I was raised on war movies when I was a kid. The Second World War was barely 10 years past, films that were originally intended to inspire young draftees and buck up their loved ones on the home front burst from our black and white TVs like All-American passion plays.
Since we were just kids, we paid a lot of attention to visual details, how the actors looked and behaved. We took things literally; metaphors and themes were still waiting for us farther up the road. So it did not escape us that certain objects were invested with what amounted to sacred powers. Of these, the most sacred of all were cigarettes and guns.
My friends and I spent many an afternoon acting out our pint-sized versions of what we saw in movies like Objective Burma and The Sands of Iwo Jima. We carried plastic tommy guns and adorned ourselves with bits and pieces of Army gear our dads had brought home from the real thing. Once, to achieve a greater degree of verisimilitude, I remember stealing a carton of my mother's cigarettes so that all of us 5- and 6-year-olds could look like we were smoking as we mowed down invisible Nazis.
Cigarettes were commonplace in those days. It seemed like almost everybody smoked. It was considered good manners to offer someone a cigarette if they stopped by your home or office.
Even though the U.S. Surgeon General released the first public warning about the dangers of cigarettes in 1964, smoking continued to hold a privileged place in our culture. Smoking was cool. Cigarettes functioned as fashion accessories for everyone from rock stars to captains of industry. People smoked on commuter trains and on commercial flights, in theater lobbies and the best restaurants.
Signs were posted in my high school warning of the dangers of smoking, but this did not deter many of us from lighting up. I let myself get hooked in college and, despite a rising tide of negative feedback, kept it up into my 50s. During this time, I was employed as a public librarian. I remember going to weekly meetings of department heads; we sat around a large, round table with ashtrays positioned by every seat.
Those days are gone. Although a few unreconstructed souls remain addicted to Lady Nicotine, smoking's cultural cache has been stubbed out like the dying embers of an unfiltered butt. Continuing tussles over the so-called "right" to smoke in a few retrograde gathering places amount to a rearguard action. It's telling that one of tobacco's last bastions turns out to be clubs for aging vets.
The story of our cultural love affair and eventual falling out with cigarettes has come up during the recent quarrel over what to do about gun violence. It's a worthwhile comparison because guns, like cigarettes, are deeply embedded in American culture. Just as tobacco served as one of America's first and most profitable cash crops, guns have played an inextricable, even iconic, part in our nation's history. Even more so: the right to bear arms is written into the Bill of Rights, nestled up against the freedoms of speech and religion.
And like tobacco, guns have also become part of what many describe as a public health crisis. On the same day that the U.S. Senate began holding hearings on gun violence, a man walked into a Phoenix office building and opened fire, wounding three people, one critically. A 15-year-old drum majorette was killed in a Chicago park, adding to that city's highest total of gun-related homicides in years. In Alabama, an armed man boarded a school bus, fatally shot the driver and abducted a 6-year-old boy. A doctor in California was murdered in an exam room by one of his patients.
These were just the headlines. Slate has been able to verify that, since the Newtown massacre in December, 1,444 Americans have been shot to death. At this rate, Bloomberg News calculated that gun-related killings could surpass deaths from automobile collisions by 2015.
But where, in the '60s, the Surgeon General could issue a report based on research about connections between smoking and cancer, the impact of guns on public health has gone unstudied. That's because, since 1996, gun lobbyists have succeeded in outlawing federally funded research on guns. "Public health researchers were doing work to help the public, even more so than policymakers, actually understand basic issues about firearms," Arthur Kellermann, a senior policy analyst and expert in emergency medicine and injury prevention at the Rand Corp., told The Huffington Post. "That type of research was very threatening to people who were involved in the debate over gun control."
Cultural change is never easy. It took decades to change peoples' attitudes about smoking. But this happened and, it must be noted, without having to ban or significantly restrict people's access to cigarettes. We taxed the living daylights out of them is all.
Something similar needs to happen with guns. First, though, we need to better understand their impact on public health. Unless, that is, some of us are secretly afraid guns, like cigarettes, will turn out to be uncool.