Answers to gun violence may lie in nonsmoking campaigns

Even as a Senate hearing on gun violence draws ideas from both Gabrielle Giffords and the NRA, a lesson in curbing a risky product like guns can be found in the recent history of nonsmoker rights.

AP Photo
Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was injured in a mass shooting two years ago, arrives at a Jan. 20 Senate hearing, hand-in-hand with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, to discuss what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence in the wake of last month's shooting rampage that killed 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.

For those looking for quick action by Congress to curb guns in America, here’s a lesson from the effort to ban smoking in public places: An official curb on risky products or practice isn’t nearly as powerful as a shift in public attitudes about what is acceptable.

Nonsmoking zones became commonplace in the 1990s, but not until public concern about the hazards of tobacco smoke to nonsmokers had doubled in the 1970s and the ’80s. By the ’90s, smoking was already in decline and smokers were isolating their habits out of concern for the newfound “rights” of nonsmokers.

To be sure, movements against high-risk problems like guns and tobacco need a strong public aspect – scientific studies, grass-roots groups, and new laws. On Wednesday, for example, Congress held its first hearing on gun violence since the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Gabrielle Giffords, former congresswoman and a shooting victim herself, made an emotional plea in asking for immediate action.

While government curbs on guns are necessary, they are not sufficient. What is first needed is a change in thinking about America’s gun culture and the violence it brings. It’s difficult to know if or when that tipping point might take place. The recent string of mass shootings, especially of children, should have provided a final shove of conscience. But the belief that personal guns are protective remains strong. And Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association (NRA), told Congress that law-abiding gun owners “will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals.”

True enough for now. But after Sandy Hook, many law-abiding gun owners may realize that gun violence in general requires curbs on the types of guns sold and more background checks on would-be gun buyers.

Just a few decades ago, a big decline in smoking was downright unthinkable. Smoking was even portrayed as glamorous, just as violence in movies and video games is now seen as “cool.” While official warnings in 1964 about the health effects of smoking on individual smokers helped put a spotlight on the issue, it was not until a later rise in public concern about the innocent recipients of tobacco smoke that pushed smokers toward not smoking or stepping outside to do so. A moral shift had begun. A nonsmoking ethos set in.

This social stigma against smoking was to protect the innocent, and that idea should now apply to guns as well. And just as the nonsmoking movement started first with local and state bans on public smoking, so, too, have many cities and states moved to curb guns or tighten background checks.

So look less to Congress for ideas to prevent another Sandy Hook and more to a shift in opinion polls, a decline in gun sales, or even more turn-in-your-gun events at police stations. Better yet, ask former smokers from the 1960s or ’70s why they don’t smoke anymore.

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