A New Approach to Prevent Gun Violence | Opinion

On July 4, my quiet, suburban hometown of Highland Park, Ill. became the scene of yet another mass shooting in America—one of at least 11 that took place over the holiday weekend.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, at least 220 people were shot and killed over the Fourth of July weekend and close to 570 were wounded. What's more American than not knowing if we're hearing fireworks or gunshots?

To solve gun violence, we need strong federal action—but that's not coming any time soon. It took a decade of advocacy to convince the Senate to pass even the most incremental of gun safety bills. How many lives will be taken before Congress is willing to meet the moment?

And the same day that the Senate passed that legislation, the Supreme Court threw precedent to the wind and made public places like mass transit and public parks much more dangerous while raising doubts about the constitutionality of many other gun regulations.

Even with some legislative progress, one thing is clear: We need to stop waiting for Washington to solve gun violence.

We need to start talking about culture change.

For the past five years, I've been working to understand Americans' views and behaviors related to guns. The findings have been striking.

In 2000, gun ownership had been steadily declining for a quarter century, and most Americans knew that having a gun at home would make them less safe. Today, gun ownership is on the rise and the vast majority of Americans—including three-quarters of young people—believe that guns make us safer.

At the same time, the demographics of gun ownership are changing, with more young people, women and people of color buying guns than in the past. And they're buying guns at an alarming rate.

The data is clear that we can reduce gun deaths and injuries if fewer people carried guns and had them in their homes. But in spite of a gun violence prevention movement that is larger and more organized than ever before, advocates have been reluctant to deliver the clear, simple message that Americans are safer without guns. Instead, the gun safety movement has focused on changing laws to keep guns away from "dangerous people," side-stepping the fact that guns are dangerous for all of us.

Moreover, the emphasis on legislative solutions has led advocates to focus their attention on talking to likely voters—generally, these are parents and grandparents. Three-quarters of registered voters are over the age of 30.

Decades of behavior research tell us, however, that adults' views are based on what fits into their preexisting understanding of how things work. By early adulthood, our views solidify and become difficult to change. In short, if we wait until people are likely to vote to talk to them about guns, we've waited too long.

Luckily, there is a window when the facts can persuade.

Working closely with researchers, I sought to understand more about that window and what could be done.

Orange shirt in support of ending violence
A man wears an orange shirt in support of ending gun violence. Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

What we found is that many teenagers and young adults have yet to fully form their views on guns. Specifically, research shows that more than a quarter of teens and young adults report talking to their peers about guns, and are interested in learning more about the risks and responsibilities of gun use. But they didn't know where to go for credible information.

After gaining an understanding of teen awareness of gun issues, I wanted to dig into the motivations of teens interested in getting a gun, which is most of them. The vast majority said they wanted one for personal safety.

It became clear that to reduce gun violence in America, we needed to empower young people with the facts—that having a gun makes them less safe, not more. With that goal in mind, Project Unloaded started to run campaigns focused on reaching young people on social media with the simple message that they're safer not using guns.

And while more research is needed, the initial results offer a path forward for advocates of gun safety that doesn't rely on Congress or the courts.

After engaging with our campaign messages, the percentage of respondents who went from sure about wanting a gun to unsure increased across the board, from 16 percent to 31 percent for 13-15-year-olds; 14 percent to 25 percent for 16-17-year-olds; 18 percent to 26 percent for 18-20-year-olds.

Cultural campaigns can't change gun violence overnight. But if we can reduce the number of young people who choose to buy and carry guns, over time, we can chip away at daily gun violence.

Some may be skeptical that culture change is possible, but this is a proven public health model. In 2000, 23 percent of teens smoked cigarettes. Today, less than 3 percent of teens are cigarette users. This dramatic shift happened in large part because of creative work led by Truth Initiative. As younger people opted out of smoking cigarettes, rates of lung cancer also decreased by nearly 20 points.

In the early years of Truth's work, it seemed impossible that any effort would be successful against the tobacco lobby. But reaching young people directly with clear, accessible information on the risks of cigarettes made a difference and saved lives. That approach can work on gun violence, too.

Changing culture is never easy. But after so many tragedies and so few wins in Washington, isn't it time we tried something new? And if it works, we can save countless lives for decades to come.

Nina Vinik is the founder and executive director of Project Unloaded.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.