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Can Social Marketing Help Reduce School Mass Shootings?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nancy R. Lee
July 14, 2023

Imagine a world in which citizens eagerly adopt behaviors that public sector managers advocate for to improve public health (e.g., get a COVID-19 vaccine); reduce injuries (e.g., wear a bike helmet); prevent crime, (e.g., store handguns);  protect the environment (e.g., use alternative transportation); and engage communities (e.g., be a blood donor). This is a world that social marketing can help you create. Social marketing is a process that applies traditional marketing principles and techniques to influence citizen behaviors for social good. It is not the same as, though often confused with, social media, which is only one of many tactics, a communication channel, used to influence a behavior.

This column will illustrate a social marketing approach to reducing gun deaths and injuries from school mass shootings. To inform and inspire strategies, I’ll begin with the facts:

  • On average, there is one school shooting a week in America. (USAFACTS, 2015-2019)
  • 93 percent of school shooters planned their attack in advance. (Department of Homeland Security)
  • In four out of five school shootings, at least one other person had knowledge of the attacker’s plan but failed to report it. (Department of Homeland Security)
  • Almost half of all school shooters stole the gun from a family member. (Brookings Institution)
  • Roughly 40 percent of gun owners say they have at least one gun in their home that is loaded and easily accessible. (Pew Research)

And the impact of these facts can be substantiated with two examples of school mass shootings that social marketing strategies might have helped prevent.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, was the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in U.S. history, when 26 people were killed. Twenty of the victims were children between six and seven years old, and six were adult staff members. A report from the Connecticut State Attorney’s office stated that the shooter planned his actions in advance. And an article in Britannica indicated the handguns he used had been stolen from his mother.

The Uvalde, Texas, school shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers. An article in the Guardian reported that prior to the shooting, the shooter had sent a text message to a friend saying “Ima go shoot up a elementary school rn (right now).” In addition, three days prior to the massacre, he posted a photo of two AR15-style rifles on his Instagram account.

Two social marketing strategies to influence behaviors, if implemented, may have prevented these shootings:

Safely Secure Guns: Given, as noted earlier, that almost half of all school shooters steal guns from a family member, we need to promote and influence gun owners, especially those with children in the home, to lock up their guns. An example is the 2016 campaign by Seattle Children’s Hospital that leveraged research which found that parents would be more likely to keep their guns locked up if they were provided with a free device to secure their firearms. The program branded Protect Our Kids from Gun Tragedies featured distribution of lock boxes and trigger locks for free at Seattle Children’s events. At the first nine events a total of 2,544 lock boxes and 247 trigger locks were distributed. (Success in Social Marketing: 100 Case Studies from Around the Globe, Nancy R. Lee)

Say Something: Given the data that in four out of five school shootings someone had prior knowledge of the attacker’s plan, we should develop and implement efforts to influence the reporting of suspicious behavior or activities. After the Sandy Hook mass shooting, the families and loved ones of some of those who were killed or injured in the attack gathered to form Sandy Hook Promise. They developed the Say Something program to teach youths and adults what the warning signs of violence and suicide are, and companion Say Something Anonymous Reporting System to provide a safe way to get help 24/7/365 when seeing someone who may be at-risk of hurting themselves or others. As of 2023, 171,000+ anonymous tips have been received, 460 lives confirmed as saved and 15 planned school shootings prevented. (Sandy Hook Promise Website) 

In future columns, I will share social marketing strategies to address other major “wicked problems” in the United States including homelessness, youth suicide, carbon emissions, wildfires and fentanyl overdoses.

Author: Nancy R. Lee is an affiliate instructor at the University of Washington where she teaches courses in social marketing; a professional certificate course instructor for the International Social Marketing Association; president of Social Marketing Services, Inc.; a strategic advisor for C+C; and a coauthor of 13 books on social marketing with Philip Kotler. Email: [email protected]

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