I used to smoke. I loved nicotine’s seductive power to make me feel more focused and relaxed at the same time. It made my morning coffee taste good and late-night beers even better.
One day, I realized I was killing myself. Years later, I quit for good. I wish I could attribute my triumph to heroic willpower. But I was a statistic, just one of millions of Americans who’ve stopped puffing during the last 30 years as society rebranded smokers as dumb instead of cool.
I have been thinking about the Marlboro Man while reading calls for new gun-control laws in response to the massacre in Newtown, Conn. Easy access to guns is a curse on our land. This year, more than 31,000 Americans will die from firearms (about half by suicide). But the quick passage of new laws alone will not solve this problem. The history of transformative social movements — including efforts to discourage smoking, desegregate our schools and legitimize the rights of gays and lesbians — shows that lasting change cannot be forced on citizens in our democracy. Instead, we must help them understand the necessity of reforms. They must see reforms as a reflection of their views rather than an attack on their freedom.
This is essential if we want to do more than nibble around the edges by banning a few types of weapons and ammunition and address the larger problem posed by the roughly 310 million firearms owned by Americans, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.
Start with the heroic effort to dismantle Jim Crow. Those laws were enforced because they reflected the views of most white Americans. Then, in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned the charade of “separate but equal” schools in Brown v. Board of Education. This decision, however, did not fix the problem. Real desegregation did not take hold for another 10 to 20 years. America was not transformed as much by the passage of new civil rights laws as by the growing recognition of the immorality of the status quo.
The history of same-sex marriage tells a similar story, but with a twist. During the last two decades, many states and the federal government passed laws prohibiting it. But this legislation barely slowed the larger cultural shift toward embracing this right. In November, Maryland and Maine became the first states to approve gay marriage through the ballot box. In the coming years, others will follow. Rep. Thom Tillis, an architect of the anti-gay marriage amendment passed in North Carolina earlier this year, admitted this in April when he said, “Even though the marriage amendment is likely to pass next month, the numbers indicate that this is probably not going to still be in our state constitution 20 or so years from now. People see that voters are sort of headed in a different direction.”
Now consider anti-smoking laws. In a 1983 Gallup poll, 38 percent of Americans reported having smoked a cigarette in the past week. By 1990 that number had dropped to 27 percent as the health consequences of smoking finally sunk in. Over the next decade, governments at all levels began passing laws, including huge tax hikes and sweeping restrictions on where people can smoke. Today, only about 20 percent of Americans identify themselves as smokers.
None of these reforms just happened. Civil rights workers put their lives on the line to reveal the evils of American apartheid; gays and lesbians courageously came out of the closet so that others could see them as friends and neighbors; the Surgeon General’s office, the American Lung Association and countless others educated the public about the dangers of smoking.