The work by two Wellesley College economists tackles one of the biggest questions in gun research: how to measure the relationship between gun prevalence and gun deaths. For decades, hamstrung by lack of funding and the politically charged landscape surrounding gun control, researchers have lacked data to try to answer that question.
With no federal or state databases of gun ownership to work from, for example, researchers have struggled to definitively correlate deaths to the presence of guns in homes. They have grappled with what conditions would best determine the factors — gun sales, different state laws, the type of guns available — that might affect gun violence and death.
By seizing on the surge of firearm purchases after the 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the Wellesley team essentially set up an experimental model to study what happens after such a sudden increase in gun sales.
Neither of the two statisticians who conducted the research — Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight — had worked on gun violence before. McKnight had mostly looked at health insurance issues, and Levine at such social policies as teen pregnancy. They launched their study after seeing a chart in a newspaper showing the sharp upturn in gun sales after Sandy Hook. “It brought up so many questions,” Levine said.
The two scrutinized weekly search data from Google, which showed that terms like “buy a gun” increased fourfold as President Barack Obama began pushing for new gun restrictions.