Across the United States, students left class on Wednesday in a public call for new regulations limiting gun ownership. The walkout was a response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., one month ago and was intended to sustain the momentum on the issue initiated by Stoneman Douglas students.
Google indicated that searches for “walkout” were well above where they had been at any other point in the past, an indicator of unusual interest in the subject. The mass student walkout was almost certainly the largest such national event since at least the outset of the Iraq War in 2003.
From the standpoint of keeping attention focused on the issue, the timing of the walkouts may have been critical. While there was an unusually sustained interest in the subject of gun control in the days after the Parkland shooting relative to past massacres, that interest had started to fade.
Search interest in “gun control” in the United States was at its third-highest point in Google’s history last month. It trailed only the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and the unsuccessful push for new gun regulations the following spring.
In the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history in October, when a gunman opened fire on concertgoers in Las Vegas, interest in gun control faded quickly on Google.
(The lines above indicate search interest around various mass-shooting incidents. Peaks of 100 are relative to the period around each shooting.)
After the Newtown massacre, the subject stuck around a bit longer, reinvigorated about a month later as then-President Barack Obama pushed for new gun regulations.
The same thing happened after the shooting in Orlando in June 2016. A push for new regulations in the Senate led to a spike in search interest.
After Parkland, there was more sustained search interest than is normal, though it has been fading in recent days.
Notice the uptick at the end there. That is preliminary data on Wednesday’s search interest. If the spike rises significantly, it suggests that the student walkouts were successful in reinvigorating the public conversation.
Another way to look at it is by considering mentions of “gun control” on cable news broadcasts. The Internet Archive has a database of captions from news shows that allows us to see coverage after several recent incidents. After Newtown, the conversation picked up again with the new push for regulations. After Orlando and Vegas, it petered out.
The conversation after Parkland was fairly steady, until the last week or so. There are no data yet for Wednesday.
Wednesday’s walkouts are the first of a two-part push for continued awareness initiated by the students from Parkland. The second is a planned rally on March 24, called the March for Our Lives. It will be interesting to see whether these actions can effectively re-center attention on the gun debate given all of the other things competing for Americans’ attention.
It is worth noting, too, the difference between the Parkland aftermath and other shootings. After Newtown and Orlando, legislative efforts kept attention focused on guns over the short term. After Parkland, there hasn’t been significant legislative action — so the students have taken it upon themselves to draw attention to the subject.