Once upon a time in America, people rolled their eyes at seatbelts, four out of ten high school students smoked cigarettes, and campers left their fires smoldering through the night. Then we changed. Not primarily because of policy reforms, but because teams of marketers crafted public health messaging campaigns in which chatty crash test dummies told us to buckle up, teens piled 1,200 body bags in front of the Philip Morris headquarters, and Smokey Bear identified who, precisely, can prevent forest fires.

Recently, big players in gun violence prevention have begun asking whether this tradition of transforming America through advertising might be used to reform our relationship to guns, too.

This is a major shift. Since its inception, the gun violence prevention movement has invested the bulk of its time and money in a top-down strategy: change gun policy in courtrooms and statehouses, the thinking goes, and the trajectory of gun violence in America will change, too. But despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this strategy and enjoying the support of most of the American public, the movement has failed to budge the metrics that matter most: Gun deaths have been climbing for decades, and in 2020, guns surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for young people.

Some gun reform advocates have decided that it’s time to try a different strategy: Go directly to the people. And, for the first time, this bottom-up approach has been drawing major attention and funding in the gun violence prevention world. The Ad Council — kingmaker in the realm of public-service announcements — has recently worked with gun violence prevention groups on one project to promote safe gun-storage practices and a second to educate the public about red-flag laws. In February, they announced a third gun violence collaboration with health care groups. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has been building out its own gun-safety messaging efforts focused on service members and veterans, and just last month, on red flag laws.

But the most ambitious effort to change Americans’ relationship to guns is being led by a nonprofit founded two years ago, called Project Unloaded. Rather than trying to improve how existing gun owners handle their weapons, or curry public support for a specific policy, Project Unloaded is using marketing to attack the problem at the heart of gun violence: Too many households own guns, and more access to guns leads to more deaths and injuries

A single statistic led to the organization’s founding: In 2014 a Gallup poll found that the portion of Americans who believe that having a gun in the house makes it a safer place had jumped from 35 percent to 63 percent in only 15 years.

The spike rattled Nina Vinik, a longtime player in the gun violence prevention world. Not just because piles of public health research show the belief to be false, but because the falsehood has nonetheless been accepted by many people who are not part of the traditional gun-owning demographic. Women believe it. People of color believe it. Young people believe it.

It occurred to Vinik that while the gun industry had been aggressively pushing the message that guns are the solution to an unsafe world, no one had been pushing back with the empirical truth, uncovered in study after study: In an unsafe world, owning a gun makes you more vulnerable. This revelation led Vinik to found Project Unloaded. The organization’s goal is to inform young people that if they buy a gun, their odds of dying by a bullet will go up. The group’s wager is that if enough young people know the facts, and even a portion of them choose not to arm themselves, America’s gun death trends will, at long last, reverse course.

Early data from Project Unloaded shows that this radical departure from traditional activism holds promise. The group has flooded the social media feeds of young people in a dozen cities with ads and influencer content, reaching more than 2 million teens an average of 30 times each. Surveys indicate that at least 15 percent of teens repeatedly exposed to these messages shifted their view on whether owning a gun would make them safer.

Project Unloaded is also experimenting with deeper in-person engagement in a few places. For six weeks in summer 2023, 50 students from Chicago Public Schools were paid to spend 12 hours a week in a Project Unloaded program to design and implement a bespoke public-messaging campaign. It wasn’t a smooth ride, for the students in the program or for the program’s organizers. Vinik’s team found themselves in a tense negotiation with the students over how to make the assignment feel more relevant to their lived experience on Chicago’s South Side, where gun violence is not an abstract problem. Still, a portion of the participants in the Chicago experiment said it had fundamentally changed the way they saw guns — and made them question whether they wanted to own one. 

For these results to scale up, and the nation to change its relationship to firearms significantly enough that gun deaths actually drop, a lot would have to go right: The messages would have to be appropriate and sensitive enough to land with their audiences. They would have to be persuasive enough to change not just minds, but also behavior. They would have to be ubiquitous — for decades. And most importantly, they would have to outmaneuver the gun industry’s own marketing machine.

