Put the Gun Down and Let's Talk

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In response to my recent article, "Our Gun Love Is Killing Our Kids," readers seemed to take delight shooting my argument full of holes.

In that article I said that far from making us safe, guns endanger the public health. Casual gun ownership should be actively discouraged. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center studies this and concludes in several articles that more guns equates to a higher number of gun-related deaths.

As that article aged, some took the time to post more thoughtful responses. Most of the early commenters, though, jumped in to offer typically brief, frank and personal insights expressing concern for the quality of my understanding, my political motives and my strength of intellect. Hate is not too strong a word, I don't think. These readers hated the article and hated me for writing it.

OK, fine. I concede I made a couple missteps. And in light of the ongoing controversy over guns in our society, particularly in the wake of the defeat of the Senate gun-control measure, it seems important to do more than acknowledge them. I need to be clear where, apparently, I was not.

Point taken. I am upbraided. Let the accounting begin.

First of all, I seemed to support the Senate's effort to tighten background checks on gun purchasers, but then I turned around and said "Laws can't fix what we have broken." Confusing.

What I should have said was, "Laws alone can't fix what we have broken." Laws are an expression of our desire for cooperation, for the common good. They are never a cure in themselves and should not be thought so.

That brings me to mea culpa No. 2, which was to imply that we had the power to turn the tables on our gun-toting history without specifying how that was to be done. Specifically, I said:
There is no inevitability. There is only culture and culture can be changed.

Yet again, an error of omission. The means to accomplish this momentous task seems obvious, but by not stating it outright, I left the door open for the black-and-white crowd, who believe any attempt to reduce gun violence will bring an ATF officer knocking at the door.

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.

Those interested in owning a gun legally would still be able to do so and would, perhaps, be persuaded to take greater care to prevent those weapons from being misused. Those who should never own a gun, those who misunderstand the danger that owning a gun poses or who would seek one with intent to harm, would find fewer easy opportunities to do so.

The gun industry would have to make adjustments, but given that a broad market for guns would still exist, dedicated manufacturers like Smith & Wesson ( SWHC) and Sturm, Ruger ( RGR) should be fine. More diversified retailers that happen to sell guns, like Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Cabela's ( CAB), will barely feel the pinch.

I'll say it again: Change the culture. It can be done and it should be done.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York.

More from Opinion

Elon Musk's Latest Twitter Tirade Is the Dumbest Thing on Wall Street

Elon Musk's Latest Twitter Tirade Is the Dumbest Thing on Wall Street

Elon Musk's Twitter Tirade Is the Dumbest Thing on Wall Street

Elon Musk's Twitter Tirade Is the Dumbest Thing on Wall Street

Why Google's Search Momentum Won't Be Badly Hurt by New EU Rules

Why Google's Search Momentum Won't Be Badly Hurt by New EU Rules

Flashback Friday: Amazon, Chip Stocks, Memorial Day

Flashback Friday: Amazon, Chip Stocks, Memorial Day

Time to Talk Tesla: What Happened This Week, Elon?

Time to Talk Tesla: What Happened This Week, Elon?