he showed up and said lucky you were armed. I wonder what statistic you would site for feeling safer? When you come up with one please let me know.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/12/2017 - 09:15 am.

      Actually you do need statistics

      Given the fact there is no single cause for ALL injuries and fatalities we have to compile data and compare causes. I’ve never personally experienced a tornado but that doesn’t mean no one else has, nor does it effect the odds of my EVER experiencing a tornado. I might “feel” safer if I had a tornado shelter, but that doesn’t mean I’d actually BE safer since the odds are I’d never actually need the shelter.

      Everyone who has child who shot and/or killed a sibling THOUGHT they were making their home safer by having a gun. And training does not make gun possession safe, everyone from highly trained soldiers to law enforcement have accidentally shot and killed themselves or others. I’ve had guns in my home for decades, and no one has ever gotten shot, that doesn’t mean my home is safer- my neighbors who don’t have guns have also not had anyone shot.

      I think Ray’s question regarding police reports is his way of politely trying to find out if these attempted break-ins can be confirmed in any way. Gun enthusiasts have a documented tendency to exaggerate the dangers they’re supposedly protecting themselves from. For instance, every time a Democrat gets elected for President they think someone’s going to take away all their guns… and they’ve been “thinking” that for decades. While we have some pretty clear data on accidental and deliberate gun fatalities and injuries, gun enthusiasts have had a difficult time documenting all the anecdotal accounts of self defense.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/12/2017 - 03:43 pm.


      There are probably lots of folks feeling less safer, because there are so many guns (killing implements) in the environment! Suspect we could get some of those statistics, but doubtful they will make any difference to folks, that feel safe because they have a killing implement next to their bed at night.
      Seems most Americans, don’t have a gun, killing implement at their bedside to feel safe, i.e. not everyone is prepared to kill someone at a moments notice.

  6. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/12/2017 - 01:43 pm.

    Gun safety instructors

    We can all agree that gun safety instructors know how to handle guns, right? Do a search on Gun Safety instructor accidentally shoots…it’ll shoot holes in the “I know how to handle guns argument.

Leave a Reply