Vinik joined the gun violence prevention movement two decades ago, after working for years as a civil rights attorney suing Chicago landlords over fair housing violations. In those days, as she sipped her coffee over the morning paper, she often read of shootings on the very blocks where her clients lived. She began to sour on piecemeal litigation as a way to make a safer and more just world. When a friend suggested that she apply for a job advocating for better gun policy in Illinois, she did. 

By the time she came across the Gallup poll results that changed everything for her, Vinik had occupied a few roles in gun violence prevention, and she was working at the Joyce Foundation, where she was charged with doling out grants to organizations working on gun violence in the Great Lakes region. (The Trace has received grants from the Joyce Foundation; our policy on donor transparency is here.) These funders were pouring money into an array of approaches: Policy change efforts, Second Amendment litigation, academic research, community violence intervention, criminal justice reform. Vinik had seen some progress in most of those areas. But not enough to slow the rate of deaths. 

The poll results gave her a sense of why this might be. 

The American gun industry has long played to the fears of the public. One 1920s-era ad, described by historian Pamela Haag in her book “The Gunning of America,” warned the country’s new legions of automobile drivers against the dangers of country road hold-ups: “If attacked suddenly, all you have to do is grab your Colt and get the drop on the other fellow.” Around the same time, Winchester Repeating Arms Company began marketing their fastest-shooting pistols to business owners worried about “disturbances, either racial or political.” 

For most of the 20th century, such pitches were only a small part of the industry’s marketing strategy. As hunting became less popular, that strategy began to change. Between 1980 and 2000, the portion of American households with guns diminished from half to a third. To maintain sales, the gun industry needed to change its pitch. It chose to sell fear.

A close look at 65 years of advertising in Guns magazine illustrates this evolution. A study published in Nature found that until the mid-1970s, at least three-quarters of the industry’s ads marketed guns as tools for hunting and sports shooting, and less than 5 percent marketed them for protection. By 2019, less than 5 percent of the ads promoted guns for hunting and sports shooting, and more than 60 percent marketed them for self defense or concealed carry. A second study looking at 100 years of advertising in the National Rifle Association’s monthly publication American Rifleman found the same trends.

From a business perspective, Vinik told me, this makes sense. “If you’re an industry that’s faced with a shrinking consumer base, and a product that doesn’t need to be replaced every year, how do you respond?” she said. “You expand your customer base.”

As gun peddlers began to focus on protection, so did their industry’s political operators. As Vinik and her colleagues visited statehouses to advocate for gun safety regulations, the industry and its allies were there too, successfully pushing through stand-your-ground and concealed carry laws. In Congress, the industry had allies like longtime Representative John Dingell, who not only reshaped federal gun policy, but pushed the NRA to adopt a mantra of self-defense, which it leaned into as it became one of the nation’s most powerful interest groups. As mass shootings became more prevalent and calls for gun reform amplified, these political leaders have steadfastly insisted that the way to protect Americans from gun violence is for more people to buy and carry guns.

The public has received this message. Gun ownership declined through the 1980s and 1990s, but has recently made gains. As the old gun-owning class — hunters and veterans — have passed on, they’ve been replaced by a cross-section of people purchasing guns to feel safer. In 1999, a quarter of gun owners told Pew pollsters that their primary reason for owning a gun was protection. In 2013, half of gun owners did. In 2023, nearly three-quarters named protection as a major reason they owned guns.

To Vinik, the best proof of the industry’s messaging success is that gun owners aren’t the only ones to have bought the industry’s story. Every several years, Gallup’s Social Series poll has asked the question, “Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?” In 2000, 35 percent of respondents said it made it a safer place. In 2004, that figure was 42 percent; in 2006, 47 percent; in 2014, 63 percent. In 2023, it was 64 percent, nearly twice the percentage of Americans who own guns. The belief that guns equal safety remains strongest among conservatives, but it has risen across all demographics. 

