Changing the conversation on gun violence

How we talk about this epidemic matters

THE MAY 26 San Jose murders, where a gunman opened fire at a public transit rail yard, killing nine people, further illustrate that this country’s epidemic of gun violence makes us an outlier around the globe. A stunning 232 mass shootings have taken place in the US in just the past five months. This has become so common in the US that all mass shootings don’t even necessarily make news. As a communications consultant, I think often about how we can finally change hearts and minds, to disable the forcefield surrounding guns in this country. I’ve seen one excellent shift and recommend four others.

The positive change in recent years has been to take the focus off the shooter/murderer and on to the victims and survivors. We should continue to do so, both to avoid providing a platform for shooters and because knowing about them as individuals rarely tells us anything new. We already know that virtually all mass shooters in the US are adult males, with an average age of 33. Most are also white and born in this country. So those who care about ending this public health crisis should continue to talk about the human toll, including the scale: Every day in this country, 316 people are shot, 106 of whom will die. Annually, more of us in the US die from gun violence than all of these combined: drowning, choking, fires, stabbing, airplane crashes, and natural disasters.

I recommend four other shifts in communication:

1) We ought to focus on the single source of this public health crisis: easy access to guns and ammunition. We can’t fall for the red herrings put forth by the gun industry which insists it’s not about guns, it’s about mental illness, or people who are prejudiced against others or people who are outraged because they lost a job. Every country has those, and none of it causes (or even correlates to) the murder rate. Simply put: the US is an outlier in access to weapons and ammunition, and this allows people to harm many more than if they had to express their violence solely with fists or a knife. So as soon as this information is accessible, for every shooting, let’s focus on what weapon was used and how it was obtained.

2) We need to remind the public that we do not have to live this way. The result of this nearly unfettered access to weapons and ammunition? Per capita, a US resident is more likely to be shot than citizens of almost any other country on the planet; for example, we are 100 times more likely to be shot than someone living in England.

We must educate the public about the laws, regulations, and practices elsewhere that prevent access to weapons and ammunition. As gun violence is not limited to mass shootings, we can include a focus on the wider sphere of injury and death brought about by easy access not just to automatic rifles, but to the handguns used in family violence, suicide, and neighborhood violence.

3) We can highlight the forces resisting change, educating the public about the size and influence of the gun lobby. As with the public health crisis of cancer caused by smoking, it wasn’t people fighting for their right to smoke that prevented regulation of these addictive and dangerous chemicals; it was cigarette manufacturers. Many people do not know that gun access is promoted in the US by a weapons industry with well over $28 billion of annual revenue at stake. Let’s air information about them, including the elected officials and companies they finance.

4) We must be intentional about language. I suggest focusing less on the term “gun control,” as it mobilizes those who fear that regulation is primarily about government control. What’s being proposed is actually public safety legislation to address this country’s unique public health crisis. How else to accurately describe legislation to address 40,000 preventable deaths in the US every year (including both murders and suicides)? Just as requiring a driver’s license is not driver control or car control, it’s public safety, so is the effort to regulate access to guns and ammunition.

I long for the day when we don’t have to hear this kind of news. But until we do, imagine if the coverage and conversation was both fact-based and educational, such as: “Contributing to the public health crisis of 40,000 preventable gun deaths annually in the US, there was a mass shooting today in [location]. The murderer used a [type of weapon] which he obtained by [method]. [#] people died and [#] more were injured.”

Even better would be to add: “Building on steps taken around the world, where the US is the outlier in shooting deaths, the public safety legislation being proposed to prevent this kind of access to weapons and ammunition includes [proposed legislation/regulation]. It is supported by [legislators/advocacy groups] and opposed by [legislators/advocacy groups].

Meet the Author
We need a change in communications strategy to change hearts and minds. Intentional, fact-based reporting and advocacy can help us move from thoughts and prayers to prevention, the only way to save lives and honor all of those who have been needlessly lost.

Laurie Sherman is a Boston-based executive coach and communications consultant and author of  Chasing Social Justice: How Do We Advance the Work that Matters Most? (Maslan House, 2020).