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Guns and cigarettes: a parallel

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. 

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.


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Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/13/2016 - 07:09 am.

    From the CDC, Regarding Smoking, Now

    Excerpt below:

    Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

    Cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. This is nearly one in five deaths.

    Smoking causes more deaths each year than the following causes combined:
    Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
    Illegal drug use
    Alcohol use
    Motor vehicle injuries
    Firearm-related incidents

    More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the United States during its history.

    Smoking causes about 90% (or 9 out of 10) of all lung cancer deaths in men and women.

    More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer.

    About 80% (or 8 out of 10) of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are caused by smoking.

    Cigarette smoking increases risk for death from all causes in men and women.

    The risk of dying from cigarette smoking has increased over the last 50 years in men and women in the United States.

    End of excerpt.

    Talk about success.

    • Submitted by Matthew Becker on 01/13/2016 - 08:58 am.

      Also from the CDC

      Percentage of adults who smoked in 1965: 42.4%
      Percentage of adults who smoked in 2011: 19.0%

      So, yes, success.

      Is tobacco still a problem? Yes. Is it less of a problem than it was 50 years ago? Yes.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/13/2016 - 09:44 am.

        According to the CDC Fact Sheet, NO

        According to the CDC Fact Sheet, as quoted above, “The risk of dying from cigarette smoking has increased over the last 50 years in men and women in the United States.”

        • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 01/14/2016 - 09:04 am.

          That is only because women started smoking more

          It doesn’t mean smoking has become more dangerous. When it became more socially acceptable for women to smoke, and the dangers of smoking were not as well known as they are today, many girls and women took up the habit. As a result, smoking-related mortality, once a largely male problem, became just as common in women.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/14/2016 - 12:41 pm.


            That is yet another way in which it is hard to find a parallel between cigarettes and guns.

            In 1604, King James I of England wrote A Counterblaste to Tobacco, “Smoking is a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” Over 400 years later, we now have a President who smokes.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/13/2016 - 10:03 am.

    Don’t blame the NRA

    First of all, the reason that gun sales are through the roof is not because they are glamorous, like you apparently imagine, but because people have become convinced that their government cannot or will not protect them against thugs on the street nor foreign terrorists in public settings.

    “When seconds count the police are only minutes away” has become real-world advice delivered, not by NRA propagandists, but by chiefs of police and county sheriffs across this country. So if you want to blame someone for the proliferation of guns, don’t blame the NRA, blame your ineffective government, at all levels.

    The NRA doesn’t control congress, the American people do. And they recognize that making it harder to buy guns in order to curb gun violence is like making it harder to buy a car in an attempt to reduce drunk driving. It’s not the solution to the problem and thinking people know it.

    “Stricter gun laws would reduce the number of mass shootings in the U.S.”

    A Great Deal: 19%
    Not At All: 31%

    Gallup poll Oct 7-11, 2015

    The real solution to gun violence is to pass federal legislation to make it a mandatory 5 year prison sentence when you are found guilty of using a gun in the commission of a crime. Any crime. The crime-infested neighborhoods of this country would be safe again within a year.

    The real problem is not the NRA, which does more gun safety training than anyone. The real problem is that your political party is not going to vote for that mandatory 5 year prison sentences when they are simultaneously looking for ways to empty out the prisons of convicted felons so they can vote.

    By the way, I quit a two pack a day habit ten years ago but I don’t intend to give up my Smith & Wessons.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/13/2016 - 05:08 pm.

      So tell us

      How high shall we raise your taxes to pay for your gun owning privilege. After all, those tens of thousands of five year sentences will need to be paid for. Heck, I’ll even make it voluntary, how’s about we start at oh, say, 500% on ammo. Sound good? Last I checked, there is not a word in the 2nd about any requirements that gun ownership be affordable. One should be careful what one wishes for, I for one as a sporting gun owner certainly don’t want the reticence of the paranoid set to ruin things for everyone, but hey, if some folks want to cut off their nose to spite their face, who am I to stop them.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/13/2016 - 09:04 pm.

        The Bill of Privileges

        Tell us, does your copy of the Constitution include the Bill of Privileges?


