Congress appears to be on the cusp of passing a gun-control measure, breaking a 30-year standoff. The bill takes baby steps toward the sort of gun measures that would meaningfully reduce the carnage, but the fact that Congress is passing anything must be applauded as progress.
Of course, whether those baby steps will survive the horrendous, twisted logic of the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of government’s ability to control armed mayhem remains to be seen.
Given that astonishing and dishonest opinion, what can be done?
As a recent article from Talking Points Memo reminds us, it’s always, ultimately about the culture– and cultures are shaped by prevailing narratives.
An object, cloaked in an aura of glamor and cool, is, or at least feels, ubiquitous in American society. The object is a clear threat to public health — though that fact often gets eclipsed by arguments emphasizing the rights of those who like to use the object. Powerful, monied and well-connected special interest groups stand behind the object, and work fervently to thwart regulation and restrictions on it.
Today, that object is a gun. In our recent past, it was a cigarette.
Most readers of this blog remember when cigarette smoke was everywhere. We encountered it on airplanes, in bars and restaurants, and in our offices. The federal government was loathe to act; the FDA didn’t even get authority to regulate tobacco until 2009.
So–if government didn’t drive the change, what explains the anti-cigarette movement’s incredible success? In 2020, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control provides data, 12.5 percent of Americans over the age of 18 smoked. In 1965, it was 42.4 percent.
That’s a pretty impressive victory. The question is, can we use the tactics that were so successful against Big Tobacco to get meaningful gun control, especially since the Court has evidently all but neutered government?
Gun owners are in the minority. Smokers were also a minority — but, as the article notes, they were a powerful minority.
“In the 20th century, the smokingest segments of Americans were white men; now, the most gun owningest segments of Americans are white men,” Sarah Milov, associate history professor at the University of Virginia and author of “The Cigarette: A Political History,” told TPM. “The consequence of that for non-gun owning Americans is that they live in a world where public space is governed by the political demands and practices of what is truly a minority.”
The gun and cigarette lobbies spent millions obscuring that fact, presenting guns and cigarettes as foundational and ubiquitous parts of American life. Resistance to them, then, is futile — even unpatriotic.
The anti-smoking campaign changed attitudes about smoking in public places. They countered arguments about smokers’ rights by focusing on the harm to those unable to avoid second-hand smoke. When Big Tobacco fought no smoking rules for bars and restaurants, arguing that customers who didn’t like smoky venues could go elsewhere, activists pointed out that workers in those establishments had no such choice.
Experts think there are lessons to outsource to the fight for gun regulation: the anti-tobacco movement was coalitional, with outposts in every state; activists quickly realized the power of changing the narrative and stigma around public smoking, and of centering the rights of nonsmokers being harmed by cigarette smoke; instead of despairing at Congress’ coziness with big tobacco, they took the fight to local government.
Even before the Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, ALEC had made it impossible to enlist most local governments in the movement to control weapons; a majority of states have so-called “pre-emption” statutes drafted by ALEC, preventing local governments from regulating firearms and ammunition.
The gun industry also benefits from a seriously devoted fan base. Many — though far from all — gun owners see their firearms as more than a recreational tool or even a means of self defense. The cult of the gun has grown so powerful that some owners consider it a part of their identity: shorthand for individualism and freedom, for triggering the libs and intimidating a federal government that supposedly wants to change their way of life.
Even the tobacco industry’s biggest customers largely lacked that fervor.
Despite these considerable disadvantages, gun control advocates can begin to change the narrative from the NRA’s emphasis on gun owners’ rights. We can form coalitions emphasizing the rights of the rest of us–a clear majority– not to be shot and not to live in constant fear for ourselves and our children.
It took a long time to change the culture around smoking, but when the narrative changed, so did the culture– and when the culture changes, so (eventually) do the laws–and even Supreme Court opinions.
Speaking of changes, tomorrow I’ll consider the radicalization of the Court…