Watching old movies reminds me that America was once a smoking culture. The casual tilt of a dangling cigarette was the height of cool. Positive attributes were unconsciously attached to the right nicotine accessory — a long handled holder for the lady, an unfiltered camel for the cowboy. It is a far cry from today’s images of cigarette smokers. In 50 years we changed a cultural norm, and the way we did it may offer lessons for changing the gun culture we now face. There are four essential elements.
Facts: Cigarettes cause cancer. No one challenges this in 2013. But the tobacco industry challenged research and suppressed information about smoking’s harmful effects. Education overcame ignorance when we demanded the truth and put the facts on the packs.
Images: Media imagery that glamorized smoking was reduced, curtailing the subliminal message that cigarettes are safe, ubiquitous and an essential American accessory.
Rights: Smokers’ rights were balanced against the public’s right to clean air in restaurants, airplanes and public spaces.
Money: The tobacco industry was taxed to cover the real health costs of smoking. We insisted that its right to profits did not entitle it to ignore that burden.
We now face a growing gun culture, and challenging it requires the same four elements.
Facts: Statistics about gun ownership have been successfully stifled by the industry. How many people know that a gun is more likely to hurt them than to keep them safe? How many people know that a gun is more likely to be fired in a suicide attempt, an accident or a family conflict than against a real threat? Maybe every gun should carry that warning, to prompt these questions: Do I really need this? Am I willing to bring this into my home?
Images: Pervasive violent images are dangerous to children, the mentally ill and others predisposed to violence. But images that glamorize gun use may be dangerous to us all. “Machine gun adventures — no experience necessary,” read an ad I saw recently. While your friends are having a beer, have some real excitement with us. Gun “entertainment” promotes the adrenaline rush of handling a gun, the fantasies of aggression and power they elicit, when safety is irrelevant. When guns are about fantasy, they become a fetish, a glamorized accessory, like that cigarette in the 1950s. And when self image is the driving force, we look for reasons to justify our desire. We exaggerate safety risks; we promulgated paranoid fears. We look for an excuse to turn our want into a need.
Rights: The National Rifle Association argues that the Second Amendment right to a gun means the right to any and all guns, no matter what the cost to public safety. To disagree impugns one’s patriotism and threatens our Constitution. But balancing rights is an essential tenet of our Constitution and always will be. Guns are no exception. We have given enormous power to the NRA to define the argument and threaten those who disagree. We can take back that power.
Money: A Chicago hospital recently estimated the average cost of treating gun injuries at $50,000 per patient. Much of that is uninsured care. The gun industry spent $500,000 in lobbying fees in just one day last month to defeat the background check bill. Certainly that profit margin can absorb a tax to pay the direct cost that their product creates: the gun victims who flood our hospitals needing care.
No amount of money can compensate bereaved Newtown, Conn., families. But as long as we permit armories of weapons in private homes, perhaps the industry that profits from those sales should join us in paying for the police, the emergency medical technicians and the counselors who must respond when tragedy results.
Attitudes are hard to change. Beliefs and desires co-mingle, and it takes time for us to let go, even when logic tells us that we are wrong. But the level of gun violence in this country will not decrease unless we change our attitude about guns, what they mean to us and what price we are willing to pay for their presence in our lives. We did that with smoking. We can do it with guns, and we must.
Mary E. Plouffe is a clinical psychologist and writer living in South Freeport.