Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

Guns and cigarettes: a parallel

Put simply, change occurred in America’s smoking culture when facts replaced fictions. That took studies — lots of them over a period of years.

Here is the important takeaway from President Barack Obama’s recent talk announcing the measures he is taking through executive order to curb gun deaths in America: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage now, but they can’t hold America hostage.”

Jane Ahlin
Jane Ahlin

By successfully framing any discussion of gun violence as a threat to a constitutional right, the gun lobby — mostly the National Rifle Association (NRA) — has controlled the debate and bullied Congress into submission. By reframing gun violence as the public health concern it is, America can bring the debate back to center. Only then will common sense have a chance; only then will America’s nuttiness over guns abate.

We forget the power we have as a populace, and we forget how successful we can be when an issue seems intractable and its proponents invincible. A good analogy for the challenge America’s gun culture presents is the struggle we went through with big tobacco. When the smoke finally cleared on that public health debacle, smoking certainly hadn’t become illegal, but it had lost its uncontested state of entitlement. It had lost its glamour. The same must happen with guns.

Militant about just one thing

My father-in-law’s experience comes to mind. Throughout most of his adult life, he was a heavy smoker — upwards of two packs a day. In truth, because he otherwise was unfailingly kind, cheerful, and friendly, his attitude toward smoking was an aberration in his personality. Putting it mildly, he was pretty doggoned militant about smoking. If, only to be polite, he asked a hostess, “Do you mind if I smoke?” and she replied she’d rather he didn’t, he wasn’t about to stick around: “If people don’t want me to smoke in their house, they don’t want me there at all.” He grumbled about restaurants that instituted smoking sections and wouldn’t go to a restaurant that didn’t allow smoking. 

Article continues after advertisement

He didn’t stay that way, of course, and the evolution in his thinking on smoking came to mind as Obama talked about his executive order. Just as today’s uncompromising gun culture runs roughshod over the desire of most Americans for reasonable gun control measures, there was a time when the rights of smokers trumped all others. And yet, when the pressure of the populace turned, the tobacco companies and the politicians who kowtowed to them changed, too. 

Put simply, change occurred in America’s smoking culture when facts replaced fictions. That took studies — lots of them over a period of years. Big tobacco fought meaningful research, hid the results, and even lied about results, but the public health problems caused by smoking were exposed. Common sense replaced illusion in the public mind.

As with smoking, we need gun-violence research

What we need today are studies and research on gun violence. Almost unbelievably, not any of the mass shootings have resulted in research on gun violence, because the NRA effectively shut down all research 20 years ago. Perhaps the NRA learned from the exposure of big tobacco and decided that the problem of not being able to control what research reveals can be remedied by not allowing any research at all. Back in 1996, the NRA accused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of designing studies to promote gun control.  Congress — in thrall to the NRA — threatened CDC funding and research on gun violence was essentially banned. 

After the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children, Obama issued an executive order to end the research ban. Subsequently, more than 100 scientists signed a letter asking the CDC to resume gun-violence research, but the CDC was (and is) so cowed by the NRA’s control of Congress that nothing has happened.

That must change. The gun lobby is a bully afraid of what research will show. Its leaders like the fiction that the government wants to take guns from law-abiding citizens. Only facts and truth threaten their power. Of course, as we learned with big tobacco, facts and truth also improve the health of America.  

A writer and columnist from Fargo, N.D., Jane Ahlin also has taught English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at