Public Health

When mass shootings get big media play, firearm purchases often rise

Nearly 40% of major mass shootings were followed by a significant rise or fall in Americans buying guns, a new study says, with researchers concluding that understanding the mechanisms propelling these choices will be an important part of the public health community’s response to future gun violence.

The analysis published in JAMA Network Open showed that when major mass shootings—defined as five or more people being injured or killed—had a high number of fatalities, the incident was more likely to be linked to a drop in handgun purchases.

Among the 124 major mass shootings between November 1998 and April 2016, sales fell 18% of the time based on a cross-sectional study of federal monthly data on background checks for all firearm purchases, handgun permits and long gun permits.

On the flip side, handgun purchases rose after a mass shooting 21% of the time. That phenomenon showed an association with mass shootings that received extensive media coverage, defined as 1,000 or more articles being published about a shooting within a month.

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Why do gun sales rise?

The study authors, from the University of Oxford in the U.K. and the University of Pennsylvania, looked separately at background checks for handgun permits and long-gun permits to differentiate between two major hypotheses in why gun purchases increase at certain times.

One notion is that people buy guns because they fear being victimized. Another is that people purchase firearms when they believe gun-control measures—often called for in the wake of mass shootings—will restrict what they can buy in the future.

The researchers found that handgun purchases rose when there was an extensive amount of media coverage.

“As the media coverage that mass shootings receive is disproportionate and frequently sensationalized, it thus inspires fear and motivates gun purchases for self-defense,” wrote the authors, Gina Liu and Douglas J. Wiebe, PhD.

They also noted that “as the shooters race/ethnicity and ideological motivation are also associated with an increase in the extent of media coverage as well as with its content, media focus on the perpetrator rather than the victims may also contribute to increasing handgun purchases.”

The findings seem to buttress policy adopted at the 2018 AMA Interim Meeting that encourages the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public and private organizations “to develop recommendations or best practices for coverage of mass shootings.”

In an April 18 letter to CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, noted research suggesting “that a mass-shooting incident increases the probability of another mass shooting in the immediate future.” He added that “analysis of media coverage of mass shootings followed by imitation or copycat incidents of mass shootings indicate a possible media contagion effect.”

Dr. Madara wrote that “the AMA agrees that the way the media reports on an event can play a role in increasing the probability of imitation.”

Organizations such as the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and the Advances Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University and the FBI have recommended that news organizations shift their attention from a sensationalized focus on perpetrators to a deeper, empathetic portrayal of mass-shooting victims and their families.

Dr. Madara encouraged the CDC to review these recommendations with other stakeholders and examine a way forward. The goal is not a ban on news coverage of mass shootings, but to provide evidence-based advice that can help prevent copycat mass shootings.

The AMA recognizes firearm-related violence as a public health crisis in the U.S., causing tens of thousands of deaths annually. The media coverage policy is a part of extensive AMA policy on firearm safety and violence prevention, including support for gun-violence restraining orders, tougher background checks and better data collection.

Lower sales “unexpected finding”

The JAMA Network Open study authors did not expect to discover that there was a drop in gun sales after 18% of the mass shootings that they analyzed. They noted that some of the shooting events associated with decreases happened shortly after extremely high-profile mass shootings that were followed by an increase in gun purchases.

To better understand the effects mass shootings have on overall gun purchases, more information needs to be gathered on private gun sales. That is because an estimated 50% of these sales aren’t subjected to background checks, the study authors wrote. They also noted that studying what happens in a specific region or urban area after a mass shooting could garner more information than they were able to gather from a national database. The AMA supports the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019.

They concluded that their findings also invite “further study into the mechanisms driving gun purchase changes, holding implications for public health response to future gun violence.” The AMA has consistently called for greater state and federal funding of research on gun violence and is working with the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine to raise private-sector funding for firearm-injury prevention research.