There’s a pattern that emerges in the wake of mass shootings in America. Immediately afterward, there is a flurry of criticism of America’s gun policies as opponents of new gun restrictions insist that victims be given time to mourn. Sometimes, new policies are actually presented. But eventually those measures fail and the clamor quiets and the NRA starts tweeting again about how guns make great Valentine’s Day presents.
For those who oppose new restrictions on gun sales and ownership, it’s advantageous to call for a period during which politics aren’t discussed. Express sympathy and keep your head down until cooler heads prevail. This is why the NRA’s Twitter account has gone relatively dark after recent massacres: Why give critics something to seize on?
You’ll notice that, as of this writing, the NRA hasn’t tweeted at all in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., nearly a week ago. The six-day hiatus is the longest the NRA’s account has gone without tweeting since early 2015, when the association tweeted far less regularly.
That’s a sign that perhaps something is different after this most recent shooting. It’s not the only such sign: The forceful advocacy of surviving students from the high school where the attack took place was unexpected and appears to have helped keep attention on the issue of combating such mass shootings in a way that hasn’t often happened. (Students who were at the school last Wednesday seemed to require no mourning period before taking to social media that same evening to criticize inaction on new gun laws.)
Other indicators about where the national conversation is headed, though, are less clear.
The Internet Archive has a database of captions from news shows that allows us to track mentions of “gun control” after several significant mass-shooting events. There’s often a flurry of conversation on the subject immediately after a shooting event that then fades.
After the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, a political discussion about banning “bump stocks” — devices that allowed the shooter to increase his rate of fire — soon collapsed. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, though, that conversation picked back up as President Barack Obama advocated for new regulations.
So far, the conversation after Parkland looks similar to past patterns.
The same holds for Google search interest in the subject of gun control. After a shooting, there’s often a spike in search for the subject that then slowly fades over the next few weeks. That is holding now, too, looking at the data on a daily basis.
After the shooting in Newtown, that interest picked back up as Congress considered new legislation.
Congress actually voted on new legislation shortly after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in mid-2016, spurring even more interest in gun control at that point than immediately after the shooting. Those votes failed.
After the massacre in Las Vegas, the spike was quick — and then faded quickly in the absence of new legislative proposals.
(Google Trends data compares relative search interest for a term. Each of the following searches shows a value of 100 as the peak interest in the term during the time period around each shooting. Search interest in “gun control” after Newtown was more than three times as high as interest after the shooting in Las Vegas.)
It’s too early to tell where the pattern will go after Parkland. The introduction of new gun control measures would shift how often people search for information about new legislation and how often the media covers it.
We can also look to the NRA’s Twitter account. When the National Rifle Association reaches a point that it feels it can promote its efforts without significant backlash, recent history has shown that it is usually correct.
Update: Shortly after this article was published, the NRA tweeted again.