Newswise — New research co-authored by a UNC Charlotte health analytics professor is illuminating the connection between violent attacks, the gun control debate, and Americans’ interest in purchasing firearms.

Using time series analysis of Internet search trends, Dr. Laura Gunn, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, and colleagues found that while violent attacks cause interest in gun control to spike, the rise in gun control debate may lead to increases in searches related to purchasing a gun more than the violent attacks themselves.

“While we suspected that there would be some impact of gun control debate on gun ownership interest, we did not expect the extent to which this is occurring.  We expected gun violence would be the leader in triggering individuals’ desire to own guns, but we found evidence that it could be gun control debate that triggers more interest in ownership,” Gunn said of the research, published in the journal PLOS One.

The researchers used the website Google Trends to collect the data.  “Google Trends provides information about online searches over time, which can provide a window into the dynamics of interests around particular topics.  Such data can be used to determine causal effects, both concurrent and lagged, among topics,” Gunn explained.

She continues describing its implications: “This is especially useful in research around controversial topics, for which individuals may be hesitant to provide honest responses to surveys depending on political, environmental, ideological, or sociocultural climates - sometimes locally defined.  National-level surveys may also be financially prohibitive or logistically unfeasible, such as those administered over time across wide geographical areas.”

According to Gunn, many gun control advocates may over-rely on research stressing its societal benefits, arguments that can ring hollow with those favoring broad ownership rights who focus on perceived individual safety.

Indeed, in a 2018 NBC News poll, nearly six in ten Americans say they believe gun ownership increases safety.

“We could inform individuals that the number of murders may be cut in half due to gun control, but they may respond that they could be on the adverse side of that statistic upon its implementation,” Gunn said.

This, along with the history of legislative inaction on the subject, suggests a revaluation of the current form of gun debate itself may be necessary to achieve its intended outcome, the authors argue.

“Gun control debate in the form of ‘we need more gun control’ has not seemed to lead to improved outcomes,” Gunn said. “The solution may involve a longer-term definition of a society that results in both polarized sides of the spectrum initially being somewhat unhappy in order to find a more moderate solution that could begin to lead to societal improvements.”

The researchers note that fruitful debate on guns is challenging in a society where debate is increasingly internet-based.

“The internet provides a shield behind which many individuals say whatever they wish without concern for others, without a face-to-face dialogue. People [also] stick to their preferred news source online or surround themselves with those with similar viewpoints, and it seems that this only polarizes individuals further,” said Gunn.

In order to move away from these ineffective approaches, the researchers conclude that ultimately, an effective gun control debate could be instead founded on providing solutions to the underlying causes driving reactive gun purchase interests, rather than further marketing entrenched perspectives.