        “constitutional rights
        n. rights given or reserved to the people by the U.S. Constitution, and in particular, the Bill of Rights (first ten amendments). ”

        There is also not a word in the First Amendment about any requirement that exercise of that “privilege” be affordable.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/14/2016 - 06:38 am.


          I don’t recall saying that it should. Then again at least you acknowledge the legality of my proposal, so its a start. Tell me again, why I should be concerned with “rights” that in my case are in no way infringed? I have no fear of government reprisal, rampant street crime, or a terrorist attack on my person. Why should I help the cause of those I feel are a greater threat than all of the above combined? These folks are terrified, their delusions tell them that everyone and every thing is out to get them, that all who disagree are enemy combatants. They’re armed to the teeth and looking for a reason to engage in sedition, it’s their highest and only calling it seems. Why would I, why should I, support people like that?

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/14/2016 - 07:22 am.

            Inappropriate Laughter

            Your words, “Last I checked, there is not a word in the 2nd about any requirements that gun ownership be affordable.”

            I don’t agree that taxation should be used to limits the exercising of any rights protected by the Constitution. Proposing the taxation of one right kicks open the door to taxing other rights or all. Not a legal proposal.

            You can decide to not exercise any right you choose, but you make that choice for yourself, not for everyone.

            • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/14/2016 - 05:03 pm.


              The tax is NOT a means of limiting the exercise of rights, it’s a means to pay for the consequence of that right Mr. Tester’s thousands of new inmates. Your freedom to bear arms remains unimpugned, it’ll just cost you more.

              • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/14/2016 - 06:14 pm.

                Not in America

                My rights don’t fill jail cells.

                What other cost created by criminals is paid for by taxing (500%) a subset of law biding citizens?

                Laws are not written and passed to increase the population of inmates; they are created to provide the incentive for legal behavior.

                • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/15/2016 - 06:50 am.

                  Jails are already funded through your taxes

                  It makes no difference whether or not you care for where that tax comes from. If it can be passed, it would be perfectly legal. Like I said, the reticence of the paranoid to do anything at all to curb gun violence, this belief that any compromise constitutes total surrender, will be it’s undoing. You are outnumbered, if not by gun control advocates, then by they and those like me who don’t mind guns but find their worshippers to be unfathomable and dangerous outliers in civilized society. I have utterly no reason to support their cause and if it means my guns to away too, oh well, such is life.

                  • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/15/2016 - 07:47 am.

                    Please Proceed with your 500% Ammo Tax Plan

                    Meanwhile, let us consider some FBI crime statistics for 2014 compared 2013.

                    All the offenses in the violent crime category—murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape (revised definition), aggravated assault, and robbery—showed decreases when data from the first six months of 2014 were compared with data from the first six months of 2013. The number of murders declined 6.0 percent, the number of rapes (revised definition) declined 10.1 percent, aggravated assaults decreased 1.6 percent, and robbery offenses decreased 10.3 percent.


                    And violent crimes in 2013 were down compared to 2012, and so on. This is a very inconvenient truth for paranoid anti-gun zealots. This good news occurred against a back drop of record gun purchase background checks (+20,000,000).

                    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/15/2016 - 10:22 am.

                      When you find any proof at all

                      That those guns purchases had anything to do at all with that reduction, or what the reduction would have been in the abscence of those gun purchases, get back to us. Until then, you have numbers a page, with no correlation to the real world. I believe Mark Twain had some thoughts on the matter you might review.

                    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/15/2016 - 11:08 am.


                      When you find proof that all of those new guns are a problem, state the problem. It certainly is not all of the good news of decreasing crime that the FBI reports every year. For your argument, you don’t even have numbers on a page.

                      Those who do not read the news are uninformed.
                      Those who do are misinformed. – Mark Twain

                    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/15/2016 - 03:53 pm.

                      Except that you might note

                      The only figures that matter are those that come out on voting day. Continue to regard your fellow citizens, whom hold contrasting opinions to your own, as enemy combatants to be defeated at any cost, and they will do likewise to you. You’re outnumbered.

                    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/15/2016 - 04:17 pm.

                      Whenever …

                      Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. –Mark Twain

                      “enemy combatants to be defeated at any cost”? Whose comments have you been reading? I think this is termed projection in psychology.

