The Boom and Bust of National Interest in Gun Laws, According to Google

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 17, 2013, 11:11 a.m.

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.

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