Independent of efforts to change laws, it is worth considering non-governmental and voluntary measures and programs that can protect the public from gun violence. Voluntary programs are those run by volunteers and/or those in which participation on the part of the public is voluntary rather than mandated by law.
With a group of committed volunteers, the support of local agencies, and perhaps some limited fund raising, these programs can be launched without delay and impose little or no burden on public agencies. As they are voluntary and require no change in the law, they cannot be derailed by those who fight any proposed legislation designed to prevent gun injuries and deaths. Voluntary, grassroots initiatives can also raise awareness of the benefits of safe practices and empower those who want to take action, no matter how modest, to make their communities safer. Some measures require paid staff but still fall outside the public sector.
Here are some examples:
Securing Guns in the Home
Close to five million American children live in homes with loaded, unlocked firearms. Inadequately stored guns contribute to teenage suicides and violence, deadly accidents among children, and gun thefts. School shooters often obtain their guns from their home or that of a relative. There are no federal laws in the US requiring the safe storage of firearms and just one state, Massachusetts, requires all firearms to be stored with a lock in place.
In Broward County, Florida, attorney Barbara Markley and fellow members of the Gun Safety Committee of the League of Women Voters (LWV) have initiated Lock It Up, a program that is spreading rapidly. League members learned that the Veterans Administration maintains a large inventory of trigger locks due to the elevated suicide risk of veterans. The VA has donated thousands of locks to the LWV which is distributing them to a wide variety of agencies and professionals: law enforcement, municipalities, libraries, churches, pediatricians, family therapy and university clinics, and daycare centers. They have also produced a brochure to raise awareness of the dangers of unlocked guns around children and teens.
Gun buybacks allow people to turn in guns, usually to the police, for cash or gift cards with no questions asked. They provide the public an opportunity to turn in weapons that are not being used, are possessed illegally, or that may be a danger to the household. In some cases, hundreds of guns have been bought back. Most initiatives involve law enforcement agencies, which receive the guns being turned in, and some partner with physicians and medical centers that can counsel gun owners about safety. Evaluations of voluntary gun buybacks tend to show that they do not reduce gun violence as the number of guns turned in is just a small proportion of all guns in the community. However, proponents argue that some violence or suicide may be prevented and that buybacks encourage people to consider the risks posed by guns in the home and enable people to adopt safer practices with firearms. At a recent event in Hillsborough County, Florida, the Sheriff’s Office received 1,173 guns in five hours, including some stolen guns. At a previous event in that county, 2,541 guns had been turned in.
Consumer and Investor Activism
Consumers can pressure stores to refrain from selling military-style and other highly lethal weapons through letter-writing campaigns, personal appeals to store managers and executives, social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, and boycotts. Individuals and pension funds can also refuse to buy and divest from gun stocks or mutual funds containing gun stocks until those companies stop selling military-style weapons and start producing weapons with certain safety features (e.g., magazine safeties, loaded chamber indicators) and personalized (smart) weapons. Also, through their elected representatives, citizens can pressure the military and police to stop buying guns from companies that do not incorporate safety devices into guns. Forty percent of all gun industry revenues come from governments.
Given the targeting of several campuses by mass shooters, some academics are demanding that their retirement funds be “gun free.” In one initiative, over 4,000 faculty members threatened a firm managing their funds with the transfer of their money to gun-free funds if they continued to invest in companies that manufacture assault-style weapons.
Driven by outrage over the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and backed by some of America’s largest institutional investors, Sister Judy Byron of Seattle and a small group of shareholders have forced two gun makers, Sturm Ruger and American Outdoor Brands, to produce reports detailing the use of their guns in violent crimes and what steps the companies are taking to develop safer weapons. Although, the companies urged their shareholders to reject the proposals, a majority sided with the activists in both cases.
Byron persuaded the Adrian Dominicans, a Catholic religious institute, to buy gun stocks and organized other members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to join her, pooling their holdings in three companies: the retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods and the two above-mentioned manufacturers. Following the Parkland shooting, large investors in the companies joined Byron’s effort which gave them the votes to pass the measures at Sturm Ruger and American Outdoor Brands. While the companies are not required to follow the resolutions to change their operations, it is expected they will comply rather than risk shareholders’ anger. Byron appealed to the companies to not only seek profitable returns for investors but also to mitigate the adverse impacts of their products.
In the era of Donald Trump, protest actions have become common, ranging from countless rallies to the occupation of government buildings and offices, with the largest nationwide protest occurring on March 24, 2018, when high school students led millions of Americans in the March for our Lives. Evidence indicates that since the Parkland mass shooting enthusiasm has been growing for meaningful gun policy reforms. Protests, media coverage, and activism following the Parkland shooting led to gun reforms in Florida and other states. At Stanford University, 2500 doctors and nurses marched for action on gun violence, demanding more research and training to deal with the national crisis.
