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Do to guns what we did to cigarettes — make them culturally repellent

Photo: Alex-Wong-Getty-Images

Maybe you’ve wondered how much innocent blood needed to get spilled to finally convince Senate Republicans that gun violence has spiraled out of control, and we need to do something. The back-to-back mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde gave us the unhappy answer. One month later Congress presented President Joe Biden with a modest bipartisan gun bill to sign into law.

The new law is an excruciatingly small step, and even that was immediately overshadowed by the giant leap backward when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a more than 100-year old New York handgun permit law.

My specialty isn’t law. It’s mass culture. Most of my family went to law school. I went into advertising. That perspective tells me rather than despair over our failure to make more progress fixing the gun laws, what we need to do is fix our gun-obsessed culture.

We live in a society in which guns outnumber people. Even if the president’s whole wish list of gun measures made it into law, it’s going to take a long time to beat all those weapons back into plowshares.

But cultural change can happen quicker, particularly at a time when there’s so much graphic evidence the current gun culture has gone horrifically wrong.

My sense is we’re seeing early signs of that shift. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would not have greenlighted his party’s break from decades of intransigence on everything gun related if he didn’t sense a shift in the cultural winds.

So yes, the new law doesn’t do nearly enough to keep weapons of war out of the hands of messed-up teenagers or racist vigilantes. Its greater value may be as a symbol of a change in the conversation. The momentum is shifting. That’s the advantage to search out and press.

One modest suggestion for our society: Think of someone with a big gun collection the way we think of someone with a big porn collection. It’s their constitutional right, but not something we admire. It’s not patriotic. It’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d see conservative candidates for office splashing all over their advertising the way they now use gun imagery.

To continue the analogy: What starts out as legal can cross the line into illegality. A collection of child porn, for example. Or unlicensed machine guns, accompanied by a closet full of ammo.

Another example of a product’s transformation from cool to repellent is cigarettes, which once cut a dashing image and enjoyed formidable support from Big Tobacco and its political henchmen. We can say with clarity that too many guns leads to shootings just like too many cigarettes leads to lung cancer.

It would be smart to study the years of public service messaging that helped transform smoking from a part of every meal, meeting and silver screen romance, into something one ashamedly sneaks outside the back door of the restaurant.

These analogies seem unkind to law abiding gun owners, which is why the focus should be about the industry more than the people who fall prey to its aggressive marketing. And make no mistake, the gun industry is engaged in a highly profitable effort to make Americans fearful while glamorizing weapons of war. As The New York Times recently reported after examining industry records, court records and online archives, the industry “spent the last two decades scrutinizing their market and refocusing their message away from hunting toward selling handguns for personal safety, as well as military-style weapons attractive to mostly young men. The sales pitch — rooted in self-defense, machismo and an overarching sense of fear — has been remarkably successful.”

Gun opponents should heed the industry’s approach: The best messages are emotional. So make them personal. Here’s the dismal accounting of guns in my life: The mother of the kids I played with when I was young, one of the first friends I made when I started high school, the bright young man I watched grow up in the house next store, the fun uncle who used to drive up from California on July 4th with a trunk full of fireworks. All lives taken by guns. Guns do not make me safer, or more free. #WhatsYourStory strikes me as a beginning to some effective storytelling for all you social media experts out there.

The central message is that a gun is not an tool for safety. It’s an instrument of death.

I get it: There is a strange fascination in that. Just like there is a fascination in fast cars and heroin and drinking 100-proof whiskey. Yet we agree society needs to keep a lid on those, as imperfect as our efforts might be. We need to start thinking the same way about guns. Which means we need to start talking that way. We can’t let the rage fizzle the way it has so often in the past in the days following a murderous rampage.

None of this means we give up on further legislation. But see it in the larger context of cultural change. Even the recent imperfect compromise is a sign the ground is shifting in the direction of a healthier society. In other words, the value is symbolic as well as concrete. It changes the conversation.

This may also be a reason to get more creative with policy efforts rather than just working off the same old list. For instance, a big tax on military-graderifles. Call it a “murder tax.” Use the money to start mitigating the damage they cause to society. Momentum on legislation can then be its own kind of message.

If there’s language that’s not overly political, that’s usually helpful. But in the end we’re up against the wall here. According to a new CBS/YouGov poll, 44% of Republicans say mass shootings are “unfortunately something we have to accept as part of a free society.”

Think about that. A significant group of us is OK with grapefruit-size holes in 4th graders as a cost of “freedom” to own military-grade arsenals. That’s what’s broken in our culture, and we need to call it out. Make it as toxic for politicians as it is deadly for the rest of us.

This can start right now. With all of us.

Sheldon Clay is a contributor to the Minnesota Reformer, which first published this essay.

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Do to guns what we did to cigarettes — make them culturally repellent