Funny is not a word associated with the tragedy of mass shootings across the U.S.
Yet when Sandy Hook Promise, an advocacy group working to prevent gun violence, designed its latest public awareness campaign, it turned to comedians to help spread its message.
Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Billy Eichner and others all appear in "Just Joking," a campaign that launched Wednesday. Serving as the cornerstone of the campaign, comedians deliver lines of dialogue that appear funny out of context -- "I am going to kill all of you" or "I want to kill people" -- but were pulled from writings left behind by some school shooters. The tone of the video turns ominous when audiences learn the reality of what just made them chuckle.
The message: Take potential shooters seriously before they act.
Nicole Hockley, CEO and co-founder of the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, said that teaching warning signs is common in the foundation's work. But over time, they noticed that the reason kids often fail to alert authorities when they see or hear warning sides is because they either think their peer is joking or they don't want to be perceived as "creating drama" or being seen "as a snitch," she said.
"Maybe it's a human denial factor that we just can't believe someone would carry out that sort of threat," she said. "But those things aren't funny. You have to take them seriously, and if you don't there will be tragic consequences."
Hockley knows tragedy. She lost her 6-year-old son Dylan at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, when a gunman went on a rampage at the school, killing 20 schoolchildren and six adults. A 2014 report by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate revealed the gunman had deteriorating mental health problems and that there had been numerous "missed opportunities" by his mother, who was also killed, the school district and multiple health care providers to intervene leading up to the attack.
The new "Just Joking" campaign includes free on-demand training on warning signs and an anti-bullying curriculum, lesson plans and other learning tools available from the foundation.
As its name suggests, the foundation grew out of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Hockley and other parents of victims developed an approach that goes beyond gun reform advocacy to focus on a less-polarized space: helping parents, students, and others recognize at-risk behavior that can lead to gun violence, as well as endorsing safe gun storage and mental health advocacy. The organization also operates an anonymous reporting system students can access to report an issue involving warning signs through an app, hotline or website.
Hockley said prevention measures represent a more realistic and effective approach than pushing for gun bans, especially in today's highly partisan environment in Washington.
"There are more guns than people in the U.S. The guns are not going away," she said. "So, rather than trying to solve that, which isn't going to happen, why don't we deal with the fact that guns are everywhere and prevent [school shootings] from happening?"
According to National Institute of Justice data, in 2022, almost half of mass shooters (48%) showed warning signs, or leaked their plans to others, such as family members, friends, colleagues, and even strangers. School shooters in particular tend to largely be current or former students and employees, which suggests there are opportunities for people within the schools — students, teachers, or administrative staff — to track potential indicators before tragedy strikes. The Department of Justice says that anonymous reporting systems, like the one operated by Sandy Hook Promise, "may increase the likelihood of leakage and is an important area for more research."
So far, the organization says at least 15 verified school shooting plots were thwarted due to lessons from the foundation put into action, the organization claims. A Los Angeles middle school, the foundation said, avoided a potential massacre in 2019 after several students trained in Sandy Hook practices told authorities about a 13-year-old classmate who was bragging about his plans and had even left anonymous handwritten notes around the school campus that warned of the threat. Authorities later said they found the student had an AR-15 rifle in his possession, as well as hundreds rounds of ammunition, a map of the school, and a hit list of teachers and students.
Before Sandy Hook, Hockley had a career in corporate marketing and product development. She said she found those skills apply well to her current work, although she said it can be "uncomfortable" to be the face of her movement.
"This is something I have to do. I want to give voice for Dylan, who no longer has a voice, and my surviving son because, if I don't do this, I don't know who will," she said.
Her greatest opponent in her work, she said, is public apathy. Her hope lies in upcoming generations, she said, "because they grew up with this" and "are the ones who will make the most significant change" in society.
"When I get upset, I recommit myself to the work because I know these acts are preventable. And I know the more that people learn they are preventable, the more we can make a difference," she said.