And the belief is indeed a myth. While people who associate guns with safety may imagine protecting their home from an intruder, guns are more likely to be used for any other purpose. Having a gun in the house makes suicide attempts more deadly, shooting accidents more common, domestic disputes more dangerous, and human crises of all kinds more likely to take terrifying turns. Even in the few crimes in which guns are used in self defense, they don’t diminish a victim’s chances of being injured when compared to people who call the police or run away. How do you change a country’s mind once it has the wrong idea? Vinik needed to know. She brought people from across the movement together to brainstorm. Someone mentioned the Truth Initiative, a public health messaging organization widely credited with vanquishing teen cigarette smoking in a single generation. To test whether similar tactics held potential in this context, Joyce started a pilot project, and the results were more promising than Vinik had hoped. So, in 2021, with the financial backing of Joyce and others, Vinik launched Project Unloaded with a simple goal: Change the hearts and minds of America’s teenagers.

Project Unloaded participants Egypt Paige and Aeja Hood pose for portraits at Percy Julian High School, in Chicago, IL. Akilah Townsend for The Trace

Vinik, who’s on the younger end of the boomer generation, watched gleefully as a trio of teenaged Gen Z-ers, with great patience, showed an elder Gen Z-er and a millennial how to do the dance. 

“OK so it’s just this,” 16-year-old Anvesha Guru said, rolling her shoulders. “Just a little shimmy.”

The millennial looked skeptical. The elder zoomer set a condition: “You get one take.” 

The TikTok meme they were riffing on features two sets of people dancing to a clip from Soulja Boy’s 2011 hit “Pretty Boy Swag.” The premise is that the first dancers are looking for something, the second are offering that thing. In this case, Anvesha and two other teens had performed as the seekers, dancing under the text “people who want to target gun culture,” and now it was time for the 26-year-old and 34-year-old — both Project Unloaded employees — to do so under the organization’s banner.

“OK, three… two… one!” Anvesha said. The pair moved their shoulders and hips as directed. As soon as they finished, Anvesha turned to the other teens: “THE MILLENNIAL PAUSE!” they all screamed. Millennials are famous on Gen Z TikTok for waiting a second too long after hitting record before starting to talk or dance, and this recording had fulfilled the stereotype.

One of the first things Project Unloaded did after its launch was hire a dozen teenagers from around the country, who would be paid a stipend for providing feedback and TikToks. This particular weekend, the members of the youth council had flown and driven in to meet in the basement of a downtown Chicago hotel. They had spent the morning getting updates on the program’s successes and failures in 2023, and its plans for 2024. Anvesha, a high school senior from Wisconsin and the council’s social media chair, had been tasked with getting the group to practice making content. She and the elder Gen Zer — Project Unloaded’s program director Olivia Brown — passed silly prompts to the rest of the council while they waited for their Chipotle lunch to arrive. One prompt: “Explain what Project Unloaded does, but you must use the word rooster.” The resulting video: “If Project Unloaded was an animal, what animal would it be?” a 20-year-old asks a 15-year-old over a newscast jingle, holding a ballpoint pen as a microphone. “I think it’d be a rooster, as it is a wakeup call to the world that guns make us less safe,” the 15-year-old says. The 20-year-old turns back to the camera: “You heard it here first!”

Half of Gen Zers report that they think about mass shootings at least once a week, which makes sense since most were taught how to respond to an active school shooter before they were taught to read. Yet, even more than their elders do, young people have come to believe the myth that guns provide safety: 68 percent of people under 34 believe a gun makes a house a safer place, compared to 61 percent of baby boomers. 

When Vinik first learned of that contradiction, it struck her as an opportunity. Like older adults, young people have absorbed the falsehood. But it hasn’t yet been cemented in their worldview. 

