Guns and public health: A cigarette connection
Guns and cigarettes: let’s think about a connection.
Start with the news that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the health hazards of cigarette smoking. The 1964 report told us that, yes, serious health problems are caused by cigarettes. A new public health issue was formally acknowledged. Action followed, and continues.
We should use that as a precedent and establish guns as a public health problem – and treat them that way. That would mean a national commitment to address the proliferation, use and devastating public health and mortality effects of guns. That’s one version of “going big” on the problem, which seems appropriate in view of the gun boosters’ “go big” solution, which would put even more guns out there.
Today, as we nibble around the edges of new policies in the wake of still another gun tragedy (while memories and impacts fade), the problem hangs out there as a national menace. It will not get any better, even with token legislation that controls assault weapons and toughens gun-buyer checks. And that’s assuming that even these mild controls can pass the Washington and NRA barricades. (Hints that the Obama administration may seek broader gun controls than expected are encouraging – but nothing more.)?
Types of weapons and qualifications of buyers are important points of focus, but not enough. Sandy Hook got our attention and energized many seeking good and permanent answers. It should also provoke us to consider that the weapons problem is broad, deep and endemic.
Every day, 85 Americans die from guns, including suicides. Consider that the U.S. Center for Disease Control predicts that in two years – by 2015 –deaths from firearms in our nation will likely exceed those of auto-related deaths. That translates to 33,000 dead from firearms and 32,000 deaths in car accidents.
Part of the reason for this change is the emphasis on preventing drunk driving and laws requiring seat belts. Yes, we have treated cigarettes and car accidents as public health issues. Guns belong in the same category: get rid of them.?
How? First, we would need an announcement – at the same volume, strength and reach as the smoking and health warning – that guns are clearly a national public health hazard, requiring strong and sustained measures. The justification would be our national health and welfare.
The announcement could come from Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, with the smoking issue as logical precedent, or better yet, from President Barack Obama. Whoever does it, the message should bluntly set out the goal of eliminating firearms from the American landscape.
And this new national priority would have the same urgency as the anti-cigarette campaign: it will take time, probably decades, but the declaration of intent now will support the effort over future years. Adults today may never see the goal of a gun-free America achieved, but we would know that we were here at the start, and claim ownership on behalf of future generations. Just like the anti-smokers did 50 years ago.
Can it work? Take a look at smoking history in California, one of the states leading the anti-smoking movement. California Department of Health data shows that in 2010 the state’s adult smoking rate fell to 11.9 percent, from 13.1 percent just a year earlier, and from 26 percent in 1984. Education, laws restricting smoking and growing health awareness contributed. Does that sound like a formula for getting guns out of our lives? Seems logical, with perseverance and involvement from the grass roots backed by national leadership. 2062 isn’t that far off, given the gravity of the issue.
To be effective, the movement must have broad and tough goals. Within that, we can chip away at the gun problem in small, cumulative steps. Beginning by banning assault weapons, more background checks and other moderate measures is fine, but we build from there.
Push national control legislation that evens out the state differentials, which now allow gun buyers to step across state lines to buy weapons of choice, regardless of their local limitations.
Mount education programs that make guns undesirable to current and future generations. Again, think of the smoking campaign.
A few dramatic moves are also called for: perhaps a national gun turn-in and meltdown program backed by Washington and implemented by states. And how about a “million children march” on Washington supporting a gun-free culture? ??Effective tactics are many. Resolve comes first.
And let’s not let hunters off the hook. If guns are bad, so are theirs. Is it possible they can transfer the thrill of putting bullets into innocent animals into something constructive? The choices are many. It would be a new and positive ethic to hand down to generations rather than the thrill of sighting and firing on that elegant buck.
At the very least, our law-enforcement officials need to be released from the pressure of constantly upgrading their weapons systems to keep up with the street. And in the long run, as we approach a gun-free future, these officials will also be able to reduce their armaments. A gun-free American is an idealistic reach. But there are idealists out there who believe, so let’s begin. We are better than this, and there has never been a better time.
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Ray Schuster lives in Sonoma Valley and is active in a variety of volunteer and advocacy groups.