Gun policy leads Newtown shooting discussion on Twitter

Tweets discussing gun control outpaced even prayers for the victims.

President Obama and many other lawmakers seemed to shift almost immediately after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Friday from expressing sympathy for the victims to promoting policy changes including increased gun control and mental health services.

There was a palpable sense that this shooting had galvanized political action in a way that previous acts of violence had not. That sense was mirrored by citizens at large on social media it turns out.

In the three days following the shooting, gun policy discussions made up 28 percent of Twitter posts about the tragedy, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That beat out even prayers and expressions of sympathy, which accounted for 25 percent of tweets.

In the days following the Tuscon shooting that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., by contrast, just 3 percent of social media conversations addressed gun control.

Tweets advocating stricter gun control also significantly outpaced tweets opposing changes to current gun control laws, 64 percent to 21 percent, the study said. 14 percent of tweets were neutral.

Gun control has only risen to the top of the social media conversation a few times during the past several years, the report said, such as when the Supreme Court overturned municipal laws limiting gun ownership rights. During those periods, gun control opponents typically matched or outweighed advocates on Twitter, the report said.

It’s unlikely that the public’s focus on gun control was driven significantly by the president’s quick pivot to the topic, Amy Mitchell, acting director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said in an email.

“In the days we studied -- Friday afternoon through noon on Monday -- response to Obama’s actions and remarks surrounding the shooting only made up 6 percent of the conversation on Twitter and 8 percent on blogs,” she said. “And, the preponderance of calls for gun law reform over protection of gun rights was there from the beginning, i.e. already 3:1 on Twitter by midnight Friday and more than 2:1 on blogs. Thus, while we cannot draw direct cause and effect, it would not seem that Obama was a driver of the focus on gun law reform.”

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