When done well, storytelling brings sterile data to life. But stories can also be told in ways that ignore data and perpetuate harmful myths. And when it comes to gun violence, the stories that loom largest threaten the hard-fought progress made in recent years on this issue.
We’ve all heard the classic, every-man-for-himself saying, “When seconds count and the police are minutes away.” Those nine words are as memorable as they are emblematic of Americans’ views on firearms—when polled by the Pew Research Center in July 2023, protection was the number one reason people decide to get a gun. In reality however, a gun at home makes families less safe—not safer. Wielding the family gun to stop an armed intruder? Unlikely. A household gun used to kill the gun owner or their loved ones? Far more likely. But the latter story has less of a probability to be shown in modern entertainment.
To reduce gun violence, the stories we tell about guns should be based on what’s true: Most of the time, the presence of a gun makes people less safe.
As the narrative of the “good guy with a gun” took hold, public opinion about guns shifted. In the early 2000s, most people believed that having a gun made them less safe and household gun ownership was on the decline. By 2018, nearly 6 in 10 Americans believed the myth that having a gun would make them safer.
It’s likely that an increasingly ferocious gun industry and its lobbying groups played a role in this shift, as did a rise in public mass shootings. It’s also true that there’s more gun violence in pop culture now than there was two decades ago. One 2021 study in the research journal PLOS One looked at how regularly prime time dramas depicted gun violence in 2000 versus 2018 and found that scenes featuring gun violence had doubled.
Regardless of the cause, the data around the effect is quite clear. As more people began to believe the myth that guns made them safer and chose to purchase firearms to address their fears, rates of gun violence increased too. More guns make us less safe.
Whether it’s local news or a beloved tv series or documentary, the stories we tell about guns and gun violence impact people’s views on the subject. Last year, the gun violence prevention group I founded, Project Unloaded, surveyed 1,000 members of Gen Z and asked them how they learned about guns. Most young people name family and friends as their main source for information about guns, but more than half of the young people polled cited television and film as a source of information. The influence of television and film is particularly strong for young Black people, who are disproportionately impacted by gun violence. Black children are more than 17 times as likely to die in a shooting as a white child of the same age according to CDC data.
If reducing gun violence is the goal, the path forward must include taking a careful look at the stories we tell and the messages they send—particularly to young people, who are still making up their minds about whether or not they’ll own a gun.
A 2021 report produced by Sundance Institute and the Kendeda Fund offers strategies filmmakers can take to produce stories relevant to our nation’s gun violence crisis that are both compelling and effective at driving change. Some documentaries are already putting its recommendations to work. But as the report highlights, we shouldn’t expect every project to appeal to every person—and in fact, we are more likely to persuade and shift culture when we tailor our outputs.
At Project Unloaded, we focus our efforts on reaching young people with fact-based narratives about guns before they’ve made up their minds on the topic. We primarily work through social media campaigns on platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. On those platforms, we partner with Gen Z influencers to share the facts about how guns make us less safe without the partisan, polarized debate that often comes with talking about guns. So far, our results indicate this approach is working. We’ve reached over 3 million young people with our Safer Not Using Guns (SNUG) campaign.
Project Unloaded also runs community partner programs in select cities. Together with Chicago Public Schools, last summer, we worked with 50 high school students from some of the neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence. We showed students the data on how guns make them less safe and brought in marketing experts to help the teens craft their own social media campaigns that could reach their peers with that message. Almost all the participants had a personal experience with gun violence, and at the start of the program most said they were considering gun ownership.
One young woman, whose brother was shot to death and whose father is behind bars, expressed skepticism – she was sure that no one cared what she thought, and that gun violence couldn’t be stopped. By the conclusion of the program, she told us that we’d helped her see how she and her peers could be part of the solution, and the percentage of students who said they were definitely or probably getting a gun fell by more than 20 points.
Adults are unlikely to shift their coffee order, let alone their views on a topic like guns after so many years of exposure to powerful yet false narratives around guns and safety. But young people are open to considering the facts on this issue and changing their minds as a result. In our 2022 survey, 17% of young people shifted away from the belief that guns made them safer after exposure to simple fact-based messages about gun risks.
In that finding is the path forward: human-centered, data-backed stories about gun violence can shift views and behaviors around guns and eventually, save lives.
To some, a 17% shift in views may sound small. But we shouldn’t expect one set of facts, or any one piece of media to resonate with everyone who sees it. Thankfully, culture change doesn’t require that. It only requires that a message stays with enough of its audience that the message can then spread organically through peer-to-peer conversation. That’s how teen use of cigarettes dropped by 20 points in 20 years. A similar shift can happen on guns.
The more we can use creative outputs such as visual art, film, and even social media campaigns to spread the message that guns make us less safe, the safer we all will eventually be. With data-based work and thoughtful, humanistic storytelling, we can change the narrative on guns and finally slow our nation’s gun violence epidemic.