When young folks adopt a stance, it can spread across generations. A study in North Carolina, for instance, found that when schoolchildren learn about the climate crisis in class, their parents become more concerned about it, as well. Young people have shaken off the stigma associated with mental health issues, which in turn has encouraged the rest of us to go to therapy more, too. Changing young minds about guns could have a trickle-up effect.

In early 2022, Project Unloaded launched its first campaign. It was dubbed SNUG, short for Safer Not Using Guns and, handily, the word guns backward. The campaign’s ads featured bright colors, lo-fi beats and simple, shorthand messages: “DYK… SUICIDES R 4X HIGHER 4 KIDS W/ GUNS @ 🏠… R U SNUG?” reads their top-performing 15-second ad. The ads were initially placed on the TikTok and Snapchat feeds of teenagers in three cities, and soon expanded to 12. The campaign was rolling out as planned until early 2023, when TikTok abruptly banned the ads for being “political,” and rejected appeals arguing that they were strictly educational. So Project Unloaded bought more ad space on Snapchat and began advertising on Instagram, as well, and to get around the ad ban on TikTok they paid more influencers to talk about the #yousnug campaign. One hair-care influencer styled her curls while explaining that a gun can make domestic violence disputes more deadly. An actor and comedian in New York City, sipping her morning iced coffee, talked about finding herself in an active shooter situation on the train. “That’s why I choose to be SNUG,” she concluded.

Vinik’s team runs all ad content by their youth council, Anvesha told me. “With the SNUG ads they were like, ‘Are these colors too bright for young people? Will they find it cringy?’” In addition to giving advice and making content, the council has taken on its own projects. Last year, they launched a teen-focused SMS text program that sends out gun safety stats. They also conducted and published an independent research project investigating how the actors’ and screenwriters’ labor strikes had impacted the quantity of gun violence shown on TV. After collectively watching 150 hours of primetime network TV from before and during the strike, they concluded that gun violence depictions shrank significantly without affecting ratings.

In Chicago, after finishing their TikTok dances and their Chipotle, the youth council brainstormed what they should take on next. Brown encouraged them to consider “big, bold projects” worth a major investment of resources over the next year. Councilmembers dreamed up a toolkit that school clubs and other youth groups can use to promote the SNUG idea, and a youth summit on gun violence. Most of their ideas focused on bringing the SNUG campaign into schools. 

In fact, Project Unloaded had already begun to take this venture off the screen and into the real world. It didn’t exactly go as planned. 

Most of the teens on Project Unloaded’s youth council grew up in places where shootings are most commonly self-inflicted. The same cannot be said for the 50 Chicago Public School students who last July found themselves the guinea pigs of Project Unloaded’s first attempt to bring the SNUG message offline. Their neighborhood, Chicago’s South Side, is one of the rare places in America where firearm homicides significantly outnumber firearm suicides. Vinik was expecting the students to arrive with reservations about the message that they didn’t need a gun to be safe. But she hadn’t exactly expected a rebellion.

The students had found themselves working with Project Unloaded after signing up for a summer jobs program for public school students, a partnership between the district and a variety of community organizations and businesses. Some students in the program worked in retail, others in a government office, others in job training programs. The kids assigned to the Project Unloaded pilot were told they would be paid to spend their Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 10am to 2pm creating a campaign against gun violence. They were split into teams and tasked with researching public health literature on gun ownership and violence. After that, they would work with professional mentors to develop a marketing campaign informing other young people of the facts. 

Within days, some students were so restive that there was talk in the district of aborting the pilot and reassigning students to other jobs. Vinik called an old friend, Jadine Chou, who oversees safety and security for Chicago Public Schools and who had helped arrange the pilot. Chou canceled her appointments for the day to meet with the students and try to get to the bottom of their exasperation.

