Police tape was still blowing in the breeze Tuesday in Washington's Navy Yard when conversation turned from the shooting that claimed 12 innocent lives to gun control. The shift was not unexpected—debate over gun laws in the United States naturally spikes immediately after mass shootings. But, as history has shown, the conversation will inevitably die out within a few months.
The story of the boom-and-bust of national interest in the gun debate can be documented using Google Trends. In the past six years, the popularity of the search term "gun laws" in the U.S. remained steady, save for in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings.
The lone spike early on, in 2007, coincided with that April's shooting at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were killed. The slight uptick in November 2009 coincided with the Fort Hood shooting, in which an Army major fatally shot 13 people and wounded more than 30 others on a military base in Texas. The spike in January 2011 follows the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and severely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head at point-blank range.
A later jump in searches, this one larger than earlier ones, coincided with the shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that claimed the lives of 12 people and injured 70 others. The biggest spike on the chart, starting on December 2012 and lasting well into the New Year, was a result of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Conn., in which 20 children and six teachers died.
Search volume for the term "gun laws" during this time was its relative highest in Alaska, Arizona, and Wyoming, states with some of the country’s most lenient gun laws.
The search term “gun control” follows a similar trajectory, but saw a bigger spike this spring when several pieces of gun-control legislation reached the Senate floor, and then failed. Interest peaked again in Wyoming, as well as in Idaho and West Virginia, states with similarly lax gun legislation.
The most revealing chart, however, may be this one, which shows the birth and growth of what the term “gun debate” means today in the United States. In 2004, people googled “gun debate” to learn more about an actual debate: a presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry on domestic policy, in which the pair sparred over gun legislation. Today, people who Google “gun debate” are searching for something completely different: What a string of devastating mass shootings means for the nation's gun laws.