A high-profile mass shooting predictably sparks appeals from pro-reform voices for national conversations about gun violence; just as predictably, those conversations tend to be short-lived, trailing off until the next shooting revives public attention. In his remarks the day after the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Barack Obama invoked this cycle: “[At] some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

But how much do mass shootings actually ignite discussion beyond politicians, pundits, and activists — how much appetite for the issue exists among the public at large? And what subsequently shifts focus away from the conversations that do happen? Cutting-edge techniques in social-media data analysis offer insight into this process. Research provided to The Trace by Crimson Hexagon, a Massachusetts-based social-media analytics firm, reveals two things. First, despite some claims to the contrary, there was indeed a robust interest in talking about gun violence and gun rights in the days immediately after the Charleston shooting. Second, by the start of the following week’s news cycle, that conversation had been supplanted by something else: debate over the Confederate battle flag.

Click to expand. [Graphic: Crimson Hexagon for The Trace]
Click to expand. [Graphic: Crimson Hexagon for The Trace]

The Emanuel AME Church shooting occurred at approximately 9 p.m. on Wednesday, June 17; reports began to spread across social media around 10 p.m. The alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, was apprehended midday on Thursday, June 18. Capturing the entire output of the Twitter “firehose” for the next seven days, Crimson Hexagon’s information documents a striking trend. An intense volume of Twitter traffic throughout that weekend revolved around the subjects of gun violence, gun control, and gun laws, including keywords and hashtags like “gun rights” and “2A” (for Second Amendment). In other words, an authentic conversation about guns was happening, and it was happening across the ideological spectrum, involving members of both violence-prevention and pro-gun circles.

Yet as the news cycle took shape on Monday, June 22, the conversation about gun violence dwindled amid headlines about the Confederate battle flag flying beside the South Carolina Capitol and in other locations throughout the South. Juxtaposing the volume of traffic on both topics reveals an almost direct shift in traffic volume from one conversation to the other. At their peak on Thursday, June 18, messages about gun violence and gun control amounted to some nearly 200,000 tweets. By Monday, June 22, they had dropped to around 75,000. By that Tuesday, the volume was below 50,000. Meanwhile, tweets about the Confederate flag clocked in at just about 100,00 on Thursday, dipped, and then took off steadily on the 21st, numbering at around 125,000 by Wednesday.

The temptation is to try to pinpoint a single event that prompted this pivot. But that is easier said than done. NAACP National President Cornell William Brooks called for the flag to be removed on Friday, June 19; erstwhile presidential candidate Mitt Romney echoed that sentiment in a tweet on Saturday morning. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley reversed her previous support for the flag in a press conference late in the afternoon on Monday, June 22, at which she was also joined by GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (another fresh anti-flag convert), and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.

The next day, Cam Edwards, host of the NRA’s web series “Cam & Co,” stated: “We do want to have a debate, or at least we do want to talk about the confederate flag … but not many of us are really interested in pushing for more gun control.” By then the cascade of retailers pulling Dixie flag–branded merchandise from their shelves was underway. The Black Lives Matter movement promoted a petition calling for the flag’s removal; it garnered more than 650,000 signatures. The volume of Twitter messages about guns never recovered.

It’s not unreasonable to imagine that Americans are capable of carrying on critical debates over both guns and the Confederate flag at the same time. Certainly, the debate about the flag is one worth having. But comprehensive data from a social-media platform indicating that the country seems largely incapable of engaging with both issues so suggests some unfortunate limits in the bandwidth of national political discourse. The extent to which these limits might be a function of our collective cognitive and emotional capacity to grapple with two hot-button issues in the wake of a national tragedy is an open question. Less debatable, however, is that this shift in conversation mirrors both the interests and expressed preferences of numerous influential players.

When high-end rifle manufacturer PTR Industries announced its post-Newtown relocation from Connecticut to Myrtle Beach in 2013, Governor Haley welcomed the company with open arms. As she explained at the time: “Our economy is pro-business, it’s very friendly, we will never surprise them, and they know all they have to do is focus on their profit margins and their cash flow and hire more people and expand. We will stay out of their way and let them do their jobs.”

Haley reiterated this rhetoric of friendliness in her press conference the Monday after the Emanuel Church Shooting, observing that South Carolina was “recently named the friendliest state in the country.” Haley also suggested that part of the process of healing involved not “talking about issues that divide us” but instead focusing on the “offensive symbol” that is the Confederate flag. And despite the intense emotions stirred up by the flag and the practices and attitudes it represents, the push to take it down has indeed been characterized by remarkable bipartisan amity. Meanwhile, it’s true that, when gun rights and gun violence are the topic of debate, things can get unfriendly fast. But it’s also true that a lot more than hurt feelings and symbolism are at stake.

[Photo: Flickr user Juan Lupión]