It's time to understand the causes of mass gun violence

After 20 years of inaction and two more senseless mass shootings of innocent people, legislators must heed those lobbying for funds to research gun incidents.

Walmart in El Paso was the scene of another mass shooting of innocents. (Pic: Getty Images.)

The issue of guns and America is an emotive one and not something I’m about to pontificate about.

Piers Morgan was the last Brit who tried to do that and he was summarily drummed out of the country and packed off back to London after a short-lived sojourn on CNN as the replacement for broadcasting icon Larry King.

However… after the awful events of last weekend I couldn’t help thinking back to the PRWeek Awards and March For Our Lives cofounder and former Parkland High School student David Hogg’s moving speech that left a raucous room of 1,000 people rapt and engaged.

Hogg challenged corporations to raise awareness and wield their influence about issues such as gun violence and strive to better the communities in which they operate.

He told the PRWeek crowd: "As Americans and communicators, we realize that the death of children cannot be a debatable topic."

Brands including Levi’s are heeding Hogg’s call: "We are inspired by the young people who are speaking up on America’s gun violence epidemic."

Led by CEO Chip Bergh, who will be featured in the September issue of PRWeek, the iconic jeans manufacturer is spending more than $1 million on nonprofits and youth activists working to end gun violence, partnering with Everytown for Gun Safety, and matching employee contributions to its Safer Tomorrow Fund.

The issue has been placed in stark context for mega-retailer Walmart in recent weeks. On July 30, an employee in Mississippi shot and killed two workers and last weekend in El Paso, Texas, a gunman opened fire in a Walmart store and killed 22 people, including a 3-year-old child, and injured 24 more.

In a further shooting last weekend, in Dayton, Ohio, nine people were killed and 27 were injured.

Last weekend’s tragedies led to calls for Walmart to discontinue sales of firearms, with lobbying group Guns Down America telling MSNBC: "Walmart is such a major player that if they really decided to lean into this issue, we could see some real change."

For PR professionals at Walmart and elsewhere, it raises the issue of immediate on-the-ground crisis communication plans and then messaging appropriately afterwards.

The retailer stopped selling handguns in the 1990s and ended sales of modern sporting rifles in 2015, including the AR-15. Last year, it banned sales of firearms and ammunition to anyone under the age of 21.

It does not sell bump stocks, high-capacity magazines and other accessories and says it has processes in place to monitor e-commerce sales. It requires customers to pass a background check before purchasing any firearm and removed items from its website resembling assault-style rifles, including toys. But it seems it has no plans to go further than this.

In reaction to the weekend’s events, Walmart sent around an internal memo instructing its employees to remove signage and playable demos for violent video games, as well as hunting videos. But its policy on selling guns remains unchanged.

In comparison, Dick’s Sporting Goods has stopped selling guns in 125 stores and clamped down further in all of them, with CEO Ed Stack moved to do this by the Parkland shooting, where the shooter purchased his weapon from a Dick's store.

It no longer sells semi-automatic assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines that hold a large number of bullets for semi-automatic weapons. It also no longer sells weapons to those under 21.

These are all welcome measures and, frankly, long overdue.

As Hogg said: "The very thing that makes the organizations that have allowed this to continue in the United States and not in any other developed country is messaging. It’s communicating. And with that power of communicating comes responsibility."

Hogg recalled confronting protesters in Texas who were asking him why he was trying to take away their guns. He told them that unless they are a domestic abuser, trying to kill themselves or are a terrorist he wasn’t trying to take away their guns.

The messaging and the actions of all parties are careful to emphasize safer gun use rather than the thorny and impenetrable issue of banning guns altogether.

Hogg pointed out that the federal government spends precisely nothing on funding research into gun violence, something that kills 40,000 people annually in the U.S. It hasn’t spent anything for the past 20 years, since the Dickey amendment, which stated that no money can be spent "to advocate or promote gun control."

The House Appropriations Committee has now specifically proposed allocating money to such research in the fiscal 2020 spending measure, but it still faces barriers in getting it through Congress.

Despite the continued mass shootings, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said: "I’m hopeful we… wouldn’t change things that have been traditionally in the bill or attempt to fund partisan priorities."

This is shortsighted and shouldn’t be seen as a partisan issue. Instead of lazy generalizations about video games or immigration with no factual basis, let’s do the research to understand why mass gun violence incidents are happening and let’s finally do something before the next tragedy focuses everyone’s mind on this issue again.

It’s time for some serious communication among all parties - and it’s time to put an end to preventable gun violence.

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