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SPA Professor Studies Relationship Between Mass Shootings and Gun Sales

National conversations about gun control cause knee-jerk gun shopping, especially among first-time handgun buyers

Though gun control laws are designed to reduce exposure to gun violence, consideration and passage of these laws can lead to “last-chance” gun-buying sprees. To help quantify this phenomenon, SPA Assistant Professor Janice Iwama, with coauthor Jack McDevitt of Northeastern University, has published “Rising Gun Sales in the Wake of Mass Shootings and Gun Legislation” in The Journal of Primary Prevention (February 2, 2021).

Mass shootings lead to national conversations about gun control legislation, which spurs consumers to action. “Everybody realizes there's a mass shooting, and they immediately go to a gun store and buy a handgun for protection because they believe that there's a higher likelihood of them suffering violence, based on what is seen in the media,” said Iwama.

The study used statewide data on gun transactions in Massachusetts, from 2006 to 2016, to examine patterns in gun sales following the Newtown shooting, the San Bernardino shooting, and the passage of the 2014 Massachusetts Gun Violence Reduction Act. Results indicated different patterns in handgun sales, with significantly larger increases occurring among first-time handgun buyers.

The Massachusetts data provide one of the most comprehensive snapshots of gun sales in history. Thanks to persistent lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA), data on gun purchases is not fully available in the U.S., and experts believe any nationally-published numbers hugely underestimate actual sales.

“When you see national articles stating that gun sales have gone up, either they're getting that data directly from the manufacturers, or from federally-licensed dealers,” said Iwama. “But then you have state-licensed dealers, you have private dealers, and you have gifts that are guns. [Even federally-licensed dealers] reporting one sale could include five firearms.”

Besides including state-licensed, private dealers, and gifts and transfers, the other benefit of the Massachusetts data was the ability to control for first-time handgun buyers. Handguns account for 80-90% of guns used in homicides, and 60% of handguns purchased result in a suicide. Handguns are also the ones most commonly sold to untrained first-time gun buyers looking for protection.

Discussion and passage of legislation triggers increased sales as well, but not at the same rate of mass shootings. “When Sandy Hook happened (in 2012), every single state decided to start discussions on whether or not to pass gun control legislation. Massachusetts took about 14 months, because they put together a committee [that] decided to look at it across three different areas, in terms of licenses, background checks, and school violence/mental illness.”

Massachusetts held these round-table sessions, including both NRA representatives and anti-gun lobbying groups, and worked out a compromise.

“After discussions with both sides, medical experts, and scholars, we came to an agreement,” said Iwama, who participated in the process. “They changed the system so that rather than a background check taking an hour, they decided to refine it to 15 minutes, . . . to make it less cumbersome for people who are trying to legally purchase a firearm. So, that was addressing the pro-gun side.”

The anti-gun lobby also got a benefit, in the form of additional checks on purchasers and stricter recordkeeping. Residents must first take their petition for a license to their local police chief, who has some discretion to deny it based on their personal knowledge of the petitioner. Second, every prospective gun buyer must use a personal PIN to complete a gun sale, for better tracking. Finally, Massachusetts instituted their own state-level background check, which covers both criminal and public mental health records.

As a result, the state maintains the nation’s lowest rate of gun deaths, and there is no evidence that the new regulations deny guns to those legally entitled to them. “Once the legislation was passed, there was a slight uptick in denials, and then it went down to the same rate,” said Iwama. “[Either] people weren't as affected by the legislation as they thought, or police chiefs were just doing a very good job explaining to people why or why not they were denied the license.”

Iwama hopes that the Massachusetts story, with its unique control of data on gun sales and conciliatory policymaking, will inspire similar conversations in other states.

“I'm hoping that as we move towards - and I'm all about gun control - these discussions, we do so in a way that's not going to lead to pushing one group aside. I think it's better to have an open conversation, because at the end of the day, based on the Second Amendment right, if you are legally able to own a firearm, you should be able to own a firearm.”

She believes that other states could replicate this process and work towards similarly low gun death rates without knee-jerk shopping sprees.

“States should consider trying to engage in conversations with their constituents about what that gun control law would look like before suddenly passing it, in order to avoid a huge sudden cry for gun sales,” she said. “Conversations with both sides on how we're going to try to reduce the level of violence in our state leads to a smaller uptick of gun sales, which is our main concern.”

*photo credit: Marcin Wichary, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.