After the Sandy Hook shooting, gun sales spiked - and so did accidental gun deaths

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sandy hook elementary shooting AP Photo/Jessica Hill Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following the shooting at Sandy Hook.

  • A new report found that gun purchases and accidental firearm deaths both spiked significantly after the Sandy Hook mass shooting.
  • The study is part of a larger body of recent research that is shedding light on gun violence, according to researchers.
  • Although it's hard to study gun deaths, researchers have a good idea about which policies have an impact on violence rates.


On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, and opened fire. He killed 20 children (six- and seven-year-olds) and six adults.

In the aftermath of the shooting, calls for legislation aimed at limiting access to firearms resulted in what's now become a predictable post-mass-murder event: people bought lots of guns.

With more guns around in the following months, rates of accidental death related to firearms rose sharply, especially for children, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

Study authors Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight of Wellesley compared the number of accidental firearm deaths during the five months after Sandy Hook (from December 2012 to April 2013) with the amount during the same time period in other years between 2008 and 2015. They found that after Sandy Hook, accidental firearm death rates rose 27% overall, and 64% for children up to the age of 14.

That means at least 60 people were killed by mistake as a result of those gun purchases: 40 adults and 20 children.

In the five months after the mass shooting, approximately 3 million more guns were sold than would have been expected based on historical trends. Online searches for terms like "buy gun" and "clean gun" also spiked (especially after President Obama spoke publicly about gun control).

The more people who get exposed to guns because they're newly purchased or because they've been brought out of storage, the more likely accidental shootings are to occur.

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.

guns sandy hook effect Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Understanding gun deaths

There are limitations to conducting a study like this, the authors wrote, since the CDC Vital Statistics data they used to calculate gun deaths is known to understate accidental firearm deaths, especially when an accidental injury later results in death.

But there are other serious limitations to studying gun deaths too. Lobbying by the National Rifle Association has influenced Congress to avoid funding research that could justify heavier gun control.

That means there's no national database of gun purchases, so it's hard to tell how many guns are sold. In this case, the researchers calculated the 3 million sales based on the number of background checks run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used by federally licensed gun retailers.

NRA lobbying also led congress to cut the CDC budget by $2.6 million - the same amount as the budget of the the centers' gun violence research program, as Philip Cook and John Donohue noted in a public policy analysis published alongside the new study in Science.

But Cook and Donohue wrote that research on gun deaths is improving despite these obstacles and lack of federal funding, thanks to support from nonprofit foundations, states like California, and universities.

"The good news, often lost in the well-justified complaints about the lack of federal funding, deserves greater recognition," they wrote.

gun show AP Gun shows are one of the places guns are sold that gun control advocates say should be better regulated.

What science says about gun policy

Innovative researchers, a spike in interest from journals, and support from institutions aside from the federal government are all helping researchers understand how policies affect gun violence, according to Cook and Donohue.

For example, researchers have learned that gun robbery rates have gone down when states enact longer sentences for assault or robbery with a gun.

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. 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%.

Analyses have also been conducted on "right to carry" laws, which require states to issue concealed-carry permits to anyone who is allowed to own guns and can meet minimum conditions (as opposed to holding concealed carry status to stricter standards). According to Cook and Donohue, such laws increase the rate of firearm homicides by 9% when state-by-state homicide rates are compared.

Many people have argued that right-to-carry laws deter crime, since there are more armed people around to stop a criminal. That idea was supported by a controversial 1997 analysis, but these newer, more thorough analyses show the opposite effect. That could be because confrontations are more likely to escalate to a shooting, because there are more guns around that can get stolen, or some other factor.

But considering the House recently passed a bill that would let people carry weapons across state lines and require states to honor the concealed-carry policies of other states, research about the impact of such policies is more important than ever.

"The scope and quality of gun-related research is growing, with clear implications for the policy debate," Cook and Donohue wrote.

In the wake of mass shooting like Sandy Hook and more recently Las Vegas, it's imperative to figure out what policy changes can help save lives.

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