One of the groups was especially disgruntled. Some students had signed up for a summer jobs program thinking they might, say, work as a camp counselor, but instead they were doing research, which felt way too much like school. Some felt the assignment itself was dumb: They could do it, but why? It’s not like anyone listens to teenagers anyway. A couple of them reasoned that gun violence was a problem caused by adults, and it was wrong to ask kids to fix it on their summer break. One said she went to bed every night wondering if she’d wake up to a call that her brother had been shot. Googling studies on gun violence felt both emotionally taxing and disconnected from her lived experience. 

Chou listened and tried to affirm each of their concerns. The group brainstormed how to make the project live up to the students’ expectations, and specifically how to make it feel more authentic and useful to them and their peers. By the third hour of talking things through, the students said they were feeling better. Along the way, one kid had come up with a slogan they could use for the team’s marketing project, and the others were into it. The next day, they got to work.

I told this story to Dr. Selwyn Rogers, who is the founding director of the University of Chicago Trauma and Acute Care Center, the place most people on the South Side of Chicago go for treatment if they are shot. I had come to visit Rogers one afternoon as the November light dwindled over the city. He met me in the emergency department reception area, a room choked with mute affliction, and walked me to his office. 

Rogers wasn’t surprised by the rebellion, nor by the reconciliation. The young people he speaks with have divided feelings about guns. On one hand, they fear them very much. On the other, having a gun gives them a sense of control over their life. “They tell me, ‘If I get caught somewhere by someone that I have a beef with over something I posted on social media, and they point a gun at me, I lose. I don’t lose a game, I lose my life.’” In that context, carrying a gun can feel like the sanest choice.

But Rogers said the arms race on the South Side is not inevitable. “You could never convince a 76-year-old guy that they should give up the gun they’ve had their entire life because they’re battling depression after their wife died,” he said. Young people are different: “Kids can change.”

Rogers has worked as a trauma surgeon his whole career (“that puts me at 36 — no, 37 — years of seeing people harmed by bullets”). When he was recruited to establish and run the trauma center, he made it his job to get to know Chicago’s gun violence prevention world, which is how he met Vinik. When she launched Project Unloaded and asked him to sit on its steering committee, he immediately agreed. A cultural approach alone won’t stanch the flow of bullet-ridden patients into his trauma bay, he said: “If anyone thinks one thing alone is going to solve this, they’re deluding themselves.” But in a world where children routinely show up on his surgery table, everything is worth trying, he said, “Even if gun death numbers go from 40,000 to 39,999.”

Project Unloaded doesn’t need to reach everyone for those numbers to drop a lot more than that, Vinik said. If future gun ownership decreases by just a couple of points, the effects will be population-level big. With moderate messaging success, she posits, within five years the number of people who believe guns make them safer should begin to shrink, and with it, gun ownership levels among young people. In 30 years, when the 15-year-olds they’re advertising to today are raising their own 15-year-olds, the stats could be back down to where they were in 2000, with two-thirds of Americans understanding that guns don’t confer safety. No policy wins required.

Such predictions have given some in the gun violence prevention movement a rare sense of hope. But they have also engendered plenty of skepticism. For Project Unloaded’s gambit to work, the nation would have to change its relationship to a product deeply entrenched in its culture and customs, in a lasting way. 

It might sound impossible, had it not been done many times before.

Friends Egypt Paige and Aeja hug one another as they share their stories. Akilah Townsend for The Trace

A good public messaging campaign can sneak up on us, prodding us to adapt our behavior in subtle but real ways. Dr. Michael Anestis, the executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers, offered the example of a sneeze. As a kid, he was taught to sneeze into his hand. Years later, his hospital put up signs in the elevators asking that people sneeze into their elbow instead. At first he had no intention of doing so. But slowly he saw colleagues and friends sneeze into their elbow, people on TV sneeze into their elbow, strangers sneeze into their elbow. One day — he couldn’t say how long after — he sneezed into his elbow, too. Today, it’s become such a norm for him that he finds himself taken aback when he sees a sneezer cover their mouth with a hand.

