Gun proponents have worked hard to characterize unfettered firearm ownership as a bedrock constitutional right, to be protected at all costs. They’ve done a good job at transforming the debate to the point where this perspective has become mainstream and even strong gun control advocates take pains to talk about protecting Second Amendment rights, rather than arguing that the amendment’s second clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” must be understood in connection with the first, “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.”
I still remember a 1989 New Yorker cartoon with the caption, “How very exciting! I have never before met a Second Amendment lawyer.” That cartoon would not strike people today as absurdly funny the way it did a quarter century ago.
In the wake of the Newtown and Aurora massacres, there is some potential to make modifications around the edges of gun regulation, e.g., to limit the size of ammo clips and to have background checks. But in my view, the best long term hope for gun control in this country is to re-characterize the debate in public health terms. It doesn’t make sense to get into arguments about taking away the rights of gun owners or to debate the meaning of the Second Amendment. Instead, the gun issue should be treated neutrally along with other public health issues such as road safety, air quality, nutrition and tobacco.
A generation ago smoking in public places was the norm, and it would have been hard to imagine how much smoking would decline and how societal attitudes toward it could change. Automakers used to avoid discussing car safety at all costs, yet now they embrace it. The path for guns will be different, yet there are reasons to think that attitudes can change over time.
I’ve seen two encouraging signs of the public safety approach to guns just this week:
- Politico reports that the White House held a conference call with the Open Society Institute, McCormick Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and California Endowment on gun violence prevention to see whether these groups would be interested in helping
- A new report on life expectancy showed the US scoring poorly compared with other rich countries. Gun-related homicides and suicides were listed as a prominent factor
The public health approach is sure to be met with opposition if the comments on the Politico article are any indication. The top-rated comment (with 11 Facebook Likes) says, “Thanks for the list. All will be stricken from organizations I will contribute to or associate with. I believe the efforts to bypass the Constitution as treason!” Somehow I doubt the commenter is contributing to any of these groups today, especially since none of them accept donations.