Erin Ross Dec 7
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After Sandy Hook, gun rush led to 60 additional accidental deaths

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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Early humans innovated tools earlier than thought

Archaeologist Rick Potts squats in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya with various surprisingly sophisticated tools found from 320,000 years ago.
Richard Potts surveys assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Unpredictable climate and natural disasters like earthquakes may have spurred early humans to create innovative tools and ways to communicate earlier than previously thought, according to 3 studies published Thursday in Science.

What they found: Evidence that around 320,000 years ago — near the start of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown — early humans in East Africa may have created projectile hunting tools, developed ways to communicate using colors for mapping or identification purposes, and traveled longer distances to trade, hunt or obtain valuable materials.

"It's not just humans changing but really the entire ecosystem. It's a picture that's bigger than just the human ancestors themselves."
— Smithsonian's Richard Potts, who spearheaded the studies
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Yejin Choi: Trying to give AI some common sense

A photo of Yejin Choi from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals

Artificial intelligence researchers have tried unsuccessfully for decades to give machines the common sense needed to converse with humans and seamlessly navigate our always-changing world. Last month, Paul Allen announced he is investing another $125 million into his Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in a renewed effort to solve one of the field's grand challenges.

Axios spoke with Yejin Choi, an AI researcher from the University of Washington and AI2 who studies how machines process and generate language. She talked about how they're defining common sense, their approach to the problem and how it's connected to bias.