I spent twenty-three proud years of my life as a lawyer and advocate for the gun control cause. Countless times, after egregious acts of mass violence with guns were followed by cowardly excuses for inaction by our political leaders, I would wonder: What will it take? What kind of horror must our nation experience before the politicians finally defy the gun lobby and start protecting the American people?
After Sandy Hook, I think we may know the answer. As our citizens confront the inconceivable reality of 20 first graders (and six caring adults) shot to death in their school, there is a palpable shared feeling that we can tolerate the slaughter no longer. Deep inside our collective consciousness, we know that, if our leaders do nothing, we will suffer the horror again and again and again. And we can’t stand the thought of it.
Yes, Sandy Hook is different. The attack on an elementary school classroom taps into our most elemental instinct as adults and parents -- to protect the children before all else. I now work in the tobacco control movement and one parallel to guns is striking. A key turning point on the tobacco issue was the revelation that the tobacco companies were deliberately acting to addict our children to a lethal product. When the welfare of our kids is at risk, we insist that something be done.
Everything I know about the gun issue tells me we are entering a period of unprecedented national self-examination about what gun violence is doing to our nation. And we will not be satisfied with a conversation. We must have action.
The American people can overcome the gun lobby, but only if we confront, and expose, three myths that have long dominated the gun debate and given the politicians a ready excuse for inaction.
- First, we must not let the opponents of reform get away with the empty bromide that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Does any rational person really believe that the Sandy Hook killer could have murdered 26 people in minutes with a knife or a baseball bat? Guns enable people to kill, more effectively and efficiently than any other widely available weapon.
- Second, we must challenge the idea that no law can prevent violent people from getting guns. This canard is refuted by the experience of every other western industrialized nation. Their violent crime rates are comparable to ours. But their homicide rates are exponentially lower because their strong gun laws make it harder for violent individuals to get guns.
- Third, we must not accept the notion that our Constitution condemns us to the continued slaughter of our children. It is true that the Supreme Court has expanded gun rights in recent years; it is equally true that the Court has insisted that the right allows for reasonable restrictions. In his opinion in the Heller gun rights case, Justice Scalia listed restrictions on “dangerous and unusual weapons” among the kinds of gun laws that are still “presumptively lawful”. Assault weapons that fire scores of rounds without reloading surely are “dangerous and unusual”.
The tobacco control movement overcame some equally powerful mythology to fundamentally alter American attitudes toward tobacco products. The tobacco industry’s effort to sow confusion and uncertainty about the link between smoking and disease eventually was exposed as a fraud. The entrenched view that smoking was simply a bad habit that individuals can choose to break was destroyed by evidence that the tobacco companies knew that nicotine was powerfully addictive and engineered their cigarettes to ensure that people got hooked and stayed hooked. The assumption that smoking harms only the smoker was contradicted by the overwhelming evidence of the danger of second-hand smoke.
Once these myths were exposed, attitudes changed, policies changed and we started saving countless lives. Since youth smoking peaked in the mid-1990s, smoking rates have fallen by about three-fourths among 8th graders, two-thirds among 10th graders and half among 12th graders. A sea change has occurred on the tobacco issue.
Similarly fundamental change can come to the gun issue as well. The myths about gun control, however, still have a hold on too many of our political leaders and their constituents. We will hear them repeated again and again in the coming weeks of intense debate. Every time we hear them, we must respond and we must persuade.
There is too much at stake to be silent.
Dennis Henigan is Director of Policy Analysis and Research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and a former Vice President of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He is the author of Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)