What Google can show us about our reaction to mass shootings.

If you watched the news Wednesday or the following morning, you heard of yet another mass shooting.

This one in San Bernardino, California.


Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images News.

It was the 1,042nd mass shooting since Sandy Hook in December 2012.

Not again, you think, as you scour the Internet for details.

You come across a report with "live updates" like this one from the LA Times. 14 people have died, 17 are injured. Police have killed two suspects, a man and a woman, and another one is in custody.

You and millions of others turn to Google, where you type in the location of this shooting. You tweet or update Facebook about your rage, your frustration that this has happened again, your despair that politicians will still do nothing to protect you or anyone else from the next mass shooting. Because there will be more. The pattern will repeat itself. We know this. We've seen this.

Then you probably forget about it for a bit. Until news about the next mass shooting breaks.

A candlelight vigil after the WDBJ shooting in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

According to Google Trends, interest in a mass shooting peaks on the day of or the day after, and then almost immediately drops off the day after that.

This is what happened with the WDBJ shooting in Roanoke, where Vester Flanagan shot and killed Alison Parker and Adam Ward on Aug. 26, 2015 during a live report.

U.S.-specific search interest for "WDBJ shooting" peaked on Aug. 26 (represented on the chart by the number 100), but then quickly dropped off on Aug. 27.

This was the day that major outlets like the New York Times reported on one of the victim's fathers calling for gun control.

During the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where nine people were killed just a few months ago, U.S. search interest peaked the day after the shooting on Oct. 2, then rapidly faded by Oct. 3, just one day later.

And if two is a coincidence, three is a pattern — the same search behavior can be seen of the Isla Vista shooting, where Elliot Rodger killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara on May 23, 2014.

It's not just these three. It repeats when you look up the trends for the mass shootings in Marysville, Washington; Charleston, South Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee, and others.

We care about these tragedies. We care about gun control. Why do we lose interest so fast?

Maybe because we get burnt out quickly on the tragic details. Maybe a few days in, we're being bombarded by information and have less need to seek it out.

Maybe there's nothing to do but get angry for one day — a few at the most — and then move on.

Maybe after so much death and so little being done about it, we feel there's no hope of any meaningful gun control legislation passing Congress, of any laws or initiatives addressing related issues like the misogyny behind Rodgers' attack, or the anti-abortion rhetoric that motivated last week's Planned Parenthood shooting.

If there were a time to enact gun control, you'd think that the tragic loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where 20 children and their teachers were gunned down almost three years ago, would have been it.


There were three-fifths as many "Sandy Hook" searches from Jan. 13-19, 2013, when President Barack Obama announced a four-point legislative plan to prevent gun violence. Yet by April 14-20, 2013, we had moved on, and the proposed legislation failed to pass, even in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

We want solutions, but have we somehow failed to demonstrate significant, lasting outrage over them?

Maybe we know Congress won't stand up to a powerful gun lobby on behalf of their constituents, as CNN reported after the Senate defeat.

But if we don't search, and if we don't speak out beyond a day after a mass shooting, when solutions are so obvious and have been enacted successfully in every other developed country in the world, then it's on us when nothing changes.

A mere three days after the San Bernardino shooting, the search pattern is already following the trend of the shootings that came before it.

The day after Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, a Senate amendment expanding background checks at gun shows and for online purchases — and one that would ban people on the terrorism watch list from purchasing guns — were rejected.

By that day, search interest in the shooting dropped to almost zero.

If we want things to change, we can't let our attention waver. Writer Nicole Silverberg put together a guide on how to contact your elected officials, along with a sample email and phone scripts and tips from Everytown for Gun Safety.

Let's break this cycle. It may seem difficult now, but we have the anger, and we have the tools. Let's use them to make things change for the better.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
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