The Work We Are Doing Is Saving Lives

The Safe Tennessee Project aims to change the discourse on the epidemic of gun violence in Tennessee.

Taking a bipartisan view and approaching it as a public health issue, the Safe Tennessee Project provides important data, research, and insights into deaths and injuries from gun violence. We spoke with Executive Director Beth Joslin Roth about Safe Tennessee’s mission to make a positive impact in the conversation on gun violence through active advocacy, social media, and its website.

What drove you to start this organization?

Gun violence wasn’t really something on my radar until the Sandy Hook shooting. When that happened, my two children were in elementary school. As the news began to roll in, it gutted me. Ten days after the shooting, on Christmas Eve, I noticed a note under the cookies we had set out for Santa. My daughter, who was 7 at the time, wrote, “Dear Santa, please take some of my toys to heaven and give them to the boys and girls from Newtown. I wish the gunman had thought how sad the mommies and daddies would be seeing presents under the tree that no one would ever open.”

I sat on the floor and wept. I thought, what kind of example am I setting if I see this horrible problem and I don’t do anything to fix it? That set me on a completely different trajectory for the rest of my life. I began studying gun violence. I began reading supreme court cases, legislation, tons of academic research. I found the issue is more about public health than politics. So, I started the Safe Tennessee Project in 2015.

How did you get started?

I didn’t know the first thing about starting a nonprofit or how to lobby and write legislation. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I was determined and very persistent. I became a member of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, which is a national organization of state-based groups like mine. Since then, we have become a leader in the state, recognized by many policymakers in Tennessee as the go-to resource for any kind of research or data pertaining to gun violence nationally and in the state.

What kinds of data does Safe Tennessee provide?

We have all of the data pertaining to gun deaths. That includes trends for gun deaths in general and specifically with homicides and suicides. Firearm suicides are a real problem in our state, as well as unintentional shootings involving children that gain access to loaded firearms.

I thought, what kind of example am I setting if I see this horrible problem and I don’t do anything to fix it? That set me on a completely different trajectory for the rest of my life.
Beth Joslin Roth

What are some of the organization’s areas of focus?

Tennessee is 11th in the nation for gun deaths, consistently above the national average, and those were facts no one was really talking about before we came on the scene. Specifically, as it relates to children, one of our big areas of focus is child access prevention legislation (CAP). That relates to instances of adults leaving loaded firearms laying around where a child will pick them up and shoot themselves or someone else. We track every one of those incidents. Before Safe Tennessee, no one was tallying the shootings across the state. When you look at the cumulative numbers, you realize this is a real problem.

We’ve also worked for several years unsuccessfully to get a CAP law passed that we call Makayla’s Law. Makayla’s Law is named after an 8-year-old girl who was playing outside of her trailer with her sister and a puppy. Their neighbor, an 11-year-old boy, stuck his head out the window and asked if he could play with their puppy, and Makayla said no. So he grabbed his father’s loaded shotgun in the hallway, stuck it out the window, and shot her. She died. The 11-year-old child was convicted of murder. This boy’s father, who left the loaded shotgun accessible to his son, was never charged with a crime and has since left the state. You have an 8-year-old girl who is dead. You have an 11-year-old boy locked up in a juvenile detention center until he’s 18. Then you have a father whose irresponsible action led to all of this, and he is not charged with any crime. There were no consequences for him. We see that time and time again.

What type of change are you trying to create?

Our mission is to reduce gun violence in our state. We achieve that with advocacy — providing research, statistics, and data to lawmakers for informed policy decisions. We try to support good gun laws, and we push back on bad gun laws. We raise awareness on the issue of child access prevention. Every time one of these shootings happens, I speak in the media about the safe storage of firearms. My hope is that a parent who may never have thought about safe gun storage in a home with children will decide to buy a gun lock. We also work with survivors and connect them with resources.

How did you know when the Safe Tennessee Project became a success?

What we’ve seen over the last couple of years is public opinion in Tennessee really shifting on the issue of guns. In 2016, 35 percent of Tennesseans supported stricter gun laws. In 2018, when that same poll was done, 58 percent supported stronger gun laws. That’s a 25-point shift, which is very significant, especially around a very polarizing, controversial issue. We now have a majority of people in a very red, very pro-gun state that believe we need stronger gun laws.