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/13/2016 - 10:39 am.

    The Power of the NRA does include the NRA on their list of ten biggest lobbies in Washington. However, they had this interesting thing to say regarding the power of the NRA:

    “Much of the NRA’s power, however, seems to lie less in its spending and more in its ability to mobilize its members, who are 4 million strong and well-versed in grassroots campaigning.”

    It seems that the path to defeating the Second Amendment will be to first defeat the First Amendment.

    Our President will once again, with his latest batch of executive orders, be salesman of the year for NRA memberships.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 01/13/2016 - 12:04 pm.

    When the Detroit Chief of Police came out advising law abiding citizens of Detroit to arm themselves as the best way to protect themselves against being a victim in their own house, nobody covered that in the media. Try enforcing current gun laws now in the inner city where most homicides occur and see if that helps with gun violence 1st before you add more laws to the books. For those of us who own guns, we understand a gun is a tool, no more no less, it is only as harmful as the person holding it. The hysteria over “evil guns” needs to be focused on getting the “evil people” holding the gun off our streets.

  5. Submitted by Kenny Christenson on 01/13/2016 - 01:12 pm.

    gun violence and public health

    Yes, gun violence is a public health issue. two thirds of the 33,000 deaths due to gun violence a year are suicides. When we acknowledge the huge impact of suicide on the gun violence issue, the conversation changes from controlling access to firearms to mental health. We need a comprehensive community mental health program in this country. the $500 million that Obama has promised to mental health isn’t enough. More/better background checks and banning military style rifles misses the point. I look forward to a change in the debate.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/13/2016 - 03:14 pm.

      As for the second half

      Kenny, as recorded in older comments, I fully support your mental health thesis. It is only the old taboo of discussing “mental illness” that blocks progress on this obviously critical fact.

      We seem to now confuse our bureaucratic definition of “vulnerable.” Children are vulnerable, churchgoers and theater patrons are now vulnerable, many adults with mental illness of some diagnosis are “vulnerable adults.” How is it that we cannot somehow screen a properly-defined population for gun access, ownership, use on self or others? Of course some afflicted will turn to knives, but the subject today is guns.

      We can begin by effectively lifting the social shroud we have wrapped around mental illness for well over 100 years. Most mental illness is not about violence or its tendencies. Until we clearly triage this topic, we will see many more acts of violence of various means by various vulnerable adults and children.

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/13/2016 - 04:10 pm.

        Mental illness

        I will grant you this – the term “mental illness” should not be used as if to refer to a set of conditions that are all equivalent in their impact and scope. When it comes to “physical illness”, for example, we are generally capable of distinguishing between the relative seriousness of the illness of someone who has a cold vs. someone who has pneumonia.

        But when the subject is “mental illness”, it all seems to get included under one broad brush. No one ever stops to consider that the same kinds of distinction need to be applied when considering, say, chronic mild anxiety vs. schizophrenia.

        The term “mental illness” is not “one size fits all”. This is something that needs to be kept in mind in these discussions.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/17/2016 - 10:47 am.

    Same old argument same old impasse

    Same old Statistics
    Countries with mini8mal guns have minimal gun deaths
    USA is a very rich gun death environment,
    1 side is fine that way 30, 000 other peoples deaths a year are an acceptable price as a society to to pay for them to have lots of guns and ammo in the public domain. The other side thinks th eprice is to high. Once side has already staked out, we will not move an inch to help solve the 30,000 deaths a year, and have no plan to help the other side, back to first point 30,000 deaths from guns a year is acceptable. Can’t argue with a closed door. Yes, there is a Mark Twain Quote to support that as well.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/17/2016 - 02:39 pm.

      Yes …

      Yes, countries with minimal guns have minimal gun deaths. They may not have minimal deaths, but the deaths are not gun deaths, and that is what really counts. Land locked states with few lakes have fewer drownings than Minnesota.

      I am certain that those who like to quote 30,000, are fully aware that 2/3 of those gun deaths are suicides. What gun law could address the mental illness issues at play in these suicides? With nearly no civilian gun ownership, the rate of suicide in Japan is nearly twice that of the U.S. Let’s not pretend that guns cause suicide or that reduction of guns is a suicide solution.

