Gun Purchases Often Go up After Mass Shootings—but in 22 Cases Since 1998, Sales Actually Went Down

Handguns are displayed during the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting & Exhibits at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas, on May 5, 2018. A recent study identified media coverage and number of fatalities as significant factors underlying gun purchasing patterns. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Gun violence in the United State is a huge public health crisis, causing more than 30,000 deaths every year. Mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of these fatalities, but they are thought to play important role in shaping public opinion.

Now, researchers have found that around 20 percent of mass shooting events are followed by significant increases in gun purchases, but also, surprisingly, another 20 percent or so are associated with decreases in firearm sales, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

While the authors stressed they cannot draw causal conclusions from the findings—meaning the study doesn't prove that the mass shootings caused these changes in gun purchases—the results do increase our understanding of the public's response to such events, which could in turn help guide public health planning regarding firearms.

To understand how gun purchasing patterns are affected by mass shootings, the researchers examined data on U.S. background checks for gun purchases between November 1998 and April 2016.

In this time there were a total of 234 million background checks and 124 major mass shootings—those where five or more individuals were killed or injured. Of these, 26 of the shootings (21 percent) were associated with increases in gun purchases and 22 (17.7 percent) were associated with decreases in gun purchases.

"Shootings receiving extensive media coverage were associated with increases in handgun purchases, whereas high-fatality shootings were more likely to be associated with decreases in handgun purchases," the authors wrote in the study. "It is important to study the reasons underlying these changes to better understand the connections between gun violence and public opinion.

"That such effects may occur has been posted extensively in [the media] but has not been evaluated as a research question with the comprehensive approach performed herein, to our knowledge," they wrote. "The increases observed were consistent with previous studies examining smaller sets of shootings and specific political events. However, the decreases in gun purchases observed were unexpected based on previous literature."

According to David Studdert, a professor of medicine and law at Stanford University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, the latest findings are intriguing for several reasons.

"They confirm results from several previous studies showing that there are spikes in firearm sales following high-profile mass shootings," Studdert told Newsweek. "This study looks at a larger number of mass shootings over a longer period of time than previous studies have.

"What is most surprising is that the study finds decreases in sales following some. It wouldn't be surprising if some mass shootings—particularly less publicized ones—produced no measurable changes in sales. But why sales would decrease is not clear, and the researchers themselves don't have a clear explanation for that result."

Lacey Wallace, a professor of criminal justice at Penn State Altoona, echoed Studdert's sentiments, saying that the study was a "rigorous test of how mass shootings affect gun purchasing," while noting that this kind of research is important to explain how the American public reacts when such events occur.

"Some of the findings of this study are in line with other research," she told Newsweek. "However, 22 of the shootings examined were actually followed by decreases in gun purchasing, not increases. This suggests that changes in gun purchases are not simply a result of media attention or death counts.

"One caution is in order. This study used background check counts as a measure of gun purchasing. However, private purchases often do not require a background check. As a result, this study might not be capturing changes in gun purchasing that occur in the private market."

According to Wallace, research has shown that gun purchases often—but not always—increase after mass shootings. The exact reasons for this have not been scientifically confirmed, but one possible explanation is fear, something that is often inspired by sensationalized media coverage.

"The topmost reason Americans own guns is for personal protection," Wallace said. "Mass shootings often appear random. They can result in many deaths and injuries. They receive widespread media attention as well."

"As a result, mass shootings can lead some people to feel afraid that what they see in the media could happen to themselves or loved ones. This explanation is consistent with this article's finding that shooting with more casualties and shooting receiving more media attention resulted in greater increases in gun purchases."

Another possible explanation for the increase in gun purchases is fear or anxiety about possible gun control measures.

"When mass shootings occur, public debate frequently settles on guns and gun control" according to Wallace. "Some people purchase guns or gun accessories out of worry that certain types of guns or accessories will be harder to purchase or unavailable for purchase if the law changes. Many purchasers are current gun owners already.

"Politics can affect this process though. Some recent, more anecdotal, studies have found that gun purchases following more recent shootings have not followed the increase pattern we have seen after shootings in previous years. This could be related to more pro-gun sentiments among those currently in office."

With regard to the 22 mass shootings that were associated with decreases in gun purchases, the researchers offered one potential explanation.

"One potential hypothesis is regression to the mean, especially given that some shooting events associated with decreases in gun purchasing occurred closely after extremely high-profile shootings associated with large increases in all forms of gun purchases—for example, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which was followed 2 months later by the Los Angeles Police Department shooting by Christopher Dorner and by the Ladera Ranch, California, shooting," they wrote.

The authors argued that the latest findings, which identified media coverage and number of fatalities as significant factors underlying gun purchasing patterns, could have significant implications for public health response to future gun violence.