Comment: To change gun culture, look to cigarettes, seat belts

The changing of attitudes toward both seemed unlikely at first. Bit by bit, however, the ground shifted.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

Over the Thanksgiving weekend we gave thanks for our family, health and that insanely good cornbread dressing, let’s also include attitudes about cigarettes and seat belts in that conversation.

These two things show that our nation — and some of the icons we hold as integral to the culture of Americana — can change. They represent hope.

Because let’s be honest, it’s hard to shake despair right now as we digest three horrific, personal and terrifying mass shootings in the days leading up to our most American of holidays. We gathered knowing that more than a dozen families had empty chairs at the table because their loved ones died doing utterly American things.

The killings of three promising student-athletes, allegedly by a fellow student, at the University of Virginia less than two weeks ago tarnishes a crown jewel of our democracy; the opportunity to achieve education, success and pride regardless of a humble beginning.

The slaughter of five people at an LGBTQ-friendly club in Colorado Springs on Saturday punctures the promise of a safe and accepting haven for all.

And the massacre of six people at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va., on Tuesday night assaults the promise that the simple pursuit of mundane, daily life can be done in safety.

That one hit especially hard.

“Today I had to watch my husband walk out the door to go to his job at a Walmart,” said Cathleen Parker, 33, whose husband works at a Virginia Walmart about 80 miles from the one in Chesapeake.

“He’s a team lead. The same as the shooter,” said Parker, who was also a supervisor at that Walmart years ago, when she had to reassure her co-workers after the 2019, racially motived mass killing in an El Paso Walmart left 23 people dead.

“Anytime there’s a shooting, tension is high,” she said. “But it’s worse when you don’t even feel safe at work.”

That’s the part that gets us. Yes, American history is full of guns and gunslingers. But it used to be that you could largely take action to avoid them. Stay away from the gambling saloons, mob meetings, dark alleys and dope houses, and you had a good chance of avoiding gunfire throughout your American life.

It’s completely different today. And it’s part of what makes this feel so hopeless.

So, let’s get to the hope, and cigarettes are a good place to start. A pack of smokes may seem like an odd place to find inspiration, but the bar is low in a country where we have to cogitate on how to best avoid being shot by a stranger for no reason. And there’s real inspiration to be had here.

Cigarettes killed more than 480,000 people last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Much of that is the slow-motion results of decades of culture and cool that seemed impossible to erase. Cigarette advertising was woven into our culture. English teachers used the Winston slogan (“Tastes good like a cigarette should”) to teach proper grammar. Count the cigarettes in any pre-1990 movie.

Like firearms today, the tobacco industry looked invulnerable. For decades, enterprising trial lawyers attacked the companies selling death and were rebuffed in U.S. courts. It felt hopeless.

Yet Americans rose to change that, little by little.

Congress launched bipartisan investigations. Schools launched public health campaigns to explain the danger to children. States taxed every pack so heavily that usage fell. And very slowly, generations of Americans were raised to revile cigarette smoking.

This is not an isolated incident, which brings me to seat belts.

In the 1970s, traffic deaths were soaring, with nearly half a million dead in that decade. The bloodiest year on U.S. highways still stands as 1972, when 54,589 people died in car accidents, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

For perspective, news stories were all over the increase in traffic deaths last year; in a nation that has grown by 100 million people and 30 million cars, we had 42,915 deaths.

What’s more American than muscle cars, pickup trucks and station wagons, and why would anyone want to regulate the way we sit in them? Bloody asphalt, that’s why.

So in 1977, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — after digesting numerous studies on the safety of seat belts — began requiring automatic seat belts in new cars.

Not for long. In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on a campaign of deregulation and free society. One of his first acts as president was to revoke the NHTSA rule. That’s where we get to the little-by-little part. Because another, powerful force took up the case for seat belts: the insurance industry. And the 1983 lawsuit against the NHTSA revocation of mandatory restraints went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of common sense and safety.

We did the same with motorcycle helmets; to the temper tantrums of easy riders everywhere. And now state laws requiring them save thousands of lives every year.

Last week, the “RUN HIDE FIGHT” order that students at the University of Virginia. were given after the shooting reminded me of the “Stop, drop, roll” safety campaign that led to building regulation, fire suppression and smoke detection that drastically reduced our national fire fatality epidemic.

We’ve done all of this before, America. It seemed slow and difficult, and it was. But I’m thankful that we’re a people with the ideals, morals and fortitude to make huge changes in our culture and our nation.

There is hope.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team. Follow her on Twitter @petulad.

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