In Buffalo’s wake, marketers look at gun violence through a public health lens

The focus of Americans has returned anew to the effects of gun violence and preventing it in the future.

On Saturday, a gunman killed 10 people in Buffalo. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
On Saturday, a gunman killed 10 people in Buffalo. (Photo credit: Getty Images).
  • For months, the national conversation has considered the idea of a quote-unquote return to normal as the pandemic shifts to an endemic phase. In American life, that also means the return of widespread gun violence, specifically in the form of mass shootings.
  • On Saturday, a gunman killed 10 people in a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, in what local police called a racially motivated hate crime. The shooting occurred days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data that found the firearm homicide rate rose 35% during the pandemic, reaching a 25-year high.
  • Over the past two decades, the issue of gun violence has taken on an added level of significance in the wake of mass shootings at schools, concerts and nightclubs. 

    The question becomes what medical marketers can do to evaluate gun violence through a public health lens – and subsequently create effective campaigns to communicate the topic to consumers.

    Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said it is important to address the myths surrounding gun violence, such as the idea that “guns don’t kill people” and that criminal background checks are ineffective in preventing shootings.

    Benjamin believes the goal of public health is to reduce risks. To that end, he thinks there should be an emphasis on making firearms safer so that fewer people get injured or killed, whether through homicides or suicides.

    “We know how these shootings occur and we know when they occur – and yet again, from a marketing and media storytelling perspective, we don’t always tell the whole story,” Benjamin explained. “What I mean by that is: How could we have prevented this from happening?”

    Given the frequency and severity of mass shootings over the past couple of decades, Benjamin acknowledged the callousness of the news cycle. People are shocked and horrified at the initial details, then another story gets more attention days later and people move on. 

    That’s why he urges public health officials and medical marketers to “keep up the drumbeat” on the issue of gun violence, promoting not only potential solutions but also identifying obstacles to progress.

    “A lot of the people who have been opposed to gun control put out ‘thoughts and prayers’ and don’t understand their role in perpetuating this by doing nothing,” Benjamin said.

    Looking back on public health policy successes in curbing other instances of preventable harm or death, Benjamin pointed to the prevalence of automobile crashes in the 1960s and 1970s. He noted that a range of approaches – requirements for seat belts, driver’s education and collapsible steering wheels – ultimately reduced automobile fatalities.

    A similar approach could work for guns, he added, suggesting that background checks, waiting periods and loading indicators could reduce the risk of intentional or accidental harm caused by firearms.

    “We have a whole bunch of strategies and public policy, but they’re not getting implemented because there’s a group of people who have decided from an absolute perspective that anything that gun control advocates do, they view as a slippery slope – whether it’s a right to have a firearm as an absolute, which it isn’t, or the right to have a dangerous tool in your home as absolute, which it absolutely isn’t,” Benjamin explained. “They oppose anyone who says anything that disputes that view, and that’s what has to change.”

    Dr. Cedric Dark is a faculty member at Baylor College of Medicine and an emergency physician – and a gun owner who is working on a book discussing gun violence from the physician’s perspective. 

    Dark’s interest in the issue was sparked by a 2018 tweet from the National Rifle Association that said physicians should “stay in their lane.” The tweet was in response to an Annals of Internal Medicine position paper calling for a reduction of gun violence. The resulting controversy led to physicians discussing the issue of gun violence by using the hashtag #ThisIsOurLane.

    There are potential remedies for some aspects of gun violence, Dark noted, but he cautioned that there’s no silver bullet. Indeed, he said that many public policy actions that may seem like common sense lack political support and likely would not be implemented at the federal level.

    As for potential successes, Dark characterized child access prevention laws as “probably one of the most effective” gun restrictions and noted that they are considered reasonable by most gun owners. He also noted that community-based violence intervention programs have demonstrated an ability to break the cycle of trauma recidivism. Yet despite additional funding from the Biden administration, those initiatives have largely gone underfunded nationally.

    Still, businesses and brands can play a role in effecting meaningful change and reducing the risk of gun violence. Dark highlighted how Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling firearms to people under the age of 21 following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018.

    “That might have more impact than everyone sitting around arguing in Congress,” Dark said.

  • This story first appeared on 

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