by Bruce Dunlavy
           (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

A Good Man to Know has published posts the issue of guns in America five times before this one. (Start reading them here.)  In the two and one-half years since the first such post, there have been several dramatic, high-casualty mass shootings as well as the steady drumbeat of single and dual homicide shootings, suicides, and accidental deaths that occur hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

In addition, there have been numerous laws enacted, most of them broadening the ability of Americans to obtain, carry, and use firearms. Along with that, every time a mass shooting has occurred there has been the requisite amount of hand-wringing about how to prevent such occurrences.

A certain segment of the population blames the ready availability of powerful firearms in the hands of too many people. Another segment blames the lack of a sufficient number of guns carried by a sufficient number of people.  Yes, there is a small “lunatic fringe” on each end, too. I know one or two people who want to round up all the firearms and restrict them to military and police forces – as if such a thing were possible – and I know several people who are convinced that it is not only possible, but imminent, and must be resisted by as much firepower as can be assembled in individual hands.

I have two friends (that I know of) who believe that every American should be required to carry a gun at all times, the supposition being that “an armed society is a peaceful society.” They do allow for conscientious objectors, but those folks would have to wear a visible badge or armband identifying themselves as unarmed.

In most cases, the proponents of these – indeed, of most – viewpoints on guns justify them on the grounds that, “It stands to reason.” That is, they appeal to Common Sense. Historically, when it comes to complicated issues where there is a deep and fundamental lack of empirical evidence and analysis, Common Sense is not a very good tool. Common Sense is what made people think the Earth is flat. Common sense tells us the Moon is the same size as the Sun.

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What is needed is real study, pure research without a foregone conclusion or the backing of an interested party. Alas, as I have noted before, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and the National Institutes of Health, the two entities best to provide for disinterested and dispassionate research into the effects of firearms (and firearms policy) on human health, are de facto forbidden from doing so.

There once was a similar health issue.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans were dying from diseases and conditions that were preventable. But a powerful lobby of the manufacturers of the instruments of these unnecessary deaths had a stranglehold that prevented action. Their deep, deep pockets provided legislators with a lot of money in the form of campaign contributions and sources of investigative journalism with a lot of money in the form of advertising in their publications.

I am talking about Big Tobacco. Once upon a time, smoking was ubiquitous in America. There were few limits on where or when anyone could smoke, and if someone suggested there ought to be, that person was ridiculed, ostracized, and called whatever the Twentieth Century word for “snowflake” was. Today, however, smoking is in full retreat, and rates of death from smoking are in decline. There are few public places where smokers can light up, and the practice has become déclassé.

How did this happen? The answer is, “by starting with independent research.” Before 1964, many people believed that smoking could be beneficial. Common Sense suggested that it relaxed people, because smokers who got jittery were seen to calm down when they lit up. King George VI of England had a serious stammer, and his doctor – as many did at the time – recommended he take up smoking to improve it. In the end, it was not the stammer but the smoking that eventually killed George VI at the age of 56.

In 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States, Luther Terry, issued the first report of the Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. The Advisory Committee had been established in late 1962 after pressure from health groups such as the American Cancer Society and the American Public Health Association to examine the effects of smoking. It spent 14 months reviewing studies and literature on the possibility of a causal effect between cigarette smoking and lung cancer before releasing its findings.

There was an immediate effect – some people quit smoking, some doctors started advising against the practice, and filter-tipped cigarettes (believed to be safer) became the best sellers. During the rest of the 1960s, laws were passed that made it harder for tobacco manufacturers to advertise and required warnings on cigarette packs. Slowly, the rates of smoking began to decrease.

Over the next couple of decades, a number of ideas and experiments were tried. One of the most interesting came up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when high schools across the country began to establish student smoking lounges allowing students to smoke in designated areas in schools. Some had suggested that if  smoking was made less edgy and rebellious, young people would quit doing it.

When that proved fruitless, the campaign against smoking in public began in earnest. Non-smokers – a significant majority by now – were learning that smoking was not just annoying to non-smokers; it was dangerous and potentially lethal. Within the decade from the middle 1980s to the middle 1990s, the public attitude about smoking reversed. The last gasp of the pro-tobacco crowd was in 1994 when the CEOs of the tobacco companies appeared before Congress and each, solemnly and under oath, pronounced some version of “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.” Internal documents of these corporations revealed them to be lying through their teeth. The companies’ own research had told them long before that nicotine is addictive, and they manipulated that addictiveness to profit from a public health disaster.

The change of American society from one of smoking tolerance to one of smoking control did not happen overnight. It took decades to get the ball rolling on it, but once the effort was in motion, it accelerated and provoked a rapid shift in attitudes.

Notice, too, that the government did not send out armies to confiscate cigarettes. Tobacco was never banned. One can still buy all the cigarettes one wants at retail shops on nearly every corner.

The tobacco-caused health crisis was dramatically diminished not by self-proclaimed “Common Sense” responses, not by extremists shouting at one another and calling one another names, not by Big Government taking away everyone’s right to own and consume tobacco. It was done by sensible people proposing independent and verifiable studies, and then acting on the findings of those studies in a way that protected public health without authoritarian measures.

When Dr. Terry proposed the Surgeon General’s Advisory Council on Smoking and Health, he did two very wise things. He invited parties from all over the issue – including the Tobacco Institute (the lobby wing of the tobacco companies) – to nominate members for the Council, and he stipulated that the nominees must never have taken a position on the issue of smoking.

The report of the Council got the ball rolling, and bit by bit it gained momentum until an American consensus had moved from “non-smokers just shut up and stop being such snowflakes” to “let’s study this problem and see what the nitty-gritty is” to the conditions that prevail today.

There has always been an anti-smoking cohort. But prior to 1964, it was confined largely to religious activists and what were known as “health nuts.”  Once reputable scientific study was reviewed and publicized, society in general started to join the movement for responsibility.

Are we at that moment now in the matter of firearms? The mass shooting last week at Stoneman Douglas High School seems to have electrified young people across the nation who are now demanding that the issue be addressed. I have great faith in young people as demonstrated in one of my earliest posts on this site. William Faulkner observed in his novel Intruder in the Dust that to get something extraordinary done it is best to put women and young people to work at it.

Especially the young, I say.  Put the energetic and passionate young folks on it. It was students and other young people who were at the forefront of the battles against segregation, the Vietnam War, and oppression of women and gay people.

The ball started to move over the last ten days. If it is kept rolling – and I think this force of young people can do it – it will be the change we have waited for in addressing the gun issue. We can stop the shouting-in-the-echo-chamber and get people all across the spectrum of opinion to sit down and reason together. I know my gun-owning friends do not want to see any more mass shootings, and I know my gun-opposing friends do, too. Instead of throwing out speculation not grounded in  evidence, instead of blindly blaming bad mental health, bad laws, bad movies and television shows, bad video games, bad weapons, bad culture, bad neighborhoods, bad schools, bad training, bad anything.

Let us look to the good – good science, fair research, honest evaluation.  There is no telling what might be revealed if science is given the liberty to do its job.  The first thing to do is to calm down, quit shouting, and think rationally. The next thing is to permit – indeed, to encourage – the CDC, NIH, and other institutions from all over the nation to research this problem. Let’s listen to the voice of the next generation, who are telling us loud and clear that the status quo doesn’t meet their needs.