fb-pixel Skip to main content

Change the debate around gun control

Activists with the Virginia Gun Violence Prevention Coalition gathered for their monthly demonstration in front of the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Va., in November.Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via AP

It was just after the Newtown massacre of 20 children — nearly three years and thousands of deadly shootings ago — when a group of Boston doctors wrote a journal article about a different solution to gun violence. Amid the tired political debate about whether we need fewer guns or more guns, they offered this advice: Change the conversation. Start talking about public health.

In other words, take the same approach to guns that our society has taken to reduce deaths from cigarettes or motor vehicle crashes. It’s hard to ban dangerous things outright or eliminate risks entirely. But you can do your best to mitigate the damage.

In the 1960s, thousands of children were poisoned every year by eating baby aspirin. Now, those numbers are minuscule, and not because anyone banned aspirin. We required safety caps on bottles of pills. We regulated the number of pills manufacturers could put in a bottle.

The analogies to firearm laws are clear. Sometimes, the wrong person will try to get his hands on a gun. But if we required smart locks, triggered by a gun owner’s fingerprint, we could keep a child from accidentally firing the gun in the cabinet — or a criminal from firing a stolen gun. If we reduced the legal size of a magazine clip, we could limit the number of bullets a would-be mass shooter could fire at once. A lot of small solutions, added together, could save countless lives.

Many of the doctors’ proposals were so sensible and simple that they should have been political no-brainers. That was three years ago. During which Congress has done precisely nothing.


If you’re looking for a reason why so many people are cynical about national politics, distrustful of institutions, and drawn to outsiders during presidential races, the lack of national action on gun violence is all you need.

Still, David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and a coauthor of that journal article, doesn’t feel the same sense of futility. He’s playing the long game, remembering the years of resistance to seatbelts and speed limits and other government-imposed risk reductions, the stagnancy that eventually gave way to victories and lives saved.


“Being in public health, it’s hard not to be an optimist,” he said.

In Hemenway’s glass-half-full view, a lot has changed in the past few years. We’re talking about gun violence more than ever. Shootings that once were sad local stories are national news. Democratic presidential candidates, who shied away from the issue for decades, are touting it on the stump.

There’s more political organization around gun regulation, more pro-regulation money in the system, from the likes of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. There’s more talk about the “public health approach” to solving problems. This seems a prime moment, when things are bubbling up: People are willing to listen and there’s a political will to act.

The stopper in the bottle is Congress.

The hope is that a few politicians will be able to change the paradigm.

As Hemenway points out, Australia passed its sweeping, effective gun laws in the 1990s because of bipartisan action. After one terrible mass shooting, the country’s newly elected conservative prime minister stepped up and led the way.

We need the same thing here: a few brave Republicans who will take the side of the majority of gun owners and US citizens, instead of a vocal minority. A presidential candidate or two who will give them cover, by talking about practical solutions instead of the standard political rhetoric.

Reducing gun violence doesn’t have to be divisive. It just has to be smart. How about it, Congress? You’re up. Again.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.