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Are Gun Shows Dangerous?

Every time the subject of guns comes up, whether on this blog or elsewhere (see here, here, and here for a few examples), the resultant discussion is predictably passionate.

I am guessing that passionate gun discussions are taking place all over the country today with the news that an 8-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself over the weekend at a gun show in Massachusetts.

Every element of this incident — the age of the victim, the controls in place at the gun show, the fact that the gun was an Uzi — will surely be analyzed for many days to come. But it might be worth taking a step back from this single tragic incident and asking a broader question: are gun shows themselves dangerous?

That’s the question posed in a new working paper by Mark Duggan, Randi Hjalmarsson, and Brian A. Jacob (abstract here, PDF here). The paper is called “The Effect of Gun Shows on Gun-Related Deaths: Evidence From California and Texas.” And here is the abstract:

Thousands of gun shows take place in the U.S. each year. Gun control advocates argue that because sales at gun shows are much less regulated than other sales, such shows make it easier for potential criminals to obtain a gun.

Similarly, one might be concerned that gun shows would exacerbate suicide rates by providing individuals considering suicide with a more lethal means of ending their lives. On the other hand, proponents argue that gun shows are innocuous, since potential criminals can acquire guns quite easily through other black market sales or theft. In this paper, we use data from Gun and Knife Show Calendar combined with vital statistics data to examine the effect of gun shows. We find no evidence that gun shows lead to substantial increases in either gun homicides or suicides. In addition, tighter regulation of gun shows does not appear to reduce the number of firearms-related deaths.

Duggan in particular has done a lot of gun research, some of which suggests that more guns generally equal more crime, not less. So it is an interesting twist, to say the very least, that gun shows themselves do not seem to exact a societal cost.

The family and friends of the 8-year-old boy will of course take no solace in this conclusion. But it is a good reminder that when something tragic (and anomalous) spurts up in the daily news, we shouldn’t rush to instantly paint it as representative of the larger picture.