Public service campaigns can also fail. Any American between the ages of 30 and 50 likely recalls being admonished by the government to just say no to drugs, but we said yes anyway, even as we absorbed the racist stereotypes the billion-dollar campaign reinforced. Sometimes, campaigns completely backfire: Anti-piracy ads may have prompted more illegal downloads. An effort that used bracelets to discourage bullying led to bullies singling out bracelet-wearers

If a campaign to change people’s relationship to guns were to backfire, the results could be deadly, so people in gun violence prevention try to be meticulous about getting their messages right. Anestis was funded by the Department of Defense to study suicide prevention for active-duty service members, a population exceptionally likely to die by firearm suicide, and who are unlikely to reach out for help before they do. Anestis and his team hoped to reach them with the message that they should store their guns locked up, unloaded, away from ammunition, and perhaps even outside their home, measures that could buy them time between a suicidal impulse and a loaded gun in their hand.

To find the best way to deliver that message, Anestis has conducted an array of studies that put slightly tweaked ads and headlines in front of service members and gauged their reactions. Are they more receptive to storing their guns safely if they’re asked to do so by a celebrity, a law enforcement officer, or a doctor? (Conclusion: A law enforcement officer.) Does it matter where people see the information? (Conclusion: Fox News watchers don’t trust anything on MSNBC and vice versa.) Should the message validate their perspective as someone who wants to protect their home, or more broadly as a gun owner? (Conclusion: The messenger matters more than the framing.) 

In recent years, campaigns like this one, meant to convince gun owners to store their weapons more safely, have proliferated. In 2017, the gun safety group Brady proposed one to the Ad Council, the nation’s biggest player in the PSA market since it was established to sell government bonds during World War II. The Ad Council avoids partisan issues, but deemed safe storage apolitical enough to take on. The team’s first step, said Rowena Patrick, campaign director and senior vice president at the Ad Council, was to name the problem they were trying to solve. After audience testing, her team landed on “family fire,” a play on the already recognizable phrase “friendly fire,” and broad enough to apply to accidental shootings, suicides, and domestic violence. They rolled out the first “End Family Fire” ad in 2018, depicting a curious kid who knows exactly where his dad hides the family’s loaded gun. Many more have followed. The $100 million campaign seems to be swaying its audience: Last summer, an Ipsos survey of gun-owning households found that people exposed to the Ad Council’s safe-storage ads were six times as likely to say they’ve sought out information about how to store their guns safely, three times as likely to have spoken to friends or family about it, and 13 percent more likely to have actually changed their storage habits. 

Smaller campaigns have taken on other aspects of the gun violence problem: Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit created by relatives of the 2012 massacre’s victims, has produced a series of ads calling on people to “know the signs” that precede an act of violence. Two have won Emmy Awards, including one that lists the back-to-school supplies that could come in handy during a school shooting. The group Guns Down America created a campaign in which survivors review the guns they were shot with. The federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2021 has begun to fund education campaigns in states with red flag laws, which allow a judge to temporarily take guns from a person deemed at high risk of violence. 

I asked everyone I spoke with for this story what they see as the closest historical analogue to these new cultural efforts on guns. Most pointed to the campaign against drunk driving, another effort of the Ad Council. In 1983, a time when “one more for the road” was still America’s general vibe, the first “Drinking & Driving Can Kill A Friendship” ad appeared on TV. A few years later, the ads adopted the term “designated driver,” borrowed from a Scandinavian concept, and wrangled it into the American vernacular. Alcohol-fueled auto fatalities have dropped for a number of reasons — safety features in cars, changes in youth driving requirements, easy access to rideshare services — but most analyses show that public health messaging has played a sizable role. Like safe storage and guns, the drunk driving campaign didn’t try to stop people from drinking, it just convinced them to do so more safely.

