Guns and Social Network Reactions

By Daniel Burton

I think it would be safe to say that very few of political watchers had gun regulation on the radar in the days before the Sandy Hook shootings. Since…well, it’s hard to talk about anything else (and not just because the fiscal cliff story is the least-interesting-and-most-difficult-to-understand-but-perhaps-most-important-story this year).

With that i
n mind, I asked a couple friends over at PoliticIt to take a look at what trends they saw in social media immediately before and immediately after the Newtown shooting. (PoliticIt, if you’ve not heard of it before, is the brainchild of Josh Light and Sterling Morris. They collect data from social networks, the internet, and “the real world” to create a measure of politicians digital influence that accurately predicts electoral success.)

They showed me some interesting things. First, the number of comments on Twitter (or “tweets”) about gun laws rose dramatically.

Clearly, people felt passionately about the gun laws, whether it was the need for more of them or the opposition to their proliferation. Another piece of information that came back from PoliticIt was the tone surrounding the tweets, and while tone is hard to define in the digital world, some words can tend to indicate a positive or negative tone.

The PoliticIt guys noticed that while there was a slightly negative tone in tweets around “gun laws,” tweets that discussed “mental health” received more positive response. This seems to follow an observation I’ve made during the subsequent ten days since the shooting, and that is this: while people seem to be very much divided and equivocal about what should happen with guns—i.e. how should the Second Amendment (for an interesting review of how the Supreme Court has applied the Second Amendment, see this post) be applied: to require registrations? To outlaw certain firearms? etc—there is much more support for looking at the mental health of individual seeking to acquire firearms.

That is, none of us seem to think it’s a good idea to allow the mentally ill to have access to deadly weapons. Interestingly, the chatter on Twitter remained divided, but fell in volume within only a few days after the shooting reflecting, perhaps, that our ability to retain and maintain a conversation after our initial outburst was limited.

A couple more observations from PoliticIt on their sample using the hashtag #gunlaws:

  • 52% of tweets referencing gun control were “pro-gun” while 61% of tweets just referencing guns were supportive of Second Amendment rights.
  • Despite the broadcast of President Obama’s comments over network and cable television calling for more gun regulation, the sample did not find any reference to the comments. Either people just didn’t care or they didn’t find his comments were noting.
  • Anti-gun commentary seemed to focus on the need to restrict certain guns, commented on the intelligence of gun owners, made appeals to call your local elected official, or discussed Australia’s gun regulations.

Zeitgeist? A word map from the sample: 

Two things that PoliticIt saw tweeted, and retweeted, several times included this quote from Ronald Reagan and an article by Thomas Sowell:

Sowell argues in his piece that those calling for more regulation are acting on emotion, not facts. The following is what I thought was a pertinent part of his piece:

The key fallacy of so-called gun control laws is that such laws do not in fact control guns. They simply disarm law-abiding citizens, while people bent on violence find firearms readily available.

If gun control zealots had any respect for facts, they would have discovered this long ago, because there have been too many factual studies over the years to leave any serious doubt about gun control laws being not merely futile but counterproductive.

Places and times with the strongest gun control laws have often been places and times with high murder rates. Washington, D.C., is a classic example, but just one among many. When it comes to the rate of gun ownership, that is higher in rural areas than in urban areas, but the murder rate is higher in urban areas. The rate of gun ownership is higher among whites than among blacks, but the murder rate is higher among blacks. For the country as a whole, hand gun ownership doubled in the late 20th century, while the murder rate went down.

What of the NRA?

Naturally, the National Rifle Association has come under fire for its Second Amendment advocacy. How has it been affected on social media? The NRA had just under 69,000 followers on Twitter (@NRA) before the shooting and was adding about 1,500 a day. After the shooting, the NRA added 8,989 followers, or 471% of their average growth. After Wayne LaPierre addressed reporters at a press conference on December 21, that average grew 3,100 followers a day (according to Twitter Counter).

Is there any correlation between politics and homicide by firearm?

Another question that I saw, and that the PoliticIt guys researched, was the number of deaths by firearms compared with how states voted during the recent presidential election. Here’s the graphic they created:

The graph shows which states voted for Obama versus the number of murders by firearms per 100,000 people. Nationally, 2.75 people out of every 100,000 are killed by firearms.

It appears that blue states and red states fall on both sides of the line without any clear division. Some states are far higher than the national average, though, including Mississippi, Louisiana and the District of Columbia, all of which exceed the furthest deviation below the average (Hawaii) by almost two. The District of Columbia, with some of the nation’s strictest gun laws (can one even carry a gun in D.C.?) has the highest per capita rates of murder by firearm in the nation.

Other states with strict gun laws that exceed the national average include Illinois (just barely), New Jersey, California, and New York. On the other hand, Utah, where I live, has some fewest gun regulations and is below the national average. I’m not sure that gun regulations, or how voters vote in national elections, is the right place to look for determining what states are likely to see murder by firearm, but it is interesting.

Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on Twitter as @publiusdb or on his blog where he muses on books, politics and ideas.


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