      Is it the deaths we don’t like or is it the guns? The highway deaths in Minnesota and in the U.S. outnumber gun deaths each year. Yet there are no marches, no outrage, not even a single executive order. I propose a national 25 MPH speed limit, which would prevent well over 80% of these tragic deaths. My proposal has no chance of adoption as it would be terribly inconvenient. Our society accepts these deaths quietly as the price of driving about at high rates of speed.

      I find it curious that this is the second comment in this thread that makes a reference to a Mark Twain quote, yet doesn’t quote him. “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” -Mark Twain

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/17/2016 - 10:12 pm.

    They all pretty much apply:

    “Never argue with an idiot. They will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

    “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”.

    “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable”

    “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t”.

    So your point is the 2/3 would stab themselves to death?

    The topic has zero to do with auto fatalities, unless of course. the point is that gun owners should have titles, proof of special insurance, operational permits, the ability to hold gun companies liable for death, air bags that deploy and protect the intended victim from bullets!

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/18/2016 - 07:35 am.

      Not the Point

      People in other countries have far higher rates of suicide without any guns; Japan comes to mind and they don’t commonly stab themselves. Railroad tracks are a common place for a suicide in Japan.

      All of that permitting and safety measures for automobiles and still we find ways to kill ourselves on the highways. Highway deaths are relevant to a conversation regarding public safety, yet I hear no outrage. This method of death is acceptable in our society; it will go unmentioned in this election cycle. People don’t care – no gun.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/18/2016 - 09:18 am.

        UK Trend of Recent Note

        Knife attacks are up.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/18/2016 - 12:04 pm.

          Knife Bans

          “A team from West Middlesex University Hospital said violent crime is on the increase – and kitchen knives are used in as many as half of all stabbings. They argued many assaults are committed impulsively, prompted by alcohol and drugs, and a kitchen knife often makes an all too available weapon. The research is published in the British Medical Journal. The researchers said there was no reason for long pointed knives to be publicly available at all. They consulted 10 top chefs from around the UK, and found such knives have little practical value in the kitchen. None of the chefs felt such knives were essential, since the point of a short blade was just as useful when a sharp end was needed.”

          I know it sounds like a piece from the Onion, but it really is the BBC.

          I lifted this from from the comments of another MinnPost Community Voices column on this topic:

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/18/2016 - 08:05 pm.

        Per initial Post

        Impasse is reached immediately, why is there a refusal to answer the opinion relative to “Guns and cigarettes” stay on topic,topic! Instead at of confronting the issue, change the subject to trains, and highways! “can’t argue with because ………………………….

        PS: Is this a ploy to get more guns in Japan because too many folks are using trains for suicide?

        Outrage on public highway accidents? Someone has got to be kidding!
        Ever hear of safety belts, tickets for not wearing them, kids car seats, air bags, collision avoidance systems, whiskey plates, drivers licenses, crash tests, mandatory drivers education, mandatory re-qualification after 55,
        Is there a suggestion that people go on the high ways to kill other people with cars on purpose or are they committing suicide because they don’t have a gun? i.e more guns will lower highway death fatalities?
        “can’t argue with because ………………………….

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/18/2016 - 10:10 pm.

          This is how it works

          Welcome to the comment board. As can be observed many places on MinnPost, the commentary eventually evolves into more of an exchange between commenters than about the article that started the discussion. I like that; those that don’t are free to skip the commentary and to skip anything written by me. Go ahead.

          As you can see from comment #1, I was all about cigarettes in my commentary. When you quote gun death numbers that are in large portion suicides, you have added suicides to the discussion. That opens the door to comparisons with other places and other ways of suicide, like trains. Other issues of public safety followed, and not just once you listed many things done to make highway safe. Yet, the highways continue to kill more Americans than guns.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/19/2016 - 07:07 pm.

    Failed deflection!

    Topic: Guns and cigarettes a parallel: (See the topic at the top of this page)

    Guns are in the topic, not highways, not Japan, not knives, not suicides. SR put guns/suicide on the table, now suggests the opposite? Back to #1 observation and #1 Mark Twain quote, can not own up to the fact that 30,000 dead folks from guns, no matter what the cause is an acceptable price, Can’t argue with………………..

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