Saturday, October 10, 2015

Make Guns As Uncool As Smoking

Smokes aren't in the Constitution - although neither is the word "gun" - but social opproprium is a powerful force.  I am old enough to remember when people smoked unrestricted everywhere - planes, offices, schools - and anyone who dared suggest the smoker put it out was ignored as a rude freak.

It wasn't that long ago that no one would bet against Big Tobacco prevailing against even the hint of regulation.

But anti-tobacco advocates kept working, starting with local ordinances and then statewide anti-smoking laws, mostly in northern blue states.  Never happen in tobacco country, I scoffed.  And then Lexington, KY - burley tobacco capitol of the universe - banned smoking in restaurants and suddenly it was game over.

The tipping point won't be another gun massacre - we've proven we don't give a shit about those.  The tipping point will be the Surgeon General declaring guns a national health crisis.

Michael Maiello at TPM:
It’s surprisingly easy to imagine a society where gun ownership is looked down upon, if not scorned outright. This already happened with smoking, at least partly as a result of a public education campaign aimed at young people, and it happened when polite society finally came down against people flying the Confederate flag after the Charleston church shootings this year. Sometimes, when legislative action is difficult or downright impossible, a cultural approach works to curtail dangerous behaviors.

In short, we can make gun ownership uncool.


Like cigarettes, guns are big business. Smith & Wesson has a $1 billion market capitalization and a CEO who made $1.9 million last year, Sturm, Ruger & Co. has a $1.1 billion market cap and a CEO who made more than $1.1 million in the latest fiscal year. The National Rifle Association boasts 4.5 million members and regularly takes in contributions approaching $100 million a year, in addition to its program revenues. In short, guns are part of the establishment and people who spend money on them are no more iconoclasts than people who fork over money to Phillip Morris on a daily basis.

Like the tobacco industry, the gun industry has obfuscated about the safety dangers of its products. It has sold a fantasy of self- and home-protection that is out of touch with reality. And like tobacco companies, the industry aggressively markets to young people. A presentation by Smith & Wesson from March 2015 says that two thirds of new shooters are 18-34 years old, that a quarter of first time purchases by a second gun within a year, and that 60 percent of new shooters are buying for personal defense or security.

Of course. when Smith & Wesson presents, it talks about marketing to younger adults. In many parts of the country (including New Mexico, where I grew up and was first told a rifle was “mine” before I was 10) kids take ownership of guns well before they can drive. Keystone Sporting Arms still advertises its Crickett .22 caliber weapon as “My First Rifle” even after a five-year-old Kentucky boy killed his two-year-old sister with the single shot rifle he had received as a birthday present. They also offer a youth-rifle called the “Chipmunk,” named for what kids are supposed to shoot with it.

The defense angle (whether self or society) is particularly vulnerable to clever media rebuke. There are the scores of dead children who have managed to get hold of the weapons kept by relatives. There are the sad tales of Oscar Pistorius and George Zimmerman. There was the well-intentioned gun owner who, during the heat of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, nearly shot an innocent bystander. There is probably no end of military and police veterans, highly trained and skilled with firearms, who will testify how even the most practiced shooter is vulnerable to involuntary behaviors during the height of a threat.

The gun industry has also made itself vulnerable to outright ridicule by opposing the most common sense reforms. The NRA opposes biometric trigger locks, for example, that would render weapons useless to anyone but authorized users because it fears it will lead to a ban on existing guns without such locks. The industry also opposes requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance. PSAs on such issues are unlikely to sway the current generation of gun enthusiasts but, as with smoking, it might be possible to get young people thinking early and viewing both the industry and culture of gun ownership more skeptically.

On the legislative front it seems America has made its choice and there is little chance for legal reform in the near future except at the margins deemed acceptable by the gun industry and a current generation of gun owners who believe that "things happen" is an appropriate reaction to gun deaths. When lawmakers can't lead, a social solution is certainly worth a shot.

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