The just-concluded meeting of the American Public Health Association in New Orleans featured a panel chaired by Ted Alcorn, a researcher at Everytown and an important voice in the search for answers to reducing gun violence. Alcorn says that gun-control advocates need more data in order to develop public policies that “balance” 2nd-Amendment guarantees against the human and financial costs of gun violence. I’m basing my comments on a story that appeared in the Times-Picayune, but Alcorn’s views are mainstream for the gun safety movement, views with which, as a friend, I politely disagree.
I don’t believe there is some “middle ground” between gun ownership and gun violence from a policy point of view, and I further don’t believe that more data-mining will somehow provide the still-elusive strategy which will solve the problem of gun violence once and for all. I have sold over 12,000 guns in my retail store and nobody ever bought a gun from me to take it home and lock it away. They take the gun home to play with it, to dry-fire it while they are watching tv, to show it to their friends, their neighbors and their kids. Oh yea, at the end of the day they’ll lock the gun up, if they remember to lock the gun up. But if they were really all that concerned about the potential lethality of the weapon, they probably wouldn’t buy it in the first place.
Recall how we dealt with cigarettes once everyone acknowledged that smoking was dangerous to your health. The government adopted strategies to keep cigarettes out of the “wrong hands,” which were defined as children who had not yet begun to smoke. So warning signs went on packs, dealers must check IDs, cigarette ads must be kept away from schools. And the result? Roughly one out of three adults were smokers in the 1960s, roughly one out of four were smokers in the 1980s, roughly one out of five are smokers today. In other words, most of the decline in smoking took place before we instituted policies to keep cigarettes out of the “wrong hands.”
But the good news about smoking is that at least everyone knows and understands that cigarettes pose a health risk. That’s certainly not the case with guns. Not only has the gun lobby succeeded in convincing a majority of Americans, including non-gun owners, that guns actually make you safer if they’re lying around the house, the lobby is also busily engaged in convincing state legislatures that physicians shouldn’t be able to discuss guns with their patients at all. And this has nothing to do with whether gun research is no longer funded by the CDC. This is the result of a debate in which one side keeps looking for some middle ground while the other side has yet to acknowledge that a middle ground even exists.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Even a small advance in public gun safety is better than no advance at all. But notice the use of the word ‘public,’ because here is where the issue of gun control comes up short. The problem with using a public health paradigm for gun violence is that many of the policies being advocated have nothing to do with the public. Telling a gun owner that he has to lock up his guns is like telling a smoker that he can’t light up at home. Telling a gun owner that he can’t sell one of his guns to a friend without going to a dealer and paying some extra dough for a background check is like telling a smoker that he can’t give a box of cigars as a gift.
The strength of the pro-gun lobby lies in the fact that they keep reminding gun owners that gun ownership is a private, not a public concern. I agree with them and for that reason I also believe that ending gun violence can only take place by restricting private ownership of guns. After all, we wouldn’t be worried about the effects of smoking if, in 1985, the government had paid 12,000 farmers to switch to another crop.