Federal gun violence research has been banned for years. Now researchers are getting around it — with Google.


(Photo by Flickr user Robert Nelson, used under a Creative Commons license)

Over at the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog, KiDeuk Kim and Sam Bieler explore using Google Trends data to track gun purchases in the United States. They looked at the frequency of several gun-related search terms, such as "buy gun" and "buy a gun," normalized them, and plotted them over time. Their findings?

The resulting graph [below] reveals how effectively search data can track public interest. Media outlets reported increased interest in gun laws and ownership after both the election of Barack Obama in November 2008 and the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. Search engine data offer new support for these reports, showing spikes in related search-engine activity around both events.


They also found that those figured correlated with background check data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). 

Why the need for all this big-data sorcery? For one, there's an NRA-backed blackout of gun data in the United States: "There are no publicly available counts of how many guns are bought or sold in America — such a registry is illegal at the federal level, and states don’t have any consistent data on gun ownership," Kim and Bieler write.

The NRA and their supporters in Congress also famously and ferociously oppose any federal funding for gun violence research. It's hard to see the rationale behind this --- if our national gun culture is as benign as its supporters argue, better data would presumably reflect that. By opposing the research that could help make guns safer in America, gun-rights advocates are simply shooting themselves in the foot. 

 

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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