Vinik identified a different historical analogue for the work Project Unloaded is attempting: The campaign to end teen smoking, which demonstrates that youth culture can change quickly, even when a major industry has an interest in the status quo. In 1998, when Big Tobacco settled lawsuits for lying about their products’ health impacts, a portion of the settlement established the Truth Initiative, an organization devoted to preventing youth tobacco use. The campaign they rolled out didn’t harang young people about quitting, but instead gave them straightforward information about tobacco’s health effects, often accompanied by snarky commentary on the companies that had tried to keep it shrouded. The campaign brought its messages to MTV spots, movie theaters, concerts, beaches, and sports venues. In 2000, 23 percent of teens were still smoking cigarettes. Today, less than 3 percent do. 

Project Unloaded doesn’t deal in snark, but it does emulate the Truth Initiative’s ethos of informing rather than preaching. Vinik said the group’s message testing has consistently found that “facts just work better on teens.” Teens don’t want to be scared straight or told what to do, she said. “They just want information to make their own decisions.” 

When I first spoke with Anestis, he wasn’t familiar with Project Unloaded or the SNUG campaign, but he liked the premise. One of the gun violence prevention movement’s “great failures,” he said, has been allowing the gun industry’s messages to “go into a vacuum,” with no pushback. But he questioned whether a campaign against smoking can be usefully adapted to a campaign against gun ownership. People smoke for many reasons — to calm themselves, to look cool, to placate an addiction — but not because they’re worried about safety. Talking someone out of feeling fearful was sure to be harder than convincing them not to pick up a cigarette habit. He wondered if a campaign like SNUG might work better if it offered an alternative, like how the drunk driving campaign suggested designated drivers, or the signs in his hospital offered the elbow option. What if, he posited, a campaign against gun violence did the same: Don’t feel safe at home? Consider an alarm system. Or maybe adopt a dog. They both keep you safer than a gun would.

Project Unloaded has experimented with providing links to after school programs and other community resources known to help young people stay out of harm’s way, Vinik said. But she also argued that marketing to young people who haven’t yet bought a gun is fundamentally different from marketing to adults who have. Anestis is right that adults are unlikely to be persuaded out of their fear, she said. But SNUG’s purpose is to reach young people before that fear leads them to make a reflexive decision. 

In truth, none of the campaigns that have taken on America’s stickiest problems and found success are perfect parallels to gun campaigns, because guns occupy a unique place in American politics. There’s no constitutional amendment protecting Americans’ right to resist seatbelts. The sneeze-in-your-elbow campaign doesn’t have to contend with a powerful sneeze-in-your-hand lobby. And crucially, these historical analogues got help from policymakers: The anti-smoking campaign was aided by widespread adoption of smoking bans. The drunk driving campaign got a leg up from a law raising the national drinking age to 21. The anti-littering campaign may be remembered for its crying (non) Native American, but it was aided by steep penalties imposed on the practice, and enforcement. These seemingly intractable problems all retracted in the face of both bottom-up cultural campaigns and top-down policy changes.

As of now, bottom-up cultural campaigns on guns are basically on their own. The gun violence prevention movement has made policy inroads in some states, but has backslid in many others, and state borders are porous. The federal gun safety law passed in 2021 — the first of its kind in decades — is often criticized as toothless. The Supreme Court 2022 Bruen decision will make gun restrictions harder to pass and maintain, because it requires them to have historical precedents from the nation’s earliest era. 

I asked Vinik: Can America’s gun culture change without major policy wins prodding it along? She admitted that cultural campaigns have their limits. “There’s no magic bullet, pardon the pun,” she said, very much enjoying the pun. “There’s no messaging campaign that’s going to solve this problem on its own.”

Then she threw the question back: Could we have addressed drunk driving with policy solutions alone? Without the support of culture change work, she argues, the political will to adopt key policies may have been missing. One reason gun policies have been so challenging to pass is because they’ve been facing the headwinds of a culture that strongly associates guns with safety. “It’s hard to untangle which pieces of a comprehensive strategy are doing the work,” Vinik said. “It’s messy, right? When you’re doing the work, it’s messy.”

