Lessons from the Front Lines of Gun Violence Prevention

The Never Again revolution is taking shape in real time.  Within days of the tragedy that killed their friends and shattered their lives, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized a grassroots movement, with well-defined policy goals and plans for a nationwide protest in March.  By so doing, these students challenged long-held narratives suggesting that nothing can be done to prevent gun violence because the corporate gun lobby is just too powerful to allow change, or that Americans are hopelessly deadlocked around firearm policy.

We’ve been at the front line of these issues for some time.  After the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012, we created an organization called Safe Tennessee with a centrist coalition of academics, activists, and concerned citizens, including many gun owners who felt that the NRA no longer spoke for their interests.

From the heart of a pro-gun red state, we’ve organized around key gun violence prevention strategies, with the goal of reducing near-epidemic rates of gun injury and death in our region.  We’ve experienced some success, such as raising awareness of the importance of safe storage.  We’ve also had setbacks, like an NRA lobbyist swooping in at the last moment to upend a bill we helped craft with bipartisan support that aimed to reduce gun death in children.

We feel tremendous admiration for the ways that the Florida students are turning tragedy into action.  In support, we want to share several key lessons we’ve learned while working in violence prevention politics, hoping they might be useful going forward:

*Take time to become experts by studying research on gun violence and gun violence prevention.  Pro-gun politicians frequently dismiss opinions they don’t like by claiming that supporters are “uninformed,” having “knee-jerk responses,” or being “emotional” – claims that will be levied with ever greater force against youthful survivors.  Counter that with factual knowledge of the issues.  Stay abreast of research in important journals like the American Journal of Public Health, track trends though up-to-date resources such as GVpedia, and follow popular opinion through reputed polling agencies such as the Pew Research Center.  From these sources you can develop well-informed talking points supported by real data.

*One of the main messages conveyed by the NRA is that the slightest act of compromise anywhere represents an affront to gun rights everywhere.  Yet despite the rhetoric, we’ve found that many gun owners don’t actually feel that way.  Many gun owners in this country are responsible and support commonsense gun law reforms.  In fact, nearly 90% of American gun owners are not members of the NRA.  Despite what the NRA wants you to believe, the vast majority of gun owners support measures like background checks.  Reach out to the gun owners who agree with you, and work with them.

*Avoid the stereotype trap.  The NRA and many politicians frequently promote the notion the gun violence is a problem of them –the mentally ill, for instance, or inner-city “gang members”– rather than one of us.  These propositions are based in bias and misinformation.  For instance, while many mass shooters have complex psychiatric histories, there are no statistical correlations between mental illness diagnosis and shooting someone else.  Meanwhile, most gun deaths result, no from gang-style shootouts, but from suicides.  Remain vigilant against repeating these and other stereotypes—they serve only to divide us.

* Stay aware of the broad scope of gun violence.  As jarring as they are, mass shootings represent only a fraction of the gun violence facing our nation.  An assault weapons ban seems urgent and should be passed—but keep in mind that handguns are responsible for the vast majority of US gun injury and death.

* Have defined goals of what you want to see done at Federal and state levels and don’t settle for weak compromises or policies that have already been addressed. Strengthening the existing background check system and addressing its deficiencies is important, for instance, but is hardly an adequate response to the problem at hand.

* To get the attention of politicians, vote! And register everyone you know to vote!  This is the only way to bring about change. Even though emotional arguments carry tremendous resonance, politicians pay far more attention to mobilized voters and voting blocks.

* Refute the notion that one specific policy would have stopped any one particular shooting.  For instance, after Sandy Hook, gun advocates frequently repeated the mantra that background checks “would not have prevented Newtown,” and that therefore gun control itself was a fool’s errand.  In reality, gun crime is highly variable, and so should be attempts to stop it.  Communities that do so the best enact multiple common-sense laws and policies, and then see reduced rates of gun-related injury and death, even if shootings still occur.

* The modern-day gun violence prevention movement is taking shape now, but be prepared for the needle to move slowly on certain issues.  Remember that the NRA has a nearly 150-year history promoting gun ownership, and spent much of the past four decades building political networks and honing bumper-sticker slogans.

And finally, ask for help.  This is not going to be an easy fight, but don’t get discouraged.  There’s nothing the old guard of gun violence prevention advocates would like more than to pass the baton onto the next generation of fearless activists.  They are in awe of you.  Reach out to them whenever you need backup or support.

By Jonathan M. Metzl and Beth Joslin Roth

Jonathan M. Metzl, Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University and Research Director of the Safe Tennessee Project in Nashville, Tennessee.

Beth Joslin Roth, founder and Executive Director of the Safe Tennessee Project in Nashville, Tennessee.