A seismic cultural shift has happened more than a few times in American society, each time accomplished by the same combination of means. Two examples should suffice to clarify, but you could come probably up with many others:
In the 1960s and into the '70s, our magnificent and relatively new superhighway system was knee deep in trash. Drivers were casually throwing every disposable thing out the window of their moving cars. We were so used to the sight of it and to the habit of treating our landscape like a vast landfill that we could not imagine how it could be otherwise.
Over 20 years, a complement of laws, public awareness campaigns, protests, considered design and placement of receptacles and economic incentives have transformed littering from an accepted part of daily life into the unacceptable moral offense that it is today. Our highways have been clean for better than 30 years, a little longer than the period they were an eyesore. For the whole of the 20th century, our society was dominated by cigarette smoke. It pervaded every aspect of culture. Smoking was cool. Movie stars and singers, politicians, the powerful, the lowly, athletes and ailing alike. It seemed like everybody smoked. In the newsroom, we smoked while we worked, typing with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of the mouth, puffing away during interviews. Second-hand smoke was ubiquitous and exposure to it was an unstated job requirement. The few words of complaint that came from those who didn't smoke were considered callous, rude annoyances. Did they think they could ask everybody to stop smoking?
Today, the places in any town where you can smoke indoors can be counted on the fingers of one hand. A lot of people died of smoke-related cancers before laws and better practices were enacted, before we effected what many thought to be an impossible and near-complete change of culture.
Again, the means of that change was a combination of increased public awareness, increased taxes on tobacco products, citizen actions including protests and lawsuits, and corporate pressure including insurance breaks for companies that encouraged a smoke-free environment. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's imposition of a ban on cigarette smoking in restaurants was an important milestone, but also merely the final, inevitable battle of a long anti-smoking campaign.
The shooter in the Newtown, Conn. massacre on Dec. 14 should not have had casual access to guns, I think we can all agree on that. In the incident I cited in the previous article, where a 4-year-old boy killed by his 6-year-old friend, neither child should have been near a rifle unattended -- even the most cynical readers conceded that point. Since Newtown, there have been over 3,700 more firearms deaths, according to an ongoing tally recorded by Slate.
The Slate number has to be taken with a serious grain of salt, however, as it refers specifically to news accounts, mostly of homicides, where the victim died immediately. Many accidental deaths, subsequent deaths from gunshot wounds and suicides by firearm are left out of tallies like this.
A report from the Dept. of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control Prevention, Division of Vital Statistics lists the total number of people who died from guns in 2010 was well over 31,000. Preliminary numbers for 2011 are slightly higher. Of those, greater than 50% were suicide. Some 11,000 were classified "homicide."
Granted, some of the mentally ill who are bent on killing themselves or somebody else will find a way to do it even without a gun. But not the majority. Judging from the stories behind the Slate statistics, most gun deaths involve a family or neighborhood dispute in which a gun should have played no part. Even so-called "gang-related" deaths can fall into this category. A shooting begins as an argument or perceived affront unrelated to a gang's territory or criminal activity; one or both of the parties happens to have a gun, usually acquired from someone else who purchased it legally. Steeped in the gun culture that we have created over the last 50 years, exercise of the bullet option appears the only real choice. In all cases, the presence of a gun represents a lethal opportunity for fragile human psychology, whether the barrel is turned outward or inward, back at the shooter. Some simple steps could make a world of difference: More thorough background checks; better monitoring of gun sales; higher taxes on both readily available guns and ammunition; more aggressive gun buyback programs; new laws and a stricter enforcement of laws already on the books regarding guns in the proximity of children; and, most importantly, a widespread and multifaceted public awareness campaign on the dangers of gun ownership from doctors, hospitals, police officers, public officials, independent nonprofits and the general media.
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