The new study from Wellesley College used data on Google searches about buying and cleaning guns, background checks for purchasing firearms and records of accidental gun deaths to examine the consequences of the 2013 shooting and subsequent policy discussions.
Immediately following the horrific school shooting, an additional 60 people – including 20 children – were killed in gun accidents, and their deaths were a direct result of increased exposure to guns and political developments, researchers say.
In the five months after the tragedy, Americans purchased an additional three million guns, the study estimates.
In the year following the Sandy Hook shooting, far more children were killed in gun accidents than the expected average (in blue), as did firearm sales (in black)
Perhaps more importantly, says professor of economics and lead study author Phillip Levine, former President Obama introduced gun control legislation in January of 2013, and spoke frequently and fervently about the need for reform.
Levine and his co-author Dr Robin McKnight thought that this increase in the public’s exposure to guns – and particularly to the idea that guns might become more difficult to purchase – might lead to an increase in gun sales.
Their study, published in Science, shows that they were all too right. Previous work has struggled to find cause-and-effect tie between exposure to gun and accidental gun deaths.
But Levine says that his study ‘took advantage of this shock’ of an utterly unexpected event to establish a causal relationship.
In contrast to trends, ‘if something spikes up out of nowhere and then it vanishes, that certainly makes a much more compelling case for causation….it makes it much less likely that it was just a coincidence,’ Levine says.
Between December 2012 and April 2013, far more Americans applied for background checks suggesting that 3 million more guns were sold in that time period than average.
In the same time period there were surges in Google searches including the phrases ‘clean gun’ and ‘buy gun.’
Specifically, there were more granular spikes immediately following former President Obama’s speech calling for reform five days after the shooting, as well as following the announcements of his legislative proposal and discussion of gun reform in his State of the Union Address.
‘At that moment, there was viable gun control legislation on the table, and from our perspective, that increased the demand for guns,’ says Levine.
Like clockwork, each event was followed by increased searches, and overall number stayed high, until Congress killed the legislation in April 2013 – and the Google searches died off too.
Google searches about cleaning guns (black) and buying guns (red) spiked dramatically in tandem with each of former President Obama’s major moves for gun control legislation
‘When people are concerned about losing access to purchasing firearms in the future, they buy now,’ he says.
In that same time period, 60 more people than average were were killed in gun accidents.
Levine says that their data on gun-cleaning Google searches suggest that Americans were taking their guns out of storage, checking to see if they were in working order or if they should buy a new gun before doing so became more difficult.
When this happens, ‘in one form or another, a gun that wasn’t in the living room now is in the living room, and that’s the problem,’ Levine says.
He says that the spike in gun buying and accidental deaths after Sandy Hook is unique, which adds weight to the theory that the possibility of gun control legislation drove increases.
‘We don’t see these spikes every time we see a mass shooting,’ he says, noting that the Las Vegas shooting did not come with the same consequences.
‘In the current political environment, nobody is worried about losing their firearms,’ he says.
‘God forbid there be another mass shooting, but if one did occur in the immediate future, we wouldn’t expect to see an increase in accidental firearm deaths,’ he says.
The conundrum is that policies limiting access to guns could prevent gun-related deaths in the long term, but the new research shows that the threat to gun ownership can lead to immediate surges in accidental death.
Statistically, the issue comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.
‘At the end of the day, if you’re going to introduce gun control legislation, it has to be successful,’ says Levine.
‘If the legislation is successful, it will eventually have the benefit of saving more lives in the long run. If it is unsuccessful, all you get is the cost,’ he says.