Each of the three groups in Project Unloaded’s summer jobs pilot program in Chicago gave themselves a name. Best friends and cheer squad members Arinek Shorter and Egypt Paige, both 17, were on a team that dubbed itself “Peace Love Justice,” aka PLJ. The cohort was large and cheerleader-heavy. “You could hear them come in every morning,” said Project Unloaded’s elder Gen Zer and program director Olivia Brown.

On the first day of their summer jobs pilot program, Brown handed out a survey to see where the students stood on gun ownership. Twenty percent said they didn’t plan to be a gun owner, another 19 percent weren’t sure. The rest said they would either probably or definitely own a gun one day. 

Both Arinek and Egypt found the data showing that guns don’t make you safer persuasive, but other members were less convinced. “They felt that guns will protect them from all the dangers in Chicago,” said Egypt. “But we showed them the research and it’s like, no, this is not what’s keeping you safe, this is what’s putting you in harm’s way.” The team found themselves debating the issue over and over. Arinek understood why many of her peers disagreed with her. They were the product of an environment that lacked resources, opportunity, and safety. “In our community, all we know is guns. All we know is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. And so they’re like, ‘If they have a gun, why can’t I have a gun?’” she said.

It was in the middle of one of these debates that the team came up with the slogan they would eventually use for their marketing campaign: “A lot of people kept saying, ‘Guns, they help you, they give you power, they keep you safer,’ and it was just like a click — like, ‘Guns don’t give you power! Like, hello. They don’t,” Egypt said.

The phrase quickly became a refrain in these arguments. “It was basically a rebuttal,” said Arinek, who aspires to one day be an attorney. “Every time somebody said they need a gun to be safe, we would hit them with ‘Guns don’t give you power’ — and let me give you the facts and statistics why they don’t.” 

On the last day of the program, the three teams presented their marketing proposals to an assembly of the 500 other teens in the district’s summer jobs programs. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and a panel of other judges were on hand to evaluate the three proposals; the winner would be incorporated into Project Unloaded’s next major campaign, which the organization was developing specifically to share in places with high levels of community violence. The groups were making changes to their presentations “literally up until the moment they got up on stage,” Vinik said. “I was white-knuckled. But they brought it. They totally brought it.” 

The first group to present were the Warriors. Their campaign slogan was “Enough is enough — change the lyrics!” They proposed asking hip-hop artists and producers to create a “gun edit” of their songs that left out language glorifying gun violence. The second group was the Strikers. Their campaign, “Watch Where You Aim,” encouraged teens to aim higher than a life of gun violence. 

Arinek and Egypt’s team came last. They marched up to the stage chanting “Peace! Love! Justice!” Arinek introduced their theme, and Egypt, who aims to one day be a doctor, followed with a skit debunking gun myths. Next, their group performed a spoken word poem they had collectively written on the theme “Guns Don’t Give You Power.” 

“When I see a gun, my mind automatically tells me to run,” Egypt began. “Run from the pain. Run from the shame. Run from the streets calling my name.” Arinek’s lines came later: “Fear of love. Fear of fun. Fear of letting my guard down knowing that one gun can take my life. Fear that I might not even make it home tonight. Fear that my dreams are no longer in sight.”

When the votes were in, their group had won. The team erupted in cheers and another “Peace! Love! Justice!” chant. “Y’all activists in the making,” the MC said.

Before the students left, Vinik and Brown tried to wrangle them into taking another survey, but many of them had already headed for the doors. “That was a good lesson,” Vinik said. “Don’t do the post-survey on the last day of the program, when they’re running around trying to collect their paychecks.” Of the 18 who took it, 20 percent had moved from “probably” or “definitely will own a gun” to “undecided/unsure.” Vinik counted that as a win.

Among the students who did not fill out the survey that day was a young man on the Strikers. He had been unable to help his team deliver their “Watch Where You Aim” presentation because he was recuperating. Not long before, he had been walking down a nearby street when he was shot twice in the leg.