“Everything is hard before it is easy.”
It was 2005. I was sitting in the Senate Commerce Committee room at a hearing, and Senator John McCain was a little teed off. What set him off was a little speech by then-Senator George Allen of Virginia (yes, the “macaca” fellow) about how seat belt laws were evidence of the “nanny state.”
Senator McCain took a very different view, pointing to their role in saving lives and talking about his support for the automotive safety measures in the bill then being considered. The proposal — which included new safety rules on vehicle rollover (which at the time claimed 9,000 lives per year) and roof strength (critical to surviving a rollover crash), and required safety test results to be put on dealer’s window stickers at the point of sale — were common-sense advances for public safety, in Senator McCain’s enlightened view. The measures also received critical support from Senator Mike DeWine, a socially conservative Republican from Ohio, whose young family member tragically had died in an auto crash.
After five years of our work with a group of allies — and with the laudable assistance of the current head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), David Strickland, who was a Senate staffer for the Committee at the time — the safety rules became law. The auto industry predictably opposed them, and did manage, even after they were enacted, to persuade NHTSA under President Bush to gut a few of them in practice. But in the main, the rules stuck, and when President Obama came to office, it became possible to restore the law’s intent.
It is clear, given the events of the past week and the intense public response to the Sandy Hook shootings, that there is now, for the first time in a long while, an opening for new and more sensible rules to both require and encourage responsible gun ownership. What’s less clear is how new measures could pass in the current climate of polarization in the Congress and in many state-houses.
A sustained campaign to ensure that voters and lawmakers understand the issues in terms of a public safety problem that must be addressed with competent government action and oversight would be a game-changer, and opens the possibility that more reasonable Republicans will vote for needed reforms, or even lead, as Mayor Bloomberg has done. The power of Sandy Hook to change minds has already been shown in statements by conservative commentator Joe Scarborough, and by former gun-rights Democrats like Senators Reid, Manchin and Casey, all of whom have indicated their change of heart on the issue of restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
George Lakoff, in his landmark book on political frameworks, Don’t Think of an Elephant, describes how progressives and conservatives use different family models to understand the proper role for government. While progressives use a “nurturing” model, conservatives have in mind the “strict father” who sets out the rules for the family. Although Lakoff doesn’t spend much time meditating on the multiple dimensions of this father figure in his book, what I have observed in pushing for public safety reforms and trying to work on a bi-partisan basis is this: embedded in the conservative vision of this “strict father” is a strong duty to protect the family from harm.
When no one can ensure safety and public health without government action, “nanny state”-type objections become irrelevant for most reasonable people, many of whom are independent or Republican voters. Over time, the new standards for public safety become habit for both industry and individuals — a benefit that saves lives without anyone even noticing. Seat belt laws — which were so controversial that their enactment required a state-by-state strategy focused first on laws requiring children to be buckled up — are now ho-hum stuff, Senator Allen’s knee-jerk speech notwithstanding.
Fixing our nation’s gun problem should also, someday off in the foreseeable future, be nothing more than a rather boring set of rules overseen by a decently funded, well-run federal agency with state-level support and assistance. Adequately trained hunters and sportsmen should be able to license a gun when they want to, suitable for those purposes, while criminals and people deemed mentally incompetent should not.
The paranoia that is driving up gun purchases — and profits for gun manufacturers and dealers — over the past week (and the years since Obama was elected) is unwarranted. And no one should even have to think about whether a bullet-proof backpack for a six-year-old (!) is a good use of $200 when basically almost anything else would be a better Christmas present.
Sadly, we are now far from that day. The federal regulator in charge of guns works part-time, and lobbying by the National Rifle Association has blocked all attempts to confirm a permanent executive to the post, holding up Senate confirmations under two Administrations. As I wrote in my last post, and as further explained here, the NRA’s efforts have also meant that the agency is poorly funded and equipped for its assignment, legally unable to even collect basic data on the number and type of guns sold, to keep them out of the hands of people deemed mentally incompetent by another government agency, or to evolve new and better monitoring systems.
Sensible safety measures regarding gun sales will save the lives of children in all of our communities. A recent Children’s Defense Fund report dedicated to Trayvon Martin that examined gun-related deaths in 2008 and 2009 found the following shocking facts:
- The total number of preschool-age children killed by guns during those years — 173 — was nearly double the number of law-enforcement officers — 89 — killed in the line of duty.
- African-American children and teens represented 45 percent of all guns deaths in their age group in 2008 and 2009, but only 15 percent of the total U.S. population of children.
- The top cause of death for black teens ages 15 to 19 was gun homicide, while for white teens it was motor vehicle accidents followed by gun homicides.
- More children and teens died from gunfire in 2008 and 2009 — 5,750 — than the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Among 23 high-income countries in the world scholars have studied, the United States is home to 80 percent of all gun deaths, and 87 percent of all gun deaths of children younger than 15.
The risks to our children and their safety from our virtually unrestricted trade in guns is indisputable, and the chance to act is now. Despite how it seems after the fact, no safety or public health advance is easy or lacking in controversy at the time. Yet such moments present an opportunity to speak to people in a compelling way about how communities — and families — must come together to save lives and protect our children from harm.
With a record-high 53 percent of American voters saying in a new poll that the Republican party is now “too extreme” and public polls showing widespread support for restrictions, it’s also an opportunity for more reasonable lawmakers to lead by showing that they are willing to put public safety ahead of their political backers and the profits of the gun industry. Caring for our children is a bi-partisan activity: it’s about time it looked like one.