The Spoke / The Law of Unintended Consequences Subscribe

Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight
Shoppers at gun show
The spike in gun sales that follows a mass-shooting tragedy may end up causing just as much damage to lives as the tragedy itself, with considerably less attention.

Five years ago, on December 14th, the shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, generated an intense national debate regarding gun control. That debate raged for several months, starting with President Obama’s tearful comments (“these tragedies must end”) shortly after the shooting and continuing through April 2013, when proposed legislation was voted down in Congress. Our research shows that the fear of potential gun restrictions generated by this debate led to even more tragedies. In the few-month period following Sandy Hook, three million additional guns were sold. Our research demonstrates that the greater exposure to guns led to the deaths of just as many children as, and more adults than, the school shooting itself. These findings suggest the need for stronger gun safety laws to reduce unnecessary loss of life, particularly among children.

The three million gun spike sales between December 2012 and April 2013 is much larger than any other spike since data collection began in 1998. This spike was very large in some states (like New Hampshire and West Virginia) and non-existent in others (like California and Maryland). These estimates are based on the number of background checks performed before a gun is purchasedwhich is a common proxy for gun sales.

We can also see that gun exposure jumped by observing what people searched for on the internet during this period. Google searches that included the terms, “buy gun” and “clean gun” became much more common. These terms capture interest in new sales as well as guns already owned. The detail available in Google search data indicates spikes in interest at precisely the time of relevant events, like the jump in searches the specific week that formal gun control legislation was introduced. When the final vote on that legislation failed on April 17th, 2013, search activity returned to normal levels.

In our analysis, we examine whether accidental gun deaths spiked at the same time and in the same locations as the spike in gun exposure. Just because two things happen at the same time does not mean one thing caused the other. But the presence of spikes helps overcome the challenge of distinguishing between a mere coincidence and a causal relationship. The relationship between gun exposure and deaths is less likely to be a coincidence if gun exposure and accidental gun deaths exhibit the exact same sudden increase and reversal. It is even less likely to be a coincidence if the spike in accidental gun deaths was greatest in those locations where the spike in gun exposure was greatest. Our results find support for both patterns. We find that the increase in gun exposure following Sandy Hook led to the accidental firearm deaths of around 20 children and 40 adults.

Gun exposure does not necessarily need to lead to accidental gun deaths. If all guns were stored properly, locked and away from children, tragedies such as these could be prevented. The American College of Preventive Medicine recommends, among other things, the passage of safe gun-storage laws. Massachusetts enacted the strictest such legislation in 1998, requiring that all guns be stored in a secure location or with a locking device in place when not in use.

To be sure, having a gun available, ready to fire, has the potential to provide safety in response to a home invasion. Yet accidental firearm deaths are far more common than deaths associated with home invasion. Between 2011 and 2015, 83 individuals per year were murdered during the course of a burglary compared to 519 accidental firearm deaths. In Massachusetts, the number of such homicides was unaffected when the gun storage law went into effect (8 in the decade before and 7 in the decade after). Yet past research indicates that gun storage laws do reduce accidental gun deaths among children. Overall, the potential benefits associated with allowing unsecured guns in the home are outweighed by the costs associated with accidental deaths.

All accidental deaths, and particularly those among children, are tragedies that should generate public concern; appropriate steps should be taken to reduce them. When children are injured in overheated cars, in school bus accidents, or by ingesting colorful laundry pods, we discuss ways to reduce such accidents. These accidents lead to 38, 6, and 2 accidental deaths per year, respectively. Everyone also recognizes the tragedy when a child is injured in a firearm accident—60 deaths per year among those 14 and under between 2011 and 2015, and about ten times as many non-fatal injuries—but we fall short in policy efforts to reduce them. It is an issue that we can and should address; the status quo is unacceptable. Gun safety laws, such as those in Massachusetts, should be more broadly introduced and enacted.

Photo Credit: M&R Glasgow, "Gun Show," via Flickr, 24 March 2007.