The horrific shooting in a Colorado theater is the latest in an astonishing series of mass murders allegedly carried out by seemingly intelligent but socially isolated young white men.
Though attention-getting, these attacks are outnumbered by the daily shootings that occur as a result of drug deals gone bad, botched hold-ups and family feuds. About 100,000 are shot each year; about a third die.
The pattern is by now familiar but what seems to be changing is that there is less discussion of whether or not some form of gun control would stop or at least slow the pace of violent attacks in America. Liberals charge that gun control advocates have been intimidated into silence. Conservatives generally argue that criminals and the unbalanced would simply switch to other weapons if guns were not available.
What does seem to be true is that gun control has become the new third rail of American politics, displacing Social Security and other once-sacrosanct programs. The National Rifle Association generally gets the blame -- or the credit, depending on your point of view -- for maintaining a ferociously effective lobbying machine that can quickly end the career of any politician who dares cross it.
This doesn't mean, of course, that the American public is unanimously standing its ground against gun control and a ConsumerAffairs study of consumer sentiment indicates that, in fact, Americans remain just about evenly divided on the issue, as they are on so many other red-blue topics.
We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 400,000 comments that used the phrase "gun control" on social media like Facebook and Twitter over the last year and found that net public sentiment hovers within a few points of zero -- about evenly divided, as shown in this graph:
Note that, although the number of comments increases dramatically within days of the Colorado shootings, the net sentiment remains about evently divided.
Looking more closely at the comments made by consumers, however, it becomes apparent that those who favor gun control are somewhat divided on their motivations, opponents are quite clear: they feel it would negatively affect law-abiding citizens and would be ineffective.
So how about the NRA? Demonized by gun control advocates, the National Rifle Association portrays itself as the champion of the law-abiding, gun-owning sportsman.
We analyzed 550,000 social media comments and found the NRA generally flying high, with a net positive sentiment around 50% for most of the year. However, it took a sharp dive in the wake of the Colorado massacre, falling to the year's low of 17% positive.
No way out?
The NRA doesn't particularly care whether the general public agrees with its views, of course. It is most concerned with keeping its four million or so members fired up and in line and there are no signs that NRA members are massing in front of the organization's Fairfax, Va, headquarters to blast holes in their membership cards.
So is there any way to begin chipping away at the problem of mass murders in the U.S.? One comment we ran across on Facebook suggested that every citizen be mandated to take a psychiatric exam once a year. Those who were found to be teetering on the brink would be dispatched for treatment.
This is no doubt a fine idea but would be about as easy to implement as legislating a 26-hour day. If gun control is unconstitutional, probing the psyches of citizens who have not yet done anything wrong surely ranks close behind.
As long as public opinion remains as deeply -- and evenly -- divided as it is now, the likelihood of even a modest attempt at a political solution appears remote.
That doesn't mean it will never happen, though.
Some issues, like gay marriage or legalized marijuana, linger for years as talking points on the margins of society but, once a tipping point is reached, move rapidly to general acceptance. This seems to be happening now with the gay marriage issue and many think marijuana will be next.
Gun control or some other as-yet-unimagined public safety measure? Still out in orbit somewhere.