The social critique that “Pumped Up Kicks” explores regards gun violence, specifically in reference to school shootings.

The topic of the song is made clear in the repeated chorus:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, out run my gun
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet

While the words “kids” and “gun” and “bullet” are overt references to the issue of gun violence at the hands of children, the rest of the song and the overall message, to me, seem more subtle. There are only two verses, but they hold a lot of intrinsic meaning.

The song has a narrative style to the lyrics, meaning they tell a story about a person named Robert. Listeners can put together that Robert is young, probably a teenager, from  the first few lines:

Robert’s got a quick hand
He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan
He’s got a rolled cigarette, hanging out his mouth he’s a cowboy kid

He’s smoking a cigarette, but he’s called a “cowboy kid,” giving us a hint that he is still a child but with some tendency towards rebellion.

In the next few lines, the song gives more insight into the issue at hand:

Yeah found a six shooter gun
In his dad’s closet hidden oh in a box of fun things, I don’t even know what
But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you

This is a crucial part of the argument, to me, because it touches on the fact that many children who commit gun violence get access to the weapon in their own home. In a more recent study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), researches came to the following:

Millions of US children live in homes in which firearms are left loaded or unlocked or both. A child’s history of depression, mental health conditions other than depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder does not appear to appreciably influence caretaker decisions about whether to (1) have firearms in the home, or (2) store all household firearms in accordance with American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations (ie, locked and unloaded).

“Pumped Up Kicks” references the fact that many firearms owners with children, especially children who might have a mental health condition, do not store their guns properly. While Foster does not make an overt statement about this or offer a solution, this detail in the song makes a subtle commentary on the grave oversight that many gun owners are guilty of. The song later alludes to a strained or distant relationship between the child and his father, implying neglect and lack of supervision:

Daddy works a long day
He be coming home late, he’s coming home late

When Foster wrote the song, he said he did not have a specific agenda behind it. Here is a quote from an interview where he explains the premise of the song:

“‘Pumped Up Kicks’ is about a kid that basically is losing his mind and is plotting revenge. He’s an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It’s kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer’s mind…

Basically, the song is simply a description of the child rather than a clear argument about gun violence. But in doing this, I think Foster makes an implicit social critique by bringing awareness to the complexities of this situation. He discusses common signs leading up to a school shooting and makes a comment about how many gun-owning parents and caretakers are guilty of neglect. His use of details and nods to real facts about school shootings form his implicit criticism of gun violence and easy access to weapons.