The uptick in mass shootings over the past few years has led to widespread calls for gun reform and the defeat of pro-gun lobbyist groups opposing it. Since the gun lobby currently employs many of the same tactics used by the powerful tobacco lobby, some have reasoned that the same blueprint used to weaken the big tobacco lobby could work for guns. Though the two lobbying groups—tobacco and guns—use similar strategies, the issues they represent are fundamentally different and require different game plans to defeat.
The Fall of Big Tobacco
Prior to the start of the decline of the tobacco lobby in 1964, cigarettes were widely used by all Americans, and were a central part of American life. In a chapter of the 1998 book Ashes to Ashes: The History of Smoking and Health, Harvard Professor Allan Brandt wrote that cigarettes “were a fundamental and highly ritualized prop in a full set of complex social interactions … the cigarette was a constant presence on the American cultural landscape”. Furthermore, cigarettes were used by all types of Americans. Cigarette usage, Brandt wrote, “cut across boundaries of socio-economic difference, of gender, race, and ethnicity”.
Americans knew very little about the harms caused by smoking. Studies published from as early as the 1920s onwards linking smoking to health damage were widely ignored. Physicians were therefore unaware of potential ill effects and “did not see a significant health threat for most smokers.” After a surge of research in the 1940s and 1950s, the tobacco industry created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (later the Council for Tobacco Research) to publish research contradicting any studies connecting tobacco use to health issues.
The committee worked to cast doubt on the scientific evidence that disparaged tobacco, and such studies were subsequently dismissed. For instance, in 1954 Dr. Alton Oschner published Smoking and Cancer: A Doctor’s Report, in which he detailed the harms caused by smoking. His work was reviewed a year later in the American Journal of Public Health. The reviewer denounced the causal relationship between cigarettes and cancer and added “this reviewer plans to place this book in the nonscience section of his library.” Americans were unified in both their consumption of tobacco and their ignorance of its ill effects.
In 1964, the Surgeon General released a report that definitively stated that cigarettes cause bodily harm. The report read, “cigarette smoking contributes substantially to mortality from certain specific diseases and to overall death rates” and concluded that “cigarette smoking is a health hazard of sufficient importance in the United States to warrant appropriate remedial action.” The report was groundbreaking, grabbing newspaper headlines and prime spots on news broadcasts. It was one of the top stories of 1964, which had no shortage of newsworthy events.
The previously unknown information from the report shocked the public. The cigarette lobby was powerless as Congress passed acts to manage the health repercussions from smoking. In addition, the Public Health Service established the National Clearinghouse for Smoking and Health to educate and inform citizens about the harms of tobacco use. As a result of the Surgeon General’s report and the ensuing reforms, since 1964 the smoking population in the United States has steadily declined.
Tobacco was widely used by all Americans yet few were aware of its harms. The turn in public opinion that spelled defeat for the tobacco lobby was enabled by this dynamic. The lack of information about cigarettes’ ill effects made the Surgeon General’s report shocking and impactful. Moreover, the universality of smoking meant that the reforms affected all Americans—not just a single segment of the population.
Why the Gun Lobby Persists
In contrast to tobacco—which was used across all of America by all Americans—only a certain subset of Americans owns guns and cares about gun rights. The majority of gun owners fall within specific demographic categories. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Study white Americans are much more likely to own a gun than Americans of other races; 31 percent of white Americans own guns compared to 15 percent of black Americans and 11 percent of Hispanic Americans. Gun ownership skews male and rural. Overall, 61 percent of all gun owners are white men, who comprise just 32 percent of the general population. Gun rights advocates tend to be conservative and vote Republican. In a 2010 Pew Research Center Study, just 30 percent of Republicans expressed support for gun control compared to 70 percent of Democrats. Guns don’t cut across socioeconomic, gender, and racial boundaries like tobacco did before 1964; rather, they exist within demographic boundaries.
Unlike tobacco, where the relationship between use and harm was unknown, there are readily available studies linking guns to homicides and violence. Studies have proven a nearly linear relationship between the level of gun ownership and a number of gun deaths. This causation is evident in studies comparing the two factors by both state and country. Guns cause gun deaths. The more guns, the more gun deaths. Period.
