By Evan Turner
Of all of the preventable deaths that occur in our country every year, there are perhaps none more saddening than those that result from gun violence. The United States’ avid participation in gun culture has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Widespread gun violence is, after all, a direct result of widespread gun ownership, which is in turn a product of pro-gun culture—the three phenomena are inextricable from each other. With mass shootings on the rise, a great deal of attention has been devoted towards mitigating the harm that widespread gun culture inflicts upon innocent people. Explicit prohibition of gun ownership has been proposed, but at this point in history it does not appear to be a politically viable option. I propose that we adopt a gentler approach that involves leveraging the power of social pressure to reduce the appeal of gun culture. Weaker gun culture means less gun ownership, and less gun ownership means less gun violence.
According to the CDC, over two thirds of homicides in the United States are firearm-related (Weil, 1997). The most appalling of these are the mass murder killing sprees that have traumatized the nation with frightening regularity in recent years, including the massacres at Sandy Hook elementary, Pulse nightclub, and, most recently, Stoneman-Douglas High School. The evidence that a strong, entrenched gun culture is the root cause of such tragedies is overwhelming. After all, individuals are hundreds of times less likely to be harmed by gun violence in nations like the United Kingdom, where civilian gun ownership is prohibited (Weil 1997). A nationwide ban on firearms certainly seems like the best solution, but gun ownership is such an important part of many American’s cultural identity that a ban is politically impossible. This is a society that has always warmly embraced gun culture: gun ownership is understood as a constitutionally-guaranteed right, and gun violence is lionized throughout consumer media. Despite myriad items of evidence in support of the idea that fewer guns means less tragedy, the prospects for a nationwide firearm ban are bleak.
For these reasons, I must recommend social pressure as opposed to legislative action as a strategy to decrease the number of gun owners in the United States. History should inform the way we go about fighting this battle, and there is much to be learned from the United States’ history of protecting the public interest. When the United States government moved to ban alcohol in 1920, one of the several reasons cited was drinking’s malevolent health effects. The ban failed and was officially reversed in 1933 because public opposition to it was so widespread. Straightforwardly banning people from drinking (a widely adored activity then, as it is now) was unacceptable to the population because public attitudes towards drinking were still so positive. Since public attitudes towards gun ownership today are similarly sunny, direct action is the wrong course of action if our goal is to diminish gun culture. In the long term, the ban did little to affect alcohol consumption—booze is consumed at about the same rate now as it was 100 years ago.
The next time the United States had occasion to correct a harrowing social trend was during the sixties and seventies, when scientific evidence begin to accumulate that proved the disastrous health consequences of tobacco use. Smoking was even more popular than alcohol during the sixties, and significantly reducing tobacco use on a national scale seemed a daunting challenge. Fortunately, the United States learned the lesson of prohibition and decided to engineer social change by raising awareness of the health consequences of tobacco use instead of banning cigarettes outright. Today, cigarette use is much less popular than it was fifty years ago. The lesson here is that attempts to prevent gun violence with direct legislative action are less likely to produce positive change than efforts to reshape cultural attitudes about guns. Practically, this strategy could be pursued by sponsoring efforts (in both pop culture and the mainstream press) to confront the toxic esteem for gun culture that has long festered in America.
There are lots of ways we can go about decreasing the general populace’s enthusiasm about guns. If respected government officials publicly denounce gun ownership and officially policy begins to shift slowly away from the present embrace of gun culture, then we have moved towards a solution. If consumer media begins to portray gun violence in a less worshipful light—infrequently as heroism and more often as cowardly, frustrated behavior perpetrated by contemptible characters—then we will be making progress. The heart of America’s gun problem is its population’s enthusiasm about guns—any attempt to reduce gun violence that fails to address this core element of the problem is fated to fail.
Header photo from Wikipedia.
Weil, Douglas. “Gun Control Can Reduce Crime.” Guns and Crime, edited by Tamara L. Roleff, Greenhaven Press, 2000. At Issue. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, http://db24.linccweb.org/login?url=http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ3010015205/OVIC?u=lincclin_spjc&xid=2ebc91cc. Accessed 19 Feb. 2018. Originally published as “Gun Control Laws Can Reduce Crime,” The World and I, Feb. 1997.