Sandy Hook shooting aftermath: Increased gun sales, more accidental deaths by firearms

Charlotte vigil and others to mark Sandy Hook tragedy

In remembrance of the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, as well as the thousands of American victims and survivors of gun violence since December 2012, GunSense Vermont is joining with communities and organizations nationwide to hold vigils between Dec. 10 and 14.

About 60 additional unintended shooting deaths, roughly 20 of them in children, occurred in the 5 months after the shooting, conclude the study's authors, economists Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight of Wellesley College in MA.

Among those putting together the gathering are the Livingston County chapter of Michigan Moms Demand Action, St. Paul's Episcopal Church and the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. So a 60-death bump in a 5-month period is a considerable one. But because so many other factors influence gun violence, it's extremely hard to sort out any trend, says Levine. He and McKnight suggest that increased exposure to guns after Sandy Hook, whether through new guns being purchased or through stored guns being taken out, handled, and cleaned, likely led to the increase. "Right after President Obama made his gun speech, search terms like "buy a gun" immediately went up".

GunSense Vermont advocates for universal background check legislation and other measures that will keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.

Levine said that he and McKnight made a decision to do the study after seeing data in an article in The New York Times that showed a dramatic surge in gun purchases after Sandy Hook and again after 14 people were gunned down on 2 December 2015 at a public health department Christmas party in San Bernardino, California.

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. "Humans are imperfect, despite their best intentions", said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, a professor and chairman in the Department of Emergency Medicine and director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

But the paper is drawing criticism from some researchers.

The findings were published December 8 in the journal Science.

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.

Decades of USA national data show a steady downward trend in accidental firearm deaths-from 1.55 per 100,000 people in 1948 to 0.18 per 100,000 in 2014. "The difference between 0 and 1 is enormous". "If guns were stored all the time properly all the time, even if there were more guns, there would be no more accidents". "And that is true, at most, in this unusual period that is the focus of the study".

Although it's hard to study gun deaths, researchers have a good idea about which policies have an impact on violence rates.

"You see not just an interest in buying guns, but you also see interest in cleaning guns", McKnight said.

The researchers wrote that their analysis "provides evidence indicating that the spike in gun exposure that followed the Sandy Hook school shooting increased the incidence of accidental firearm deaths". "How do they think it's acting in this case?"

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).

The authors have responses to numerous critiques.

That increase in accidental gun deaths represents a 27 percent increase overall for the nation in that time frame, and a 64 percent increase in accidental gun deaths involving children. They tell gun owners that liberals are about to vote on a new law to take away their guns, driving those owners into buying yet more guns.

"You would want to enact policies quickly", she said.

But there are other serious limitations to studying gun deaths too.

Google searches using the terms "buy gun" - including phrases like "where can I buy a gun?" - and "clean gun", meaning "how often should I clean my gun?" also spiked after Sandy Hook, and that was especially true on the days Obama talked about gun control.

Levine and McKnight used the number of background checks reported to the government by federally licensed gun dealers as a proxy for gun sales. Congress defeated related legislation on 17 April 2013, and the spike in sales ebbed. From it, they estimate that 3 million additional guns were sold in the months following the shooting. Thirty-one states, including a northern band from Washington through Minnesota, as well as Oklahoma, Missouri, and Tennessee, fit into the first category. A large jump in accidental deaths in both adults and children occurred during that time.

That stark finding, says Levine, "just strengthens support for our hypothesis". The new study did not find that more sales equated to more suicides or homicides, only that gun accidents increased.

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