After Parkland, Student Activists Have Kept Our Focus on Gun Safety
What Resistbot data can tell us about how we respond to mass shootings.
by Sohan Murthy
Today, thousands of students across the nation walked out of class to protest gun violence. Almost a month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead, the debate over gun control has taken on a new form thanks in large part to student activism.
Unlike previous mass shootings for which we have data, after Parkland Resistbot users kept up pressure on their legislators to write common sense gun laws. To date, over 92,000 messages related to gun safety have been sent to Congress.
Immediately after the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings, we noticed large spikes in messages related to gun safety. But in the weeks that followed, the overall share of messages dropped precipitously. A week after both events, less than 20% of messages were related to gun safety. The news cycles moved on, and other issues like healthcare and immigration came to the forefront.
However, after Parkland, the daily share of messages related to gun safety remained significantly higher than Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs. Seven days onward, more than 70% of messages sent to Congress were related to gun safety.
Nationally, 42% of messages sent to Congress since the Parkland shooting have been related to gun safety. In Florida, that number is 68% — the highest in the nation, tied only with Nebraska.
Here’s what you can do
But wait, there’s more!
- Send MARCH to Resistbot to find your nearest #MarchForOurLives event on March 24
- Send NRA to Resistbot to see how much money the NRA has spent in direct and outside funding, both for and against your current elected officials.
- Send GUNS to Resistbot to see how many gun bills your officials have sponsored or co-sponsored since 2013
Methodology and other considerations
To determine which messages were related to gun safety, we first pulled a sample of over 68,000 messages (anonymized to protect user privacy) sent between Feb. 14 and March 7, 2018 and fitted them to a topic model via latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) using the tidytext package in R. The topic model resolved several groupings, including messages related to DACA and net neutrality. Gun safety messages contained the following phrases and keywords, which were used to filter the original set of over 10 million messages:
gun control, gun regulation, gun laws, gun legislation, gun violence, assault weapon, assault rifle, mass shootings, school shootings, AR-15, background checks, bump stocks, National Rifle Association, NRA
(Variations in spelling, spacing, punctuation, and capitalization were considered.)
These results must be presented with an interesting caveat: Resistbot actively encourages users to write to their elected officials about gun safety, starting on Feb. 18 with the launch of the NRA feature.
Our volunteers will probably tell you that they were strongly motivated by student activism to develop this feature over a weekend, but the fact remains that these three events — Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland — aren’t perfectly comparable in our data.
The effect of the bot itself can cut both ways, though. On Feb. 27, 2018, Resistbot sent a message to a large number of users encouraging them to weigh in about the CRA to save net neutrality. This likely explains the sharp drop in share of messages related to gun safety 13 days after the Parkland shooting, as many more users were writing about net neutrality instead. The share of messages related to gun safety picked back up shortly after.
While I try to be as politically objective as possible in these posts, I feel it necessary to state how deeply saddening it is to me personally that in less than a year of working with Resistbot data, we have three data points on mass shootings for which to analyze. I believe gun violence is a uniquely American tragedy that can be ended with common sense laws, such as repealing the Dickey Amendment, which currently prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence. As a data scientist, I know that nothing good can come from suppressing knowledge. If we can’t conduct the research, we can’t act on its findings to prevent the next mass shooting.