The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How soon we forget mass shootings

People pray during a candlelight vigil in Roseburg, Oregon late on Oct. 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Cengiz Yar Jr.

America has been through so many mass shootings that our cynicism now creeps in early, while we're still in mourning.

"I hope and pray that I don't have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances," President Obama said Thursday, hours after the latest mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, and 15 months before the end of his presidency. "But based on my experiences as president, I can't guarantee that, and that is a terrible thing."

We know that we'll move on, and nothing will change, and then we'll be here again. And then, once more, we'll cringe at the headlines and consider family photos of the victims, and we'll move on again. The half-life of mass shooting stories is short, the byproduct of a climate where there is seldom strong-enough political momentum for real change to carry any one tragedy forward.

Newtown nearly was the exception, a shooting so appalling it threatened to linger with us for months. But that story too had a too-short life, as weekly public interest in Google Trends shows:

Look through the tool, which reflects public anxieties and obsessions through our Internet searches, and the same pattern recurs. Our attention span for a mass shooting lasts a month at most, rarely more. It doesn't gradually recede with time as memories often do; it disappears, abruptly.

These graphs show relative interest, not absolute search numbers (the line above is relative to its own high point). But in doing so, they capture the spiky shape of public interest.

Here are five recent mass shootings, including Newtown, relative to each other:

Pull out each tragedy individually, and you get charts like this:

Sometimes the searches remind us of repeat tragedies – locations and phrases threatened by gun violence more than once – with remarkable silence between interest peaks.

Earlier tragedies sometimes have a small renewed life in public debate when another shooting overwhelms the news. These events, though, are otherwise largely disconnected from each other, barely building a case over time.