As gun-violence activists speak out, is America still listening?

Gun violence has become a routine headline in the 24/7 news cycle.

Firearm deaths in the US totaled more than 33,000 in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety tallied more than 100 school shootings following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

Gun violence has become a routine headline in the 24/7 news cycle, squeezed in between stories and leaving those dedicated to education, awareness, and new legislation with the challenge of carefully crafting messaging that is inclusive and positive to stay top of mind for the American public.

"Timing is everything," says Dan Hill, president of public affairs firm Ervin Hill Strategy.

Groups on either side of the debate would be wise to develop relationships with media that exist outside of outreach in the wake of a gun related event, he adds.

"Otherwise, it looks as if you’re being opportunistic every time there’s gun violence," says Hill. "You have to establish yourself as a credible, go-to source."

He notes trends in news might work against anyone promoting a specific message. Gone are the days of viewers being able to "sink their teeth into the issue," Hill adds, having been replaced with the 24-hour news agenda full of "things to distract our attention."

Americans aren’t necessarily desensitized to hearing about gun violence, he continues.

"As the volume of these incidents increase, sadly they become more noise, just like terrorist attacks in Israel. People don’t react the way we would because they’re so used to it – it’s part of daily life," he adds.

Crafting a message
Erika Soto Lamb, communications director for Everytown for Gun Safety, says the group wants people to know gun violence is not an isolated incident – as it "can affect Americans in every city and town."

"If you don’t want to live in an America where gun violence is pervasive, we all need to be a part of the solution," she notes.

Lamb says Everytown is inclusive, rather than anti-gun, and "not trying to take anybody’s guns away," but rather wants to keep the wrong weapons out of the wrong hands.

The word choice is important to Everytown’s message, from maintaining a sense of inclusion to defining what constitutes a school shooting. Everytown avoids using the term gun control, emphasizing gun safety.  

The organization also doesn’t use the word accident because an incident should have or could have been prevented. For instance, a parent taking steps to responsibly store a firearm in the home. Furthermore, Everytown defines a school shooting as "when a gun goes off on school grounds," says Lamb, not just applicable to large-scale tragedies.

Locally focused efforts can be as important as a national push. Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance, was not part of the gun-safety advocacy world until her community was rocked in late 2012 by the Sandy Hook tragedy.

"We are hoping that our message, ‘We are all touched by gun violence,’ will resonate and more people will get involved," she says. "The challenge is to keep those who were moved to action engaged and get new people to participate in the debate."

Murray says the new message was unveiled at the alliance’s second annual vigil commemorating the tragedy.

Signs of progress
Lamb acknowledges the campaign for gun safety is a growing movement with well-organized opposition, but says it is making progress.

For example, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America helped get major retailers such as Chipotle, Starbucks, Sonic, Jack in the Box, and Chili’s to change their policies to prohibit the open carry of guns in their establishments.

Throughout any campaign, Hill says traditional efforts still apply. Keeping it "out in front of people" by being visible on social media, particularly around events not tied to a specific gun-related event – a general awareness month, for example – can really help generate awareness.

He adds that groups focused on curbing violence need to explore promoting positive messages, instead of using "the fear factor of motivation."

National legislation gets a new push

A statement from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence announced two congressmen – a Republican and a Democrat – are working on the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act of 2015.

It had 188 co-sponsors in the last Congress, per the statesmen and wants "to expand background checks to cover all sales online and at gun shows."

Following the Sandy Hook attack, the states of Washington, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, and New York upped background checks to include all gun sales, according to the group. Oregon could be up next.

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