We know the drill: Headlines pop up online as another mass shooting unfolds in a place where we trust our children spend their days in safety. This time, it’s Covenant School, a private elementary in Nashville, Tennessee. On the news, we watch people cry at vigils. On Twitter, everyone berates each other for their “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric or for making a tragedy “political.” Talking heads remind us again that guns are the leading cause of death for children in the United States. We read every detail as it emerges, or we click away immediately, depending on just how much more of the world imploding we can bear that day. Ever since Sandy Hook, we’ve rehearsed this reaction, forging a national neural pathway for how we respond to unspeakable horrors.
Many days, it feels impossible to envision an America without rampant gun violence. Living in anticipation of when and where the next shooter will walk into a crowd and open fire is an all too familiar anxiety for most citizens. But in between such mass casualty events, 120 Americans are killed by guns every day, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, and 76,374 are wounded by guns annually.
But every single day, researchers, doctors, community leaders, and public health experts wake up, get dressed, and dedicate themselves to ending our collective nightmare. In the face of yet another headline, it often feels like nothing is changing; that it’s hopeless and that there’s just nothing anyone can do — but progress is being made in the fight to end gun violence, and it’s only picking up steam.
“Hopelessness breeds cynicism, and we can’t let cynicism be an excuse for inaction,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, in an email to Romper. “The reality is that the political calculus on gun safety is changing, and all across the country — in red and blue states — there are advocates and survivors creating positive change at every level of government.”
Change at the highest level
In the last decade, America has failed time and again to pass legislation that would stymie gun violence, including multiple policies protecting victims of domestic violence whose abusers own guns, and initially denied a ban on bump stocks, which were used in the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas (the deadliest one in U.S. history). Fortunately, this ban was enacted two years later, and despite calls to overturn it, the Supreme Court has upheld the safety measure.
However, while much legislation at the federal level stalled, the states have passed more than 525 gun safety laws in the last 10 years. Giffords, a nonprofit founded by former congresswoman and gun violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords, reports that in the five states with the weakest gun laws, firearm-related deaths increased by 46% in those 10 years. The states with the strongest laws saw gun deaths increase by only 7%. That number is obviously not zero, but it’s a marked improvement, and proof that policy can save lives. Everytown’s 2023 Gun Law Rankings confirm the Giffords report, showing a clear correlation: The more laws that are in place, the fewer gun-related deaths occur. (Tennessee, for example, does not have a red flag law in place. Red flag laws give family members and law enforcement the ability to file restraining orders to temporarily remove guns from the possession of someone who is a threat to themselves or others.)
In 2022, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act became the first firearm legislation signed into law since 1994. The act:
- Made it illegal for anyone convicted of domestic violence to own a firearm.
- Created criminal offenses for gun trafficking and “straw purchasing” (buying a firearm in order to give it to someone who is prohibited from purchasing it themself).
- Lengthened the amount of time gun sellers have for background checks on buyers younger than 21 so they can investigate them more thoroughly.
- Allotted $250 million to supporting community-based violence prevention organizations.
The Senate is now mulling over two more bills passed by the House: the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022 and the Protecting Our Kids Act. The former would make buying, selling, or owning semi-automatic weapons illegal; studies have shown this same ban reduced the likelihood of mass shooting deaths by 70% between 1994 and 2004, when it expired. Following the latest mass shooting in Nashville, President Joe Biden renewed his call for Congress to pass the assault weapons ban, stating plainly, “It’s about time that we begin to make some more progress.”
The work they’re doing right now to end gun violence is making a tangible impact.
The Protecting Our Kids Act would ban the sale of semi-automatic rifles to anyone younger than 21 and make it possible to penalize gun owners whose firearms are used by minors due to unsafe storage. There is so much policy work left to be done, but after a decade of gun safety legislation stalling, some policies are finally breaking through.
And on the ground
As long as there has been gun violence in American neighborhoods, community organizations have worked to prevent it. Volunteering to support their efforts and donating to them is one of the best ways you can combat firearm-related injuries where you live, because these groups tend to address the form of gun violence affecting your city or region the most (like firearm-related suicide, unsafe storage, or homicide). And the work they’re doing right now to end gun violence is making a tangible impact.
