At the end of May, a spate of high-profile mass shootings brought the urgent conversation around gun control in the U.S. back into the national spotlight. A racist massacre in a grocery store in Buffalo saw 10 Black people killed and three others injured by a white supremacist on May 14. Ten days later, a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, became the third deadliest school shooting after Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, with 19 students and two teachers killed. In the wake of these devastating events, politicians on both sides of the aisle have made efforts—however fraught—to enact policies addressing the epidemic of gun violence that continues to plague America.

The first bipartisan agreement on gun safety in years is currently being deliberated in the back rooms of Capitol Hill, with 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Senate proposing new legislation that would see enhanced background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21 and those with a history of domestic abuse being prohibited from purchasing firearms. There would also be a provision for so-called red-flag laws allowing law enforcement to confiscate weapons from potentially dangerous individuals and additional funding provided to support mental health and safety initiatives at schools. But while it marks a rare moment of cooperation between the two parties, many expect it to hit an impasse as soon as it reaches the House floor.

Still, to focus too much on change at a governmental level is to miss half the story. Across America, nonprofits and community projects have been fighting for decades for gun-violence prevention to be taken seriously—and by taking matters into their own hands, they have led the charge on the kinds of grassroots-level initiatives changing the cultural attitudes around guns.

Many activists cite the historical debates about drunk driving, smoking, and seat belts as examples of how, over the course of just a generation or two, a social stigma can drive concrete legislative change. Others cite the precedents set by the Civil Rights and LGBTQ+ rights movements over the decades as proof that the power of protest and unrelenting pressure can eventually deliver results, however long they might take. But all are united in their belief that the only way to foster real change around gun violence in America is by keeping the momentum going, even when mass shootings aren’t making headline news.

Here, we speak to five activists who have been doing the work for years—some even decades—about the patience needed to keep the conversation up, how many of the most critical developments are taking place on a community level, and what we all can do to keep the dialogue around gun violence moving forward.

Photo: Courtesy of Nina Vinik

Nina Vinik, Project Unloaded

Nina Vinik founded Project Unloaded in 2021. Through creative and cultural campaigns, Project Unloaded establishes safe spaces for open conversations about guns and provides accurate information about gun safety. Previously, she was the program director of gun-violence prevention and justice reform at The Joyce Foundation for 14 years. Prior to joining the foundation in 2008, Vinik, an attorney, served as the legal director of Legal Community Against Violence, a nonprofit organization providing legal and technical assistance in support of gun-violence-prevention policy efforts nationwide.

Four or five years ago, I began to notice some really troubling trends outside of policy. When I started working on this issue two decades ago, gun ownership had been steadily declining over the previous 25 years. And most people at that time correctly believed that bringing a gun into their homes would make them less safe rather than safer. Today, that has completely flipped. Gun ownership is on the rise. And most Americans today believe the opposite. That, of course, is contrary to all of the evidence—and what’s most interesting when you dig into that data is that the shift in perceptions about the risk and safety of guns has been biggest among younger people. So unless we take that on, it’s going to be very hard to get ahead of this problem culturally. Our mission at Project Unloaded is to create a new narrative, and we’re doing that by focusing on the next generation, talking to teens, giving them the facts about guns and the risks of gun use and gun ownership in a way that we believe can empower them to make a different choice.

One thing we have paid a lot of attention to is the work of the Truth Initiative to reduce teen smoking. For many, many years, they approached that challenge as a culture change, and they’ve seen great success from that approach. If you think about smoking, we’ve seen the same kind of cultural shift we had with drunk driving or wearing seat belts in cars. Smoking is not the cultural norm anymore. So that’s a model that we’ve paid close attention to, and we believe that model can be applied to guns.

The coverage of this issue tends to center around political food fights, of whether you’re pro gun control or anti gun control. One thing we’ve learned in our research is that the very polarized nature of that debate is a turnoff to a lot of people and certainly the young people that we are trying to reach with Project Unloaded. So I would say to the media make sure that you are covering other aspects of this issue outside of the political back and forth. There’s an enormous amount of good work happening at the community level to try to address gun violence, particularly the violence that disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. These are often small organizations that just don’t get the amount of attention and limelight that bigger players in the space usually do.

This work can be frustrating, and it’s certainly challenging. It’s in the headlines so regularly, and there’s no turning it off. But when someone asks me, “How do you keep doing this work?” my answer is just that somebody’s got to do it. I know more people than I can count who have lost someone close to them through gun violence and who wake up every day to an empty seat at their dining table, and there’s no way of turning that off. If they have the strength and the fortitude to keep going, then I can certainly keep going to help solve this problem—because we can solve it. We just need to be persistent, and we will solve it. —as told to Liam Hess

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