Dec 7, 2017 - Politics & Policy

After Sandy Hook, gun rush led to 60 additional accidental deaths

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Data: Levine & McKnight, Science, 2017 DOI:11 etc.; Note: Death rate deviation data is December of previous year to April of current year; Chart: Axios Visuals

In the five months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun sales rose and people took their guns out of storage. This exposure led to at least 60 more accidental deaths than would otherwise have happened — and 20 of them were children, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science.

The details: These charts show monthly changes away from the expected seasonal rate of gun purchases and accidental firearm deaths in children. Following Sandy Hook, both spike dramatically.

"This event should have awakened people to what can we do in our society, but too many people took the opposite tact and caused more harm to themselves and others," David Hemenway, who conducts research on injury prevention at Harvard and was not involved in the study, tells Axios.

What they did: The researchers calculated the average rate of accidental firearm deaths for adults and children in the United States from 2008-2015, and measured deviations from that rate. They compared that to data on background checks, Google searches for 'buy gun' as a proxy for gun sales and searches for 'clean gun' to account for people taking their guns out of storage.

Finally, they broke the national data down state-by-state to check that the relationship between mass shootings, gun purchases, and gun deaths wasn't coincidental. Because the trend was true in each individual state, and not just in the national average, the association was stronger.

What they found: Background checks and Google searches for buying guns and about gun maintenance increased following Sandy Hook, indicating increased gun exposure — the rush stopped when the legislation failed . A large jump in accidental deaths in both adults and children occurred during that time. Then, as people learned how to use their guns or put them into storage, death rates returned to normal.

"It's really about exposure," says study author Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College. "Regardless of how many guns there are, if they're all stored properly, the risk of accidental deaths is limited. It has to be about what's occurring that's leading them to not be stored properly at that moment."

What's happening: After mass shootings, particularly ones that raise the specter of gun control legislation, it's well documented that gun purchases rise, though the trend appears to have stopped since the election of a congress and president that are against gun control. This is one of the first studies to link those legislative battles and gun sale trends to accidental deaths.

Yes, but: There are a lot of factors at play during these watershed events, so it's difficult to put the blame solely on discussions of gun control, says Hemenway.

What's next: Levine would like to parse out the long-term effects of these gun purchases. There's little evidence of an increase in murders after shootings, but it makes sense to assume that more guns could lead to more murders or gun-involved domestic violence in the long run. But because so many other factors influence gun violence, it's extremely difficult to sort out any trend, says Levine.

Hemenway would like to see research into the impacts of multiple guns in a household. "The difference between 0 and 1 is enormous. Between 1 and 5, we just don't know."

A Catch-22: There are proven ways to reduce gun violence, notes economist and sociologist Philip Cook in policy piece that ran with the study. Concealed carry laws, laws that ban those convicted of domestic abuse from purchasing guns, and extended sentences aimed at curbing armed robbery all appear to measurably reduce gun violence. But in the initial act of passing such legislation, it's possible gun deaths may temporarily go up.

Despite this, "I don't think one should take away that you shouldn't bother trying," says Levine.

Alison Snyder contributed reporting to this story.

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