In an interview with Romper, Dr. Chethan Sathya, M.D., pediatric trauma surgeon and director of Northwell Health’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, specifically praised:
- Sandy Hook Promise, which operates the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System where students can report rumored threats of gun violence so administrators can take action. More than 160,000 tips have been submitted from students across the country, successfully thwarting 14 planned school shootings, according to CEO and co-founder Nicole Hockley.
- Everytown for Gun Safety, which lobbies for safer gun policies at local, state, and federal levels, and has become a leader in gun violence research (a chronically underfunded area of research in the United States). Per Everytown, at least 4.6 million kids in America currently live in homes with unsecured guns; according to research from the U.S. Secret Service, up to 76% of school shooters obtain their guns from their homes or the homes of relatives. In 2022, thanks to advocacy from Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, both part of Everytown’s grassroots network, school districts in at least 15 states began requiring schools to educate parents and caretakers about the importance of secure firearm storage to prevent gun violence. Starting next school year, this education will reach the parents of 8.5 million students nationwide.
- Life Camp, which focuses on helping teenagers develop into engaged community members and leaders, creating healthy family dynamics, and sharing their violence intervention models with other neighborhood organizations around the country. The organization notes that after its “Cure Violence” approach was implemented in East New York, there was a 50% decrease in gun injury rates, whereas there was only a 29% decrease in a matched comparison area.
- Brady, which works to stop the flow of gun trafficking, promotes safe firearm storage in homes, especially those with children, and provides pro bono legal services to survivors of gun violence (about $1.5 million worth annually). It operates GunStoreTransparency.org, which you can use to find firearms dealers in your area violating gun laws and call on local representatives to intervene.
There are countless other groups nationwide doing what they can in their schools and communities to stop gun violence. But what experts say is about to turn the tides in preventing gun violence isn’t one specific policy or grassroots approach. It’s information.
Gun violence research was massively underfunded for 20 years. Not anymore.
As with any public health crisis, research about how and why gun violence occurs is the key to ending it. But in 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, cutting funding for gun violence research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by 92%, Everytown reports.
“The Dickey Amendment was introduced as a way to say ‘Thou shalt not use federal funds to advocate or promote gun control.’ It was misinterpreted, or maybe purposely so, as [meaning] no research funding for firearm violence, not even prevention,” said Dr. Victor Dzau, M.D., president of the National Academy of Medicine, to an audience at Northwell Health’s fourth annual Gun Violence Prevention Forum on Feb. 28, 2023.
After immense pressure from the public and officials like himself, Dzau explained during the forum, Congress altered the language of the Dickey Amendment to clarify that government funding for research on firearm injury prevention is allowed. In 2019, for the first time in 23 years, the NIH and CDC each received $12.5 million from Congress to allocate to research. They distribute funds in this amount annually now.
“We need much more than that, but it’s a starting point,” Dzau says.
That may seem like old news, but the world of science moves slowly. Studies that have taken place since those funds became available are finally beginning to have their findings published.
In February 2023, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) published the second volume of a four-part report called the National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment. It had not been updated in more than 20 years. This volume alone is more than 700 pages long.
“The president and the attorney general directed ATF to conduct this study since the last one was put up more than 20 years ago, and now of course technology and trends have certainly changed,” said Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, at Northwell’s forum. “Much of this data had previously never been publicly available, and it provides more information on America’s crime guns (those are the guns used in or associated with crimes) that has ever been compiled in one place, ever, full stop. Those findings and data will help us all better understand emerging threats, including those posed by new technologies, so that law enforcement, public health officials, and policy makers can adjust accordingly.”
For example, Dettelbach told forum attendees, the report revealed that between 2017 and 2021, there were more than 1 million guns stolen from private individuals. (In reality, that number could be higher since not all stolen guns are reported to law enforcement.) The solution is securing firearms in a safe, and he called on forum guests in public health, policy, and communications positions to target law-abiding gun owners and remind them of their responsibility to store their guns responsibly.
