We need laws to stop gun violence, but we need to stop glorifying it, too
Eight innocent people were killed Friday at an Indianapolis FedEx facility, the latest in a deadly string of mass shootings across the country. There have been at least 156 of them already this year.
Not since the Brady bill has a meaningful and lasting gun control measure passed Congress. That was 1993. Since then, hundreds of mass shootings have taken the lives of thousands of Americans. Nearly every congressional attempt since has failed. U.S. lawmakers couldn’t even agree on extending a ban on assault weapons and allowed it to expire.
Ninety percent of Americans support increased background checks yet Congress sits on its hands. A key reason: the influence the gun lobby has over many U.S lawmakers. The National Rifle Association (NRA) grades politicians on their stance on guns and skillfully uses the grades to influence its members in key elections. It’s why we often hear the “now is not the time to debate gun control” (or something similar) mantra from pro-gun politicians after major shooting events, often citing the mental illness of the shooter — rather than the weapon itself — for causing the devastation left behind. Lawmakers likely don’t want to upset the NRA and their constituents who helped get them elected to office.
Ironically, the opposite happened nearly three decades ago when Congress passed the Brady bill after President Reagan’s would-be assassin, who left James Brady permanently injured, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The strategy of today’s gun control opponents after each mass shooting is to buy time, offer meaningless platitudes and do nothing. They know that in just a few weeks, if they can just hold the line, eventually a new crisis will occupy America’s attention span. They’ll be relieved of the tough questions and freed from the pressure of acting against the pro-gun special interest groups that fund their campaigns and own their votes.
Last year — during a pandemic — nearly 20,000 Americans died by gun violence, the highest annual toll in at least two decades. Another 24,000 people took their own lives with a gun. When we’re talking about human lives lost at this magnitude, no one can claim gun violence isn’t a serious public health problem.
Some advocates argue we should rethink the language we use to talk about gun control, suggesting phrases such as “gun safety” and “reducing gun violence” better frame what needs to be done. Reasonable minds can debate the Second Amendment. But when the gun lobby uses it as a weapon to block even the smallest measure aimed at reducing the damage guns can inflict, they are complicit in the ongoing deaths caused by gun violence in America.
Leadership matters and President Biden is making that clear. He has called on Congress to pass legislation, and he ordered the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to clamp down on untraceable “ghost guns” and publish model legislation for states to adopt that would make it more difficult for people in crisis to access firearms.
Biden has further signaled that gun control will be a priority of his administration by bringing back Vivek Murthy as U.S. surgeon general after President Trump relieved him of the role back in 2017. Murthy’s first Senate confirmation back in 2015 was delayed due to comments characterizing gun violence as a public health issue. Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), David Chipman, was a former adviser to a prominent gun control organization. And Biden has committed advocates in Congress, notably Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who announced the introduction of a gun violence prevention bill in March.
But even if Congress somehow passes new gun control laws, it won’t be enough. Laws aren’t the reason we overcame another serious public health problem in our country: smoking. It was the result of a decades-long cultural shift in the way we view cigarettes. A big contributing factor that helped change people’s behaviors was the phase out of cigarettes in advertisements and motion pictures, imagery tobacco companies used successfully for years to sell smoking’s sex appeal to the American public. Today smoking is not viewed as glamorous, but rather an unfortunate addiction and medical issue.
For there to be a similar shift in how we view guns, we need to understand how gun violence is being normalized today. We need to be outraged, not apathetic, when innocent people are killed by gun violence. We need to bristle at, not be enamored by, guns that are routinely dramatized in action movies, video games, music videos and television shows. The less we venerate gun violence in the imagery we see everyday, the less common and familiar it will become.
We don’t need moments of silence for victims and their families after the next mass shooting. We need actions to reduce the number of guns on the streets and in the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. It will take more than what any individual law in Congress can enforce. It starts by confronting the role guns have in our culture.
We need to stop glorifying gun violence before we have any chance of ending it.
Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.
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