I was inspired and encouraged by our local “March For Our Lives” event in Tacoma, and by those held concurrently around the world. A number of speakers conveyed their passionate optimism regarding our prospects for implementing “sensible gun laws.” Some cited our eventual acceptance of seat belt laws, despite tremendous initial resistance, as one example of how important change can and does happen.
And there is an even more compelling precedent for optimism. I grew up in the 1960’s. At that time smoking was epidemic. Every indoor space was visibly thick with noxious, stifling smoke. Every tabletop was marred by ashes and burns. Beaches, park lawns, and other public spaces were strewn with disgusting butts. Workplaces and restaurants were more like Marakesh hookah bars than the clean, safe, and wholesome places they are today. Smokers could not be persuaded to change their behavior regardless of the cost to themselves let alone to others. Their right to enjoy unrestricted smoking was fueled by a powerful tobacco industry and protected by a complicit government. The result was that no one, even non-smokers, could find safety from the horrific health toll that this unrestricted smoking claimed. And certainly, few people believed there was any realistic chance to challenge the seemingly unassailable right and all-powerful compulsion of so many to smoke anywhere and everywhere they pleased.
Their arguments and excuses were much the same as those used in our current gun debate. But all those who said that significant changes in our smoking culture were impossible… were wrong. And they are wrong today about the hopelessness of achieving significant gun control.
But the relatively smoke and butt free world we enjoy today, that younger people thankfully take for granted, did not come about naturally or by accident. It came about because people fought for it. It came about because some ignored all those who maintained that smoking was too ingrained in our culture, that smokers could never be persuaded to curtail their habit to any extent whatsoever, and that in any case big tobacco was far too powerful to fight.
Big tobacco, as invincible and all-powerful as they seemed, lost that war. Smokers, as uncaring to suffering as their addiction made them, did eventually accept dramatic restrictions of their previously unrestricted right to smoke. And once the culture shifted under them, dramatic and fundamental change did not take long.
So don’t let anyone tell you that the NRA is too powerful. Don’t let anyone tell you guns are not the problem. Don’t let anyone tell you that gun owners will only allow their guns to be pried from their “cold dead hands.” Don’t let anyone convince you that the world will not be a far safer place with fewer guns. And don’t accept that our goals must be limited to “sensible gun restrictions,” because by taking this very meek approach we implicitly concede that guns are good and reasonable things to own – except for say crazy people or known criminals.
Rather than enumerating who cannot own guns, we should enumerate who can own them. The right to own guns should require proof of exceptional need. Such exceptions allowing ownership can include authorized facilities who “loan out” guns for controlled sporting or hunting activities, for guns held in secure armories for the use by “well regulated” militia groups, and for people with exceptional security needs.
Lest you think that such ambitious goals are impossible, consider that New York City has largely accomplished them. A little over a year ago we moved from New York City to Washington State. Despite the far greater population density, we frankly felt safer there. This is partly due to their very restrictive gun control laws. You are not allowed to own guns in NYC unless you can demonstrate an exceptional circumstance. Their laws effectively make gun ownership the exception. This has arguably contributed greatly to reducing gun violence, unarguably made us feel safer, has been accepted by the population, and has survived Constitutionality challenges in the courts. If such significant restrictions can work there, then there is no reason to accept any less nationwide.
As with seat belts, and more dramatically as with smoking, change can happen. New York City shows us that such change can be more transformative than we may believe – even when it comes to guns. The rallies and marches today give me a new sense of optimism that meaningful and significant change, akin to our transformative changes in smoking behavior, may be on the way for our insane gun culture. We just have to keep working to make it happen.
For other blog posts on our gun epidemic, click on the Guns category on the right!