The report also states that in the United States, the time between when guns are legally purchased and then used in committing a crime is shrinking. Dettelbach explained a low “time to crime” window is an indicator of straw purchasing (buying a gun for someone who can’t do it legally). Thanks to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, ATF now has the ability to pursue and prosecute individuals who engage in straw purchasing, and officials hope to see this form of gun trafficking decrease as a result. Data should drive prevention strategies, and with information like this finally becoming available, it can.
Why data is crucial in the fight to end gun violence
Now that research into gun violence prevention is ramping back up, experts say it will provide evidence-based direction to their efforts.
“The public health approach to [preventing] firearm injury relies on four basic steps. The first is having data about who is hurt, who dies, and what happens to them after folks have been exposed to a bullet,” said Dr. Megan L. Ranney, M.D., deputy dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, during Northwell’s forum.
The next three steps, she said, are to identify risk factors and preventive factors, develop and test interventions, and disseminate them to the public.
“When it comes to gun violence being a public health issue that needs a public health strategy, we've done such little research in the area that we don't really know what a good public health strategy for gun violence would be,” Sathya said in our interview.
He says studies will be done on existing violence intervention programs run by hospitals, schools, and community groups to test their effectiveness. “Community frontline programs often don't have the infrastructure needed to evaluate what they're doing,” Sathya says. “I'm very optimistic about seeing the results of those partnerships and the programs that are built together and the evaluation of outcomes, because that's going to be the way to change this.”
A panel of experts at Northwell’s forum focused on the need for one unified platform to house data about gun violence. The CDC’s Covid-19 tracker is an example of the possibilities. Sathya says today, if a child comes to his hospital with a gunshot injury, he can’t access law enforcement data to determine the type of gun used, or any other circumstances around the injury. When the patient is discharged, he doesn’t know if they’re readmitted elsewhere for another firearm-related injury, if they use a community program, or, well, anything. All of this information exists; it’s just not collected in one place.
Just know that there are hundreds and thousands of dedicated people trying to figure this out.
“That’s probably one of the things that gives me the most hope, the amount of momentum in that area because that's what's going to let us evaluate things and change things in real time as we deal with this epidemic,” Sathya says. “If you look at how we monitor Covid-19, we have databases and surveillance mechanisms for other epidemics. They span data from health care, from community groups, sometimes data from law enforcement, which would be applicable here. We don't have a complete picture, and that's being worked on.”
Of course, to parents who send their children to school every day with a twinge of fear in their chest, these strides forward sound negligible. And it’s true, to some extent, that the work being done right now may not be completed in time to protect the children of today. It wasn’t done in time to save three children and three teachers in Nashville.
But to the experts who work daily to end gun violence in the U.S., each hurdle removed clears the path toward a safer future. For people who have to face and talk about gun violence every single day, they are all remarkably hopeful that it will not be part of America’s story forever.
“It’s important in a world of doom to remember that most people around us feel the same way,” says Sathya. “We are all dedicated to this. Just know that there are hundreds and thousands of dedicated people trying to figure this out. Common sense policy, just like seatbelts and age limits for smoking, is what is going to help us take a public health approach to this. And there's a huge renewed interest as we get better data to really evaluate different policies, safe storage laws, background checks, assault weapon bans, and so on, so that we can really inform which policies make a difference. That gives me a lot of hope.”
“This is a movement, not a moment — lasting change will require all of us to use our voices and our votes on this issue,” Watts says. “Don’t wait for the next headline, don’t wait until gun violence impacts your neighborhood. If you’re pissed off, heartbroken, and fed up, get off the sidelines and get into this fight.”
If you want to get involved in the fight against gun violence, here are nine ways to support common-sense gun reform right now.
DiMaggio, C., Avraham, J., Berry, C., Bukur, M., Feldman, J., Klein, M., Shah, N., Tandon, M., & Frangos, S. (2019). Changes in US mass shooting deaths associated with the 1994–2004 federal assault weapons ban: Analysis of open-source data. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 86(1), 11–19. https://doi.org/10.1097/ta.0000000000002060
Dr. Chethan Sathya, pediatric trauma surgeon, director of Northwell Health’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, and NIH-funded researcher of firearm injury prevention
Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine and vice chair of the National Research Council
Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Megan L. Ranney, MD, MPH, FACEP, deputy dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health
Top Image Credit: Caroline Wurtzel/Romper; Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images; congress.gov; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives