Let's Make Guns The New Cigarettes

10/05/2017 11:32 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2017

In the wake of another mass shooting, we’re all debating about whether it’s the right time to talk about guns, and whether there are public policy solutions that can prevent more shootings from happening. It’s always tough when culture and politics intersect.

There are cultural and political realities that have made public policy solutions, including common-sense gun regulations, politically unattainable. The gun culture in America is an integral part of the lives of too many voters and politicians to gain enough support for immediate and substantive policy proposals to curb gun violence.

The gun culture, fueled by the gun industry and forces in the media and politics, glamorizes gun ownership. In that world, it’s cool to own guns, and the gun lifestyle and shooting is what sexy and strong men and women do. They want everyone to feel the exhilarating rush and power that comes from shooting, and those feelings get better when you shoot more exotic and powerful guns.

That gun culture has led to an overabundance of firearms in many American households. Today, too many guns are readily available for bad things to happen. Crime, of course, often happens with guns, but nearly two thirds of gun-related deaths are suicides. Guns in the home just make it too easy for a person, in a moment of emotional despair, to commit suicide. More guns in the home also increase the risks for fatal accidents or other tragedies when lapses of judgement occur.

The risks associated with the prevalence of firearms in America have been overshadowed by the industry effort to romanticize gun ownership. I’ve written before about the gun culture and the need for education about the dangers and risks of having guns in your house, but I’ve been discouraged because education efforts don’t stand a chance when up against the sexy advertising and promotion campaigns of the gun industry.

Then, I remembered smoking.

I used to love smoking. It was such a fun past-time. It was social, glamorous, made me feel good, and it was part of our culture. It seemed like everyone smoked cigarettes. It was cool. Remember?

Smoking has become socially unacceptable. What changed? Why did all of that fun go up in smoke?

Cultural and political realities around smoking changed, and that change came about with a combination of public education and public policy over decades. Those efforts started slowly, but now include regulation of tobacco advertising, and there have been massive amounts of money spent on public education efforts about the negative health effects of smoking cigarettes. Much of that money was spent because the tobacco industry was forced to fund those education programs in a landmark legal settlement in 1998.

Now, smoking is frowned upon, and it’s nearly impossible to find a public place where it’s permitted. That cultural change happened when public awareness about the health risks increased and attitudes changed, then it was politically possible to bring about public policy to codify and enforce limitations on smoking.

It took a long time, just like most all other types of cultural evolution, but we are in a place in America where fewer Americans are smoking.

Guns should be the new cigarettes.

The gun industry, including the National Rifle Association, already sponsors education efforts to teach people how to own a gun more safely, but they should be required to fund education about the real dangers of having guns in your household.

The tobacco industry was forced to fund education programs about the health risks of cigarettes in that settlement with the government, after they were sued for being responsible for smoking-related deaths. The gun industry has been protected from legal liability when crimes are committed with their products by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was passed in 2005. That law should be repealed, so that eventually, the gun industry can enter into a settlement requiring public education about the risks of guns, similar to the tobacco industry settlement.

Just like when more restrictions have been placed on where smoking is permitted, the increase in understanding of the dangers of guns will help to build public support for more reasonable regulation on guns too. The cultural shift will help to drive the public policy.

Look, again, it’s never easy when culture and politics intersect, the issues are more personal and emotional. But eventually, those issues usually evolve one way or another. They usually evolve with the help of a combination of public awareness and public policy. That’s what’s needed with guns, and requiring the industry to fund part of that effort is a “no-brainer” and a good place to start.

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