There is an abundance of material to shock gun owners in the same way that smokers were jolted, revealing the damage that guns can cause. In addition to this research, the United States has experienced mass shooting after mass shooting. Between 1966 to 2012, nearly a third of the worlds’ mass shootings occurred in the United States, a country with just 5 percent of the world’s population. Yet in 2000—in the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre—at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association, NRA president Charlton Heston held an antique rifle over his head saying “I’ll give up my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.” Clearly, gun-owners cannot be shocked like smokers were. The equivalent of the Surgeon General’s report—the mass shootings and research—have only caused gun owners to dig in their heels further.
Unlike to tobacco, which was broadly used but not widely known as hazardous, guns are not used by all American yet many are aware of their dangers. Thus, the dynamic that enabled the quick downfall of the tobacco lobby is reversed in the case of guns. Furthermore, tackling the gun lobby is made more difficult due to one crucial difference between guns and tobacco: their constitutional relevance.
A Constitutional Conundrum
Tobacco reform was marketed simply as a public health measure. Smoking causes clear bodily harm, so in advocating against smoking the government was taking action to protect the health of Americans. No constitutional issues were at stake. Though some smokers’ rights laws were passed to protect smokers from employment discrimination, nobody protested that government actions after 1964 infringed on their constitutional rights.
In contrast, the issue of guns is permanently tied up in the ongoing debate regarding the interpretation of the Constitution. Prior to the late twentieth century, the Second Amendment was never interpreted as conferring an individual right to bear arms, but rather the right to keep a well-regulated militia. From 1888 to 1959 not a single law article was passed advocating such a right. However, in the 1970s, libertarian scholars, often funded by the NRA, began a revisionist history on the Second Amendment, publishing troves of articles arguing that it conferred an individual right to bear arms. Public opinion followed. According to a Gallup Poll, by 2008, 73 percent of Americans believed that the Second Amendment “’guaranteed the rights of Americans to own guns’ outside a militia.” That same year, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court agreed.
While tobacco regulation could be simply about tobacco, gun control is about so much more than guns. It is also about fidelity to the conservative interpretation of the Constitution. More broadly, it is about fidelity to the conservative vision for America—a vision that the conservation interpretation of the Constitution is an integral part of. In many ways, the Second Amendment is the embodiment of the struggle between conservatives and liberals over the Constitution. Guns symbolize so much more than tobacco ever did.
Given the charged nature of gun control due to its constitutional relevance, it’s not surprising that pro-gun Americans are very politically active. Though small in number, they get their voices heard by being far more politically engaged than gun control supporters. A 2013 Pew Research Center Survey found that 25 percent of guns rights advocates had donated money to an organization that shared their position; in contrast just 6 percent of gun-control supporters had given money. Furthermore, the same survey found that 45 percent of gun rights proponents have reported being involved in one or more instances of activism, compared to 26 percent of gun control supporters.
The NRA has generated a particularly loyal following. In fact, from 2011 to 2012 the NRA was able to spend ten times as much as all gun control interest groups combined. This money coupled with the NRA’s loyal members allows it to reward pro-gun politicians and punish politicians who support gun control. Politicians in line with its policy goals will receive money and a good rating—something very politically valuable since many NRA members are willing to vote solely on the basis of a candidates’ NRA rating. Democratic political consultant Bob Crone put it bluntly when he told WNYC, “I tell my clients you don’t win anything by picking a fight with the NRA … the ability for them to generate ill-will and negative campaigns for you is to great.” The tobacco lobby may have been powerful, but it didn’t have a segment of loyal voters willing to donate money and vote for specific candidates at its behest.
Do the tobacco lobby and gun lobby use similar tactics? Yes. Does that similarity mean that the gun lobby can be defeated in the same way that the tobacco lobby was? No. Differences in each lobby’s respective issue necessitate different game plans. Tobacco was not constitutionally relevant, was widely used, and little was known about its harms. A single report was able to shock the public and turn public opinion against the lobby. Since the issue wasn’t constitutionally charged, reform could occur without partisan battles over constitutional interpretation. The harms of guns are widely known and guns are used by a specific segment of the population, a segment that is unable to be shocked. A broad public opinion flip driven by a shocking report—as was the case with tobacco—is not possible. Furthermore, the Second Amendment places gun reform at the center of our nation’s battle over the correct interpretation of the Constitution, leading to faithful, passionate, and relentless supporters of the gun-lobby.
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