Preventing Gun Violence: In-Depth Series

This special series of interviews explores the issue of gun violence in the United States, and highlights some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and cross-sector initiatives tackling the problem.

Even as a gun owner and hunter, journalist Rob Cox admits that he had never given much thought to gun legislation before December 14, 2012. After landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport that Friday afternoon, Cox learned of the shooting tragedy that had taken the lives of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in the idyllic community where he had returned to raise his own children.

Over the ensuing days, weeks, and months, Cox and a group of friends gathered informally and then formally to create Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting family members impacted by the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy and reducing the causes of gun violence to prevent future tragedies.

“Basically, nobody slept that [first] week, so we were just frantically working,” Cox said. “And one of the things we were doing was looking at case studies, looking at what had happened in Aurora or at Virginia Tech. We tried to figure out what we could do to actually create some sort of change so that no other town would ever see something like this happen again.”


Rob Cox, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise.

Working with McKinsey & Company in the early stages, the group researched models (such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving) for building a national movement around safety, specifically children’s safety. However, there wasn’t a model for a community-driven effort that developed in response to a similar type of event in the United States.

While the 1996 kindergarten shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, effectively led to legislation banning handguns in the United Kingdom, SHP decided on a different tack; much like with marriage equality, Cox believes that cultural attitudes must first shift before any legislation can pass in the United States. Instead, the organization is approaching the issue through avenues such as science, education, and technology.

The recently released final report of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting states, “The obvious question that remains is: ‘Why did the shooter murder 27 people, including 20 children?’” But for Newtown and SHP, the bigger question is: How can we create positive changes in communities across the country to help reduce gun violence?

“We’ve spent the year really figuring out where we can be effective, where this community group, these families, are credible. We’ve done a lot of focus groups,” Cox says. “These are real parents who’ve gone through indescribable, unimaginable loss, and they emphatically do not ever want other families to join this awful club [of which] they are members.”

Cox thinks the families involved with SHP are driven to be catalysts of change and have great potential for impact. On November 18, the organization—believing that civil discussion about violence was the first step toward action—launched its Parent Together campaign, inviting parents to talk and listen to other parents regardless of differences in gun ownership practices, political affiliation, religion, or socio-economic background. By redirecting conversations about gun violence to parenting and safety, SHP hopes to nudge the country forward in its discussions, away from the controversial Second Amendment and toward protecting loved ones from violence. In 2014, it will provide parents across the country with educational resources to help promote mental wellness and community development, similar to efforts to reduce drunk driving and smoking.

The organization is also working on local gun safety initiatives. Using the automotive industry as an example, SHP hopes to encourage the forces of technology, innovation, and capitalism to put a safer product on the market and change cultural norms. Volvo, for example, led the world in fostering safety as a unique selling point prior to any legislation mandating it and profited in the process, and safety legislation cut the number of automobile deaths in half. SHP believes that safety measures could drastically reduce the 30,000 gun deaths a year.

To this end, the organization created the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative: “a ‘call for ideas’ to prevent gun violence, coupled with a commitment by leading venture capitalists and angel investors to fund promising innovations in gun safety, mental health research and related new technologies.” Ron Conway (an investor in Google, Facebook, and Twitter), Jim Pitkow (director of the Technical Task Force at Thorn), and other entrepreneurs are looking to technological solutions to gun safety—how is it possible, they ask, that a six year old can pick up his father’s gun and shoot a three year old, when a six year old can’t access his father’s iPhone without a passcode?

As mentioned in the introduction to this series, several Silicon Valley investors were inspired by this initiative to form the Smart Tech Foundation. The foundation recently launched the Smart Tech Firearms Challenge, a $1 million competition for safer guns that includes challenges focused on firearms, data, public safety, and brain science. The first of its kind, this civil campaign may provide a model for the tech industry to take on other issues.

Cox says that SHP thinks of itself as a “spiritual evangelist” in these challenges but that it wants to leave the innovation to those who are best at it; part of the organization’s success so far has come from its ability to leverage the skills and networks of its cofounders and volunteers. Each individual’s commitment of time and talent—like, for example, Tim Makris, a former Procter & Gamble marketing executive who gave up his job to become SHP’s executive director—has played a role in making the community group a high-impact, national advocacy platform.

“We were all professionals with varying skills,” Cox says. “We were all galvanized by what happened in our community, and we pulled together.”

Our next post will highlight the efforts of Mayor of Philadelphia Michael A. Nutter and Cities United, an organization combating the everyday gun violence that happens away from the media spotlight and plagues cities across the country.