Supporting Victims of Abuse
Much gun violence and the majority of mass shootings have a domestic violence connection. Many women killed with a gun are shot by a domestic partner. Programs that empower women to take action if they are in an abusive relationship may keep the relationship from escalating to serious violence. Especially dangerous is the post-separation period and the fear of violence often keeps women from exiting dangerous relationships. Programs that offer victims shelter or support while they remain in their own homes can be empowering and help keep them safe. For example, the REACH program in Massachusetts has an Emergency Shelter Program providing crisis intervention and support services for victims of domestic violence who are not safe in their own home. Services include assistance with finding longer-term housing, support with legal issues, and access to other resources to help families heal physically and emotionally. REACH’s Community-Based Advocacy Program offers a similar range of services to domestic violence survivors who do not want to leave an abusive relationship or who are not seeking shelter. REACH can help with safety planning, finding a job or housing, or accessing benefits. REACH is a charitable organization.
Public Education Initiatives
Educating the public about gun safety prevention can offer them tips on making their homes safer (e.g., securing guns with trigger locks or other locking devices) and the steps they need to take to protect their children when visiting the homes of gun owners. Safety presentations, videos, written materials on gun violence and safety, and PSAs can shift public opinion, especially when done on a large scale. One example is the League of Women Voters, an advocacy group run by volunteers that presents educational forums on gun safety, lobbies legislators, makes appearances on television and radio, and reaches out to the public in a variety of other ways.
Over the last three decades, the gun lobby has been successful in selling the idea that guns make us safer from violence. Pew Research Center reports that, in 1993, just 34% of Americans said it was more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership but, by 2014, some of its polling showed that the number had climbed to 52%. Recently, in the aftermath of large-scale mass shootings, opinion is shifting once again in favor of gun control. Increasing grassroots activity, including educational efforts, on the part of groups favoring tighter regulation of guns may be a factor.
Mobilizing the Community
In many targeted school attacks, information was available regarding the shooter’s preparations. The most notable case was that of Nikolas Cruz, the young man who committed the atrocity at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Cruz was the subject of dozens of 9-1-1 calls to law enforcement and two separate tips to the FBI. He came to the attention of the Florida Department of Children and Families. He was well known in the community and in school for violent behavior, including threats made with guns and his desire to be a school shooter.
Many school shooters have a history of depression, suicide attempts or of suicidal thoughts. In more than three-quarters of the school attacks studied by the Secret Service, at least one person—usually a friend, schoolmate, or sibling—had information that the attacker was contemplating or planning the attack, and, in the majority of cases, more than one person was aware of the impending attack. In addition, before nearly all the school attacks, the perpetrators exhibited behavior that caused others—school officials, parents, teachers, police, fellow students—to be concerned. All of the above reinforces the need for schools and communities to set up mechanisms to encourage those with information of a possible attack to come forward.
It is a serious mistake to simply expel troubling kids. Cruz and Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, were loners who fell through the cracks of the mental health and educational systems. Cruz was expelled for his troublesome behavior and was left to his own resources following the death of his mother. Social isolation is a factor in many mass shootings and, whether it is a cause or effect of the disturbing behavior, it is in our collective interest to intervene and monitor the behavior of highly alienated individuals who exhibit threatening behavior. Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded by family members of victims of the mass shooting in Newtown, funds a program that helps students develop the social-emotional skills to reach out to other students and include those who may be chronically isolated in order to create a culture of inclusion and connectedness in school and the community. The program is funded through charitable donations and products sold with the Sandy Hook Promise label on them.
Research on Gun Violence
Research is needed to gain a better understanding of guns in America, gun violence, and solutions that would prevent violence. Basic questions remain unanswered due to Congress’ suppression of research at the behest of the gun lobby. There are gaps in regulation as well as in the recordkeeping required when firearms are transferred. Information is needed to determine the number of guns in America, the number of assault-style weapons, and how many guns are sold each year? What types of guns are most likely to be used in crime? Are there more gun deaths in areas with higher gun ownership levels? How many Americans own guns and are stricter gun laws and lower levels of gun ownership associated with fewer gun deaths? What prevention and intervention strategies are most effective in reducing gun violence rates? In addition, the National Violent Death Reporting System should be expanded to all states to provide comprehensive national data on gun violence. Research is also needed to guide the assessment and identification of those at risk of violence and suicide.
Aside from the need for funding of government entities, such as The CDC, National
Institutes of Health, and National Institute of Justice, research can proceed through private sources (e.g., foundations) and independent researchers can conduct studies through self-funded initiatives. Many resources are available free of charge through the internet. Interviews, too, can be conducted with little cost via email or through the internet.
Voting for Change in Gun Policies
One of the easiest steps citizens can take to effect change is to vote. Informed voters can support candidates who are committed to serious reforms in our laws. There are indications that the electorate is quite enthusiastic regarding the gun issue, a departure from the past when it was largely gun owners who were focused on gun policy. One useful tool to determine where candidates stand on guns is gunsensevoter.org. At that site, the large grassroots group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, endorses candidates who support laws shown to be effective in combating gun violence.
Tom Gabor, Ph.D. is a criminologist and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America. He is grateful for the feedback of Barbara Markley, Gun Safety Chair of the League of Women Voters of Broward County, Florida.