Changes in attitudes toward smoking and driving drunk hold lessons for what's next.
The 2005 movie Thank You for Smoking features lobbyists for the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries who meet in a bar each week and call themselves the Merchants of Death, or MOD Squad.
Since the movie, based on the satirical novel by Christopher Buckley, came out, both smoking and drunken driving have become less socially acceptable and more heavily regulated, despite industry lobbying.
These trends carry useful lessons as gun-control advocates try to mount a campaign for sensible new firearms restrictions in the wake of the horrific school shootings in Connecticut a week ago: Destructive public problems that seem intractable are not. Interest groups that seem all powerful are not. The combination of public policy and public disapproval is tremendously potent. And though hard-wired cultural norms yield slowly, they can change, and change dramatically.
Take teenage smoking and drunken driving, behaviors that were once endemic. The rates of both continued dropping last year, in some cases to historic lows.
In the early 1990s, it was tough to find any place where people didn't smoke. Smokers were welcome in bars, restaurants, hotel rooms, lobbies, offices and even in government buildings. Cigarette packs warned that smoking was dangerous, but teens, who think they'll live forever, were unimpressed. By 1997, one in every three teenagers smoked. And why wouldn't they? It was cool and sexy.
Then the world began to change. Over Big Tobacco's objections, communities began passing broad no-smoking policies. There were class action lawsuits against the industry, crackdowns on sales to minors, anti-smoking advertising aimed at teens, and huge cigarette tax increases that put smoking out of reach for cost-conscious teenagers. A cultural shift was underway. Public health advocates badgered Hollywood until smoking in movies began to decline.
Last year, 18.1% of high school students smoked — a drop of half since the 1997 peak. Where cigarettes are most expensive, thanks to high taxes, teen smoking is even less popular. In New York City, with the highest tax in the country, just 8.5% of high school students smoke.
The decline in drunken driving follows a similar trajectory. In 1980, the mother of a 13-year-old girl killed by a drunk hit-and-run driver founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Public attention and a shove from Congress spurred every state to raise the minimum drinking age to 21. Sobriety checkpoints and designated drivers became increasingly common.
States began requiring graduated drivers' licenses for teens, some prohibiting the newest drivers from driving late at night. Police visited schools to talk about the real-life tragedies of teens killed in drunken driving accidents, and some teens formed groups to battle risky behaviors.
Altered public attitudes produced tougher laws and changed the perception of drunken driving for adults, a message that filtered down to teens. Last year, an annual federal survey found about 10% of teens 16 and older had gotten behind the wheel drunk — a 54% drop since 1991.
In both smoking and drinking, progress has been driven by a blend of changing public attitudes and responsive government policies.
Could the same thing happen for guns? The moment is ripe. The slaughter of 20 children ages 6 and 7 was an event so unimaginably awful that it might have created the sort of sustained public pressure that other horrific shootings have somehow never managed to build.
Here, too, there's a valuable lesson from America's history of dealing with alcohol. Even aside from constitutional considerations, attempts to outlaw handguns won't work any better than banning booze did during Prohibition. But sensible gun restrictions seem more possible than at any time since an assault-weapons ban expired in 2004. These include a broadened ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity clips, and background checks on all gun sales.
As the campaigns to limit smoking and drunken driving showed, however, new laws are only part of the solution. The other part has to be a change in cultural attitudes. That, for example, might put pressure on those who keep unsecured guns in their home, as the mother of the Connecticut shooter apparently did, or on states that fail to diligently report incidents of mental illness to the national background check database, the way Virginia did before the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.
As the nation settles in for Christmas, Americans can be thankful for the remarkably good news about smoking and drunken driving. A present just as welcome in some future Christmas would be similar reductions in gun violence.Source: http://www.news.theusalinks.com/2012/12/21/editorial-gun-control-future-could-lie-in-the-past/