Live From SxSW: Putting An End To Gun Violence

Gun violence dominated national headlines this past year. If it seemed as if you heard about another shooting incident every day, you were not far off. In 2015, the U.S. did not go for more than eight days without a mass shooting. Yet gun control remains a highly divisive issue. But what if social entrepreneurship could offer answers?

“This year, the number of deaths from gun violence is expected to exceed the number of car fatalities,” Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation (STCF), a nonprofit focused on reducing gun violence through technology and innovation, pointed out at a SXgood Story session. As such gun violence is a serious public health issue, more data needs to be collected and analyzed just as is done for auto safety. However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is prohibited from doing research on gun violence, in part due to pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Even though NRA membership makes up a very small percentage of gun owners (4 percent), they exercise enormous authority into public policy around gun control.

An emphasis on gun safety could make a big difference without exacerbating the polarities that exist on both sides of the issue. Hirsch explained how new innovations in firearm safety, such as biometric trigger locks and RFID smart guns, could go a long way in reducing gun violence. Public awareness and demand for new safety measures as well as investment from the private sector and government is key. Piloting and endorsement from law enforcement can also help frame the problem in a way that is solution-oriented.

“Let’s find novel, interesting solutions to gun violence that people want to talk about, “ said Gabriel Reilich, head of video at GOOD. “The great thing is people want to talk about it and social media tools make it possible and easy to do so. The question is: How we can get the right conversation happening?”

GOOD recognized the power of public discourse on social media and that many of the dominant voices were often not reflective of facts of gun violence. In an effort to change the discourse, GOOD produced a series of videos that visually illustrated the data around gun control. Mr. Reilich showed several videos, such as one comparing the casualties of gun deaths and terrorism, that reframed the conversation by providing an alternative voice based on data.

Jeffrey Smith, professor of Urban Policy at The New School, feels effective mobilization and activism is the solution. A small number of mobilized constituents can have a great impact. As Smith noted, the number of contacts that say they will support a bill makes the biggest difference in getting legislation passed. Money pales by comparison.

Smith discussed how design strategy can be employed to reduce gun violence. He gave the example of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, a deterrence program targeted at repeat youth offenders in an effort to reduce youth homicide. Design made a big difference in how the program was received. Instead of the standard circle design or the venue of a courthouse, youth met with members of the community and law enforcement in a square town hall creating a physical atmosphere of being on same level, without the negative connotation association with law enforcement.

Respected community leaders offered bargains instead of demands. If youth avoided violence, they would get community support for school, jobs, and services. If not, the community would give full support for policing efforts. Citizens often spoke of the personal impact of violence and many ex-cons shared, providing added legitimacy. Nine out of ten cities saw significant drops in gun violence.

Additionally, Smith cited the 70 percent recidivism rate, and proposed offering another option for law enforcement. What if, instead of quotas, law enforcement officers were offered a bonus for any non-repeat offenders? Political resistance is often the biggest obstacle in implementing these kinds of potential solutions.

Breaking down resistance on all sides of the issue is crucial for moving the national dialogue forward. Casey Woods, founder and executive director of Arms With Ethics (AwE), grew up in a rural community of gun owners, but living in cities, also saw the devastation of gun violence.

Recognizing that local agencies had the power to move forward a national conversation, Woods focused on a local level, targeting suppliers of local agencies such as law enforcement that make up a significant portion of the gun market. AwE developed a set of safety standards for suppliers of local agencies, encouraging both government agencies and gun retailers to adopt these requirements, and building incentives for community members to get involved in the issue.

Through an understanding of gun control from both sides of the debate, AwE has been able to change the dialogue at a micro level, changing the broader narrative to foster all sides of the conversation. Woods was surprised to find out how often all sides entrenched in the issue agreed more than disagreed. It speaks to the possibility of individuals coming together and having constructive dialogue towards solutions.