Column: Can Americans ditch guns the way we ditched cigarettes?

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2012 file photo, the Surgeon General's Warning appears on a pack of Camel cigarettes purchased at a Chicago area news stand. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File) ORG XMIT: NY739
FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2012 file photo, the Surgeon General's Warning appears on a pack of Camel cigarettes purchased at a Chicago area news stand. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File) ORG XMIT: NY739
Published May 22, 2018

Not that long ago, cigarettes were completely woven into American culture. The Marlboro Man, posters telling us that "more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," even the armrests on planes and all our cars were designed for smokers.

And now? Not so much.

Can it work like that with guns?

Because after another horrific school shooting — eight students and two teachers massacred at Santa Fe High School outside Houston on Friday — we are nearly out of fresh ideas.

"I know some have strong feelings about gun rights but I want you to know I've hit rock bottom and I am not interested in your views as it pertains to this issue," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo wrote in a Facebook post. "Please do not post anything about guns aren't the problem, and there's little we can do."

The only relief in sight is the end of the school year. How's that for a solution?

Sure, we'll debate all of it — good guys with guns, mental health, video games, arming teachers, age limits, copycats, domestic violence, prescription drugs, weapons bans, waiting periods, background checks.

"Involved parenting" was the favorite talking point that gun rights advocates seized on after Santa Fe. And — wait for it — doors.

"Had there been one single entrance possibly for every student, maybe he would have been stopped," Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, proffered.

Let's see how that works when a school's on fire.

Guns have always been part of our story, since the beginning, when flintlock muskets were the instruments of our American Revolution. What funded that revolt? Tobacco.

Our colonial tobacco crop helped secure loans to fund the revolution.

The great frontier was rifles and smokes by the campfire. Can you imagine John Wayne without a rifle or Humphrey Bogart without a cigarette?

Both are part of our narrative. Both have killed millions and millions of us.

Smoking-related illnesses continue to kill around 480,000 Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But somehow, within a couple generations, we've altered the culture of smoking in our country. In 2016, just 15 of every 100 adults aged 18 and older were smokers — a huge decline from the 1960s.

Can gun culture be similarly uncoupled from Americana?

"Changing what was considered normal behavior and what was cool played a critical role," said Matthew Myers, a Washington lawyer who has been fighting big tobacco for decades. And he sees the parallels with gun culture.

"Changing the social norm about the risk of guns in our communities needs to be part of the debate. When kids are afraid to go to school, parents are afraid to let their kids go to the playground or sit on the porch — the freedom to own guns is impinging on the basic rights of innocent citizens."

The turning point for smoking came in 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry issued the first report that outlined the dangers of smoking.

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That's the report that health-care workers need to write about gun violence. The doctors who treat the carnage, the researchers who see the epic rise of gun suicides, the numbers people who estimate gun violence creates about $2.8 billion every year in emergency-room costs alone, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

But Congress has repeatedly blocked funding of research that treats gun violence as a health epidemic. The gun folks see what that did to big tobacco. And that's not the only lesson learned in that 50-year battle against cigarettes.

"While tobacco companies — like gun manufacturers — spent a lot of money trying to create a narrative that those working to reduce tobacco use were depriving people of their 'right to smoke' or at least their right to 'choose' to smoke, they were never able to mobilize smokers because so many of them regretted ever having become addicted," Myers said.

Gun manufacturers don't want to talk about dead kids in schools; they're framing the issue as one about individual rights and freedom. The gun lobby took that right out of big tobacco's playbook to give cover to legislators who took their money, Myers said. Legislation, litigation and education are what finally changed smoking culture.

Folks can still smoke; no one's taking their cigs away. But the way they harmed others with their hobby — secondhand smoke — was curbed with legislation regulating sales and banning smoking in many public places.

Lawsuits came in waves against tobacco companies, the granddaddy of them being the 1998 settlement between 46 states and big tobacco. Here's all you really have to know — $206 billion.

But here's the biggest key: education. And kids.

Myers is head of the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Working through children is what ultimately made the cultural shift, he said.

I grew up surrounded by cigarette smoke. My dad smoked. So did practically everyone else I knew.

But my kids? Totally different.

They saw someone smoking in a restaurant while we were traveling abroad recently and they freaked out, like they'd witnessed a beheading.

Inconceivable in their world.

So this time, when it comes to guns, the key may be in kids. Like the teens from Parkland, who are advocating for change after a shooter at their high school killed 17 in February. They are the ones who will change the culture, Myers said.

Kids are good at this. They won't give up. And right about now, when adults seem to have no answers, they're the future.

© 2018 Washington Post