Can you share any stories from along the way?

I was asked to do a media interview on the safe storage of firearms at a shooting range and gun store. I figured the manager there might be hostile towards me, being a gun owner and a person who sold guns, and I expected pushback. “Oh, I know who you are,” he said, when I met him. But then he said, “I follow the work you do, and I’m in agreement with what you’re trying to do.” Then we had this incredible dialogue about the importance of background checks and safe storage of firearms, and reasonable gun laws.

What kind of struggles have you experienced so far?

Every time I do an interview, there are people who send really hateful messages. If the media outlet posts a link to the story, I’ve learned not to read the comments because they can be horrible. I’ve had people send me messages with gruesome details of what they hope happens to me and my family. I have this gallows sense of humor about it now. If I’m sitting in my office and I see a car slow down, there’s always a part of me that’s like, “OK, is this it? Is this some crazy person with a gun who wants to do me harm?”

What makes you keep going?

I know there are things that can be done in Tennessee, and across the country, to reduce the number of people killed and injured every year. It’s truly appalling how many lives are lost every year to gun violence. Even just firearm suicide, which doesn’t get talked about enough. We’re never going to end gun violence, and we may not become a country where no one is injured or killed with guns, but we can create policies to drastically reduce those current numbers.

What is an example of your organization’s reach and impact now?

The day of the Parkland shooting, I was sitting on a panel at Vanderbilt University, having a discussion about gun violence prevention and strategies to deal with the issue. As soon as I left the panel, I saw pop-ups on my phone about the shooting. Ironically, that day was “Gun Day” on the hill in Tennessee, so I then went to the legislative hearings and listened to legislators talk about wanting to expand where guns can be carried and make it easier for people to have access to guns. At the same time, I was following on Twitter, seeing students tweeting from their classrooms in Parkland, terrified they were going to be shot.

The next morning, I got up and typed a blog post for our website, “What can be done about gun violence in America? A lot actually.” At this point, it has something like 8,000 views, which is a lot for a small state organization. It’s important for groups like mine to educate people not to buy into this idea that nothing can be done because that’s a false narrative. There’s actually a lot that can be done.

How do you reach and communicate with your audience to educate them?

Social media is a big part of what we do. I get reports every day of every shooting that happens in Tennessee, and we tweet or post every one of these news stories. It’s important for people to understand that these shootings happen in our state every day.
Our website is an invaluable tool. We write blog posts as things come up, some based on our own research and some based on current events in Tennessee.

We also use the media to try and connect all those dots. Reporters now call me before a story is even broken to tell me, “We’re on our way… there’s been another child in Wilson County, shot himself in the abdomen with his father’s shotgun. How many kids have been shot so far this year? What is the academic research? Are you guys still going to do Makayla’s Law?” I get that information to them. We also send press releases when something newsworthy happens. Our website is the crux of all this communication strategy.

What’s the main goal of the website?

It’s a communication tool. We refer people to our website quite a bit. When new CDC reports come out, and we see there’s been the fifth murder-suicide in the last month, we’ll write a press release about that. It’s all about connecting the dots and providing necessary context. Tennessee is a big state. It’s a big rectangle, so what’s happening in one end of the state, the people on the other end of the state may not be aware of.

Our website is our home base. It’s where we keep our research, track all of these shootings, and provide an overview of gun laws in the state of Tennessee. We’re getting ready to add a new section on the website that’s going to be on policies, and it will include everything we’re working on in the legislative session. Our website is also helpful for legislators, the media, researchers, and anybody looking for that information.

What are you most proud of with regard to your organization?

The work we are doing is saving lives. Raising awareness around these issues, particularly when it comes to kids and guns and the importance of safe storage, is saving lives. We use the hashtag #SafeStorageSavesLives, and I feel like that was something nobody in this state talked about until Safe Tennessee came along. Now Makayla’s Law is referenced all the time.

I also think our approach — framing this as a public health issue and building a coalition with law enforcement, district attorneys, judges, and domestic violence advocates — is helping us raise awareness about dangerous loopholes in our laws and changing people’s attitudes here in Tennessee. It’s educating people that better gun laws are associated with fewer people being injured and killed with firearms.

See how Beth is sharing research, tracking shootings, and providing an overview of gun laws in the state of Tennessee by visiting her site, The Safe Tennessee Project.

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