Google searches for "gun control" and "Confederate flag" in the last 30 days
A new CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday might help explain the difference. In the wake of the Charleston attack, 64 percent of Americans are skeptical that any action by "government or society" (in the pollster's words) would prevent similar attacks in the future. Only 35 percent think changes would help. That's about the same split that we saw in the wake of the killings in Tucson in 2011 that severely injured then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.).
But after the killing of 20 elementary school students at Sandy Hook in 2012, there was a stronger feeling that the problem could be addressed -- even as a majority was still skeptical.
It's not clear why that difference exists. One possibility: Both the 2011 and 2012 surveys were conducted a few days after President Obama held a service to commemorate the victims. At the Tucson service, Obama spoke obliquely about new gun control measures. After Newtown, he was direct.
"We can't tolerate this anymore," he said that December. "... No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can't be an excuse for inaction." He moved quickly on executive action to try and rein in gun violence, and he pushed for new legislation in Congress. It failed the following April, despite a surge in popular support.
What's also interesting in the new CNN polling data is that there's still some optimism that gun control could be useful. Asked if stricter laws would reduce the amount of violence in the country, 39 percent of all Americans say yes -- but 64 percent of black Americans do. Asked if stricter laws would reduce the number of gun-related deaths, the figures are similar: 40 percent of all Americans and 62 percent of blacks say yes.
But on the question above, there is no distinction between white and black. Sixty-four percent of white Americans are skeptical we can prevent mass killings; 62 percent of black Americans agree.
There's likely some overlap with partisan politics here, but it's hard to say how much.
Americans seem to think that the (relatively) unique phenomenon of mass shooting incidents in the United States is unavoidable. Perhaps that's because they keep happening. Perhaps it's because the push in the wake of Newtown was unsuccessful. Perhaps it's for any one of a thousand possible reasons.
But it probably helps explain why the conversation after Charleston was about endemic racism and a controversial flag instead of a new, likely futile debate on new gun regulations.