Politics-wise, the White House’s rolling conversation on gun control last week didn’t get off to the world’s most promising start. No, it went more like this: Joe Biden utters the words “executive order” and, within hours, the Drudge Report is posting photos of Stalin and Hitler. On CNN, meanwhile, a radio talk show host named Alex Jones goes unhinged, screaming in Piers Morgan’s face that “1776 will commence again if you take our firearms!”
We’re stuck in the same old debate, where any talk of restrictions is met with a ride down a slippery slope greased with WD-40: Incremental gun control would beget an all-out ban, government tyranny, a victory for sanctimonious liberals everywhere.
That’s why Americans should take a group of Boston doctors up on their proposal to shift the conversation. Instead of pitting gun-control advocates directly against gun owners, these doctors say, why not approach gun safety from the outside, as a problem of public health?
This isn’t a brand new idea. But the Newtown shooting gives it more urgency and has brought in voices who aren’t part of the long-standing gun-control conversation — such as Dr. David Ludwig, an expert in childhood obesity at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a Harvard School of Public Health professor who specializes in cardiac disease. A few days after Newtown, at a birthday party for Mozaffarian’s 4-year-old daughter, they sketched out the idea of an apolitical gun safety campaign, led by doctors instead of interest groups, modeled on the work that has done so much to curb smoking, accidental poisonings, and motor vehicle deaths.
They also brought in Dr. David Hemenway from the Harvard School of Public Health, whose book “While We Were Sleeping” outlines some dramatic successes in injury prevention — and who told me that a key to the public-health approach is giving up the urge to lay blame.
After a mass shooting, the public’s impulse is always to focus on the gunman: What was his mental state? What video games did he play? What kind of gun did he use? What did his mother do wrong?
“Forget fault,” Hemenway said. “Get it out of your mind, and just try to prevent.”
Back in the 1950s, he said, when people fretted about car-crash deaths, car manufacturers fell back on the fault argument: Cars don’t kill people; bad drivers do, by speeding or driving drunk or blowing through stop signs.
So doctors tried a different tactic: assuming that accidents were going to happen and focusing instead on the injuries they caused. It turned out that people were being slammed into non-collapsible steering wheels, lacerated by non-shatterproof windshields, crushed when they ran into trees and lampposts on the sides of roads.
Public safety programs — many of them government-imposed — changed the environment in which bad drivers drove. Some required change from car manufacturers: collapsible steering wheels, safety glass on windshields. Some required change from drivers themselves: wearing seat belts, naming designated drivers. There was no single solution. But since 1950, car deaths per mile driven have fallen by 90 percent.
In a commentary in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association, Ludwig, Hemenway, and Mozaffarian list a number of public health analogies that could easily apply to guns. Just as childproof safety caps have helped reduce the number of kids poisoned by medicines, a new generation of smart gun safety locks — perhaps triggered by fingerprints — could keep guns from discharging in the wrong hands. Just as speed limits have lessened the impact of accidents, reduced-capacity magazines could limit the effects of a shooting spree. Just as taxing tobacco has raised money for smoking cessation, taxing guns could provide a funding stream for gun safety programs.
Many of these ideas have been proposed in the past, and have met with the same old resistance. Making real change will require new people to join the conversation. And I still believe it’s possible to separate reasonable gun owners from the hyperbole of the gun lobby. It’s even possible that Drudge and Alex Jones could help. Their theatrics this week, compared to the sober rhetoric of doctors, highlight the ridiculousness of refusing to compromise at all.
Better that we keep those old public health victories in mind — remember that they came with a measure of personal sacrifice, but also that we accepted the burden and moved on. People didn’t much like wearing seat belts, at the start. But once we had to wear seat belts, it’s turned out to be fine. Better than fine. Because now, there are plenty more of us alive.