THURSDAY, Dec. 7, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Firearm sales surged following the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, when it appeared the United States might adopt tougher gun control laws.
But that flood of new guns put people in harm's way rather than adding to their safety and security, a new study reports.
Accidental deaths related to firearms increased 27 percent in the months following Sandy Hook, including a 64 percent increase in gun-related deaths of children, said senior researcher Robin McKnight.
That likely is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall effect on public safety, added McKnight, who is an associate professor of economics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
"What we know in general is that there are about 12 times as many nonfatal firearm accidents as there are fatal gun accidents," McKnight said. "The public health consequences of the increase in gun sales are probably larger than what we found in our paper."
On Dec. 14, 2012, a disturbed 20-year-old man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and shot to death 20 children and six adults. In the aftermath, President Barack Obama spoke passionately about the need to prevent future tragedies through gun control.
The call for gun control backfired. McKnight estimates that 3 million additional guns were sold in the four months following Sandy Hook, above the sales that normally would have taken place during that timeframe.
Firearm sales exhibited specific spikes immediately after Obama suggested particular gun control measures on Jan. 16, 2013, and when he discussed the proposed legislation in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, 2013, McKnight said.
"I don't think it's actually a response so much to Sandy Hook and the tragedy there as it is to the political discussion following it," McKnight said.
There's evidence that people also dug through closets and gun safes for weapons they already owned, McKnight said. Google searches that included the term "clean gun" spiked post-Sandy Hook.
"You see not just an interest in buying guns, but you also see interest in cleaning guns," McKnight said. "We can't rule out the possibility that part of what is going on is people are taking stock of what they already own, handling guns they already own, pulling things out of storage. That's part of the risk as well."
This increase in exposure to firearms -- people bringing new guns into their homes or cleaning the guns they already owned -- appeared to have increased people's risk of getting shot and killed, the researchers found.
There was a fourfold increase in accidental gun deaths involving children in states that had the largest gun sales increases following Sandy Hook, compared with states that had modest sales increases, the findings showed.
Essentially, the United States faces a conundrum in dealing with gun violence. Serious discussion of gun control laws leads to increased public interest in firearms, which apparently results in more people being shot and killed.
"It's basically a catch-22," McKnight said. "It's possible there would be sufficient long-term benefits associated with those sorts of policies that it would still be worthwhile, but this definitely means there are short-term costs to having these policy discussions."
The safest way to enact tougher gun control in America might be to move fast when the time is right, McKnight said.
"You would want to enact policies quickly," she said. "You don't want to have a lengthy debate about them. The longer you discuss it, the higher the cost."
Another researcher who has investigated post-Sandy Hook gun sales isn't sure that all firearm purchases were motivated by concern over gun control.
"I think there are a mix of things going on there," said David Studdert, a professor of medicine and law at Stanford Law School. "One plausible reason people buy is because they are scared. They feel unnerved by what has happened."
Fears over a short-term increase in deaths and injuries shouldn't keep legislators and policy experts from considering gun control, Studdert added.
"If legislators actually followed through on some meaningful gun control measures, like universal background checks, then it might be more difficult for some of these events to occur in the future," Studdert said.
HealthDay asked the National Rifle Association to comment on the new study, but received no reply.
The findings were published Dec. 8 in the journal Science.
For more on gun violence, visit the U.S. National Institute of Justice.