A Citizen-Behavior Approach to Guns


When I was growing up, there were several guns in our house. My father was a lifelong hunter and worked for the Oregon State Game Commission. I hunted with him as a boy. We pursued ducks, geese, pheasants, rabbits, deer, and occasionally elk – not always successfully.

He owned a couple of rifles and shotguns and a pistol or two, all stored in a gun cabinet in his den. The glass door on the cabinet was never locked. Ammunition was kept in a nearby drawer. My father taught my sister and me several rules:

  • Never handle the guns unless he was with us.
  • Never point any gun at anyone.
  • Always assume that a gun might be loaded.

My sister and I strictly followed his rules in our house. The alarming exception was one time when we were visiting my grandparents, who had a small farm in the Willamette Valley. My sister, who was 9, and I, age 7, were playing in the barn one day when I spotted a double-barreled shotgun leaning against the wall. I picked it up and held it to my shoulder, then playfully swung the barrel around. I briefly aimed it toward my sister, then pointed it toward a wall.

I don’t remember pulling the trigger, but the gun fired with a loud boom, and shotgun pellets peppered the wall. My sister and I were stunned. I quickly put the gun back and we ran into the nearby woods, not returning to my grandparents’ farmhouse for a couple of hours. When we did, to our relief, no one mentioned hearing the blast — and we didn’t say a word about it. We never told our parents or grandparents, who would have been horrified.

That incident has haunted me for decades. I could have injured or killed my sister, even though my father had taught us strict gun-safety rules. My boyhood carelessness might have had deadly results.

I thought of that experience lately when Nancy R. Lee spoke to the Mercer Island Rotary Club about her latest book, Reducing Gun Deaths & Injuries – A Social Marketing Approach. A longtime resident of Mercer Island, Lee is president of Social Marketing Services Inc. and an affiliate instructor at the University of Washington. She also teaches an online professional certificate course for the International Social Marketing Association. This is the 16th book that Lee has written or co-authored.

In her presentation to Rotary, Lee said she decided to write this book after the May 2022 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and 2 teachers were killed at an elementary school. The shooter had texted a friend that he planned to “shoot up” a school and posted a photo of two AR-15 rifles three days before the shooting. Lee also noted that the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation found that in 4 out of 5 school shootings, at least one other person knew in advance of the threat, and that 50% of the shooters stole the gun from a family member.

As she researched the topic, she learned that:

  • More than 44% of Americans have at least one gun in their households;
  • At least 100 Americans die every day from gun injuries;
  • 60% of gun-related deaths are suicide;
  • More than one mass shooting occurs every day on average;
  • A school shooting happens almost every week.

As a result, Lee decided to focus on what she calls the “4 S’s.”

  • Safe storage
  • See something, say something
  • Suicide prevention
  • Social equity

Her well-researched book details each area using “a citizen-behavior-change approach” rather than focusing on laws and politics. This approach “is intended to inform and inspire current and aspiring professionals in public health, law enforcement, city governments, school districts, event coordinators, communications firms and more to successfully develop a social marketing program to influence protective behaviors,” a flyer states.

Lee believes that individual citizens may have as much power to make constructive changes as do elected officials. Her book details strategies for specific actions that do not involve legislation, regulation, registration, or confiscation of guns. Given the dug-in divisions of opinion about the 2nd Amendment and gun control, this could be a wise approach.

Lee has worked closely with Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes to help reduce gun violence in her community. In a Foreword to her book, Holmes wrote: “I have known social marketing expert and author Nancy Lee for many years through our local service club [Rotary]. Several years ago she worked with our staff to identify ways to reduce crime in our neighborhoods…. With her help she made our community safer.” The Chief focused on these areas:

SAFE STORAGE: Lee helped MIPD market its “Lock It or Lose It” campaign, which makes gun locks available for free. They may be picked up at the department’s current location in Luther Burbank Park or at the Farmer’s Market.

In other states and cities, gun trigger locks have made a difference. Minnesota has given away more than 50,000 since 2022, and St. Louis more than 8,000 at fire stations, libraries, and police departments. In her Rotary talk, Lee noted that new versions will unlock a gun with just a thumb print rather than a key or combination.

SAY SOMETHING: Nearly half of all mass shooters “leaked their plan” in advance, Lee said. In one high-school shooting, the shooter posted pictures of himself on TikTok with his guns. The reasons for non-reporting can include a concern that the report might be wrong, or the reporter didn’t know who or how to tell, or they might fear retribution for “telling someone.” But she cited the Sandy Hook Promise Program that created ”Say Something,” a free downloadable “Tip App” in which people may report concerns anonymously. It has prevented at least 15 planned shootings.

SUICIDE PREVENTION: More than 60% of gun deaths are suicides and there are more than 65 suicides a day, on average. Of high-school students, nearly 20% have considered suicide, 15% have a plan, and 10% have actually attempted it.

Gun suicides reached an all-time high in the United States in 2022, and the gun suicide rate among Black teens surpassed that of white teens for the first time on record, according to USA Today in July 2023.

Lee showed a moving video of interviews with two young men. One was very close to committing suicide, but a friend came over and they had a long talk. Such personal outreach can make the difference, Lee said. In this state, the Department of Health and C+C, a communications firm, began a “Start a Convo, Save a Life” program that shares stories of youth who help save friends’ lives.

SOCIAL EQUITY: Lee noted that young Black and Hispanic males, average age 18, are at the highest risk as gun victims or offenders. A national program called “Group Violence Intervention” has been successful in addressing this through face-to-face gatherings of gang members. Community members from law enforcement, faith-based organizations, local businesses, and social-service agencies meet with gang members to urge nonviolence. In Boston, the program led to a 63% reduction in youth homicides; in Chicago, a 23% reduction in overall shootings. A U.S. AID study found that GVI had “the largest impact on crime and violence, by far, of any intervention.”

Lee identifies 20 specific strategies for reducing gun violence of different types. They all have great promise. What they need is for citizens of good will to step up and make change happen. We certainly will never eliminate all the guns in this country, but surely we can greatly reduce the harm they can cause. Lee’s book can help.

This article first appeared in The Mercer Island Reporter.

John Hamer
John Hamer
John Hamer was a Times editorial writer and columnist from 1977-1990. He later co-founded the Washington News Council, a non-profit citizens’ group. He retired in 2015 and now writes a regular column for the Mercer Island Reporter.


  1. Thank you for highlighting Nancy R. Lee’s book and recommendations. I didn’t know about her work, but the four S’s seem so sound. Not to say we should give up trying to change legislation, but truly, her recommendations are things we individually can do. Perhaps we can actually improve conditions around here.

    Thanks, too, for sharing the story about you and your sister in the barn with the loaded shotgun. My goodness, tragedy averted.


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