clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Becoming a gun-free society would be hard. But we should still try.

One of the most common responses to policy proposals that attempt to cut down on the number of guns in America is that they would be really hard to pull off. And it's true — guns are deeply ingrained in US society (to the point that they're mentioned in our Bill of Rights), so reducing the abundance of them will be tough.

But that doesn't mean these policies are bad ideas. It just means it would take a lot of effort to get to the point of a gun-free society. As Fred Hiatt argued in the Washington Post, it's still worth trying:

Congress will not lead this change. There has to be a cultural shift. Only then will Congress and the Supreme Court follow.

As we've seen over the past 15 years with same-sex marriage, such deep cultural change is difficult — and possible. Wyatt Earp, the frontier mentality, prying my cold dead fingers — I get all that. But Australia was a pioneer nation, too, and gave up its guns. Societies change, populations evolve.

And people are not immune, over time, to reason. Given how guns decimate poor black communities every day — not just when there are mass shootings, but every day — this is a civil rights issue. Given how many small children shoot themselves or their siblings accidentally, it is a family issue. Given the suicides that could be prevented, it is a mental health issue. On average 55 Americans shoot themselves to death every day. Every day!

The evidence is clear on why America is so exceptional, compared with other developed countries, in its high levels of gun violence: America has more guns, and more guns mean more gun deaths. And the empirical research shows that reducing the number of guns — by reducing access to them, or by immediately cutting the supply of them through, for example, buyback programs — would lead to fewer gun deaths. "Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide," David Hemenway, director of the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

As Hiatt explained, Australia managed to tackle this issue. After a mass shooting in 1996, the country passed big restrictions on guns and confiscated more than 650,000 through a gun buyback program. Firearm deaths dropped. And Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis argue that the gun buyback program very likely played a role: "First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates."

But getting Americans to support buyback programs and other policies that would dramatically cut down on the number of guns, Hiatt pointed out, will require a cultural shift. And that will be very hard.

Yet 15 years ago, legalizing same-sex marriage seemed very hard, and it's now legal in all 50 states. This required Americans to fundamentally rethink how they view both marriage and gay people — and they did, over time, as they heard reasonable arguments in favor of the change. And this of course isn't the only big issue that Americans are changing their minds on, with views of transgender people, marijuana legalization, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration all changing in recent years in ways that civil rights advocates and policy experts generally agree are positive.

It will be hard to get Americans to change their views on guns. But with the empirical literature presenting such strong evidence that the abundance of firearms is killing us, it's worth trying — and it's not impossible.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.