The horrendous toll of death and injury from mass shootings is even greater than gets reported, a new study has found. In addition to the people shot at the time, there are accidental deaths as a result of the surge of gun sales these events trigger, which may outnumber those in the original tragedy. Although the idea has been proposed before, the number of casualties has been quantified for the first time, using the Sandy Hook massacre as a test case.
Twenty students and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut, in 2012. It was the fourth-highest death toll for an American massacre this century, but the fact that most of the victims were children made Sandy Hook particularly heart-rending.
For a time, it seemed that this atrocity might finally inspire change to American gun laws. That fear prompted a spike in firearms sales. The presence of extra guns in the community makes everyone less safe, including more than 500 accidental deaths each year.
Wellesley College's Professor Phillip Levine and Dr Robin McKnight investigated the spike in gun sales after Sandy Hook. Although exact sales numbers are not available, several other measures – from Google searches of “buy gun” to background checks by licensed firearms dealers – serve as proxies, and rose dramatically immediately after the massacre. Based on this data, the pair estimate in Science that an extra 3 million guns were sold in the five months after the event (before Congress struck down legislation tightening gun laws) compared to what would have happened had the massacre not occurred. Further deaths resulted from people cleaning guns that had long sat idle.
Accidental gun death rates shot up, particularly for children. Previous studies have revealed every extra gun in a house increases the risk of an accidental shooting, although of course the storage and whether children live there are even bigger factors. Combing the actual death count, the number of accidental deaths from firearms that would normally happen in America over a five month period, and the data on sales, Levine and McKnight estimate that the total extra deaths from the surge in gun sales was between 57 and 66 – two and a half times the number of those who died at Sandy Hook itself.
As many additional children died during this period as in the massacre itself, and the authors are unable to measure the further additional toll after the five-month mark.
Not every massacre is associated with such a large rush to buy guns, but smaller spikes happen frequently, suggesting this case was not unique. Conspiracy theorists are targeting the parents of those killed at the school, ensuring the horror never stops. The same, sadly, seems to be true for America.