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In My Words: Stop talking 'rights' and start talking 'health'

In an open letter to presidential hopefuls, Professor Rosemary Haskell uses literature and knowledge of her native Great Britain to make the case for American policymakers treating firearms as a public health issue.

The following column appeared recently in the (Macon, Ga.) Telegraph, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, the Greenville (S.C.) News, the Gaston Gazette, the Shelby Star and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Professor Rosemary Haskell

Stop talking 'rights' and start talking 'health'
Rosemary Haskell - haskell@elon.edu

To the men and women running for president of the United States of America:

If you get your party’s nomination, I’d like you to make “gun safety in the home” a big plank in your platform. I know you will want my vote, so please read on.

I used to be British and occasionally have to answer my puzzled transatlantic relatives when they quiz me about our bloodstained American way of life. President Obama, not otherwise a brilliant leader against gun violence, signaled in a recent BBC interview that his compatriots’ relentless grip on their weapons is his most frustrating challenge. He realizes the stunned amazement of other nations when they see our daily butcher’s bill.

I find myself warbling on to my Anglo-connections about America’s proud frontier history of self-reliance   - and how Quick Draw McGraw and Annie Oakley really needed those guns. 

The superior British should also realize that their tough gun restrictions are relatively new, with a chequered political history. Left-winger George Orwell, for example, who wrote “1984” and “Animal Farm surprises his liberal fans by nostalgically recalling that in England before World War I, you could “walk into any bicycle shop and buy a revolver.” He also argued, in 1940, that Prime Minister Winston Churchill should “arm the people” against the expected German invasion. In December of that year, his newspaper column praised the rifle “on the wall of the labourer’s cottage” as the “symbol of democracy,” to be carefully protected.

Times have changed in the United Kingdom. Gun ownership has now been tightly controlled there for decades. Since the 1996 Dunblane killings of 16 children and their teacher, it’s been virtually impossible for a private citizen to get a firearm. If you want to kill someone, you pretty much have to take a knife to them.

But this is America and we have serious problems with guns. If you want my vote, I suggest that you fashion your “gun safety at home” platform plank out of tried-and-true “public health & safety campaign” wood chips.

Public service announcements, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and sound bites work well. Remember the anti-smoking campaigns of the last decades of the last century? And the continuing “click it or ticket” seat belt ads? Remember how “car safety” used to be your driver-Dad flinging his arm across you when you bounced forward, on sudden stops? Now we have – gasp! – seatbelts. And child-safety seats!  Deaths by smoking and by catapulting through car windshields have plummeted. And the Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaigns helped to make driving while impaired something to be ashamed of in polite society. 

It pays to advertise.

Opposing an American citizen’s right to have a gun, as you know, just isn’t working as a public argument.  That horse has left the barn to gallop across a continent-wide, 240-year-old field. Instead, you should convince us that it’s just not smart to have guns in places where they are likely to be the untimely death of someone we know:  a child, an aggrieved teenager, an angry, drunk, or depressed relative.

And perhaps your public health message could make us weigh more carefully the “I must save my family from the midnight burglar” instinct against the more likely “wrong person finds gun” scenario?

By presenting “guns at home” as a public-health problem, and not as an individual-rights lightning rod, you may help us to stop killing one another. After your election, pour cash into a monster advertising campaign to reach every school, church, family and doctor’s office; every shopping mall, factory, scout troop and YMCA. Light up the billboards on the interstates and country roads. Show us what’s at stake by pounding us with the figures of injuries and deaths, including suicides, associated with private gun possession.

If you are busy, you can enlist your Surgeon General’s help. Back in the day, that august personage finally stopped us from blowing cigarette smoke in our children’s faces. Surely now he can get us to keep our guns out of their tiny hands?

Current Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, since his confirmation, has backed away from the “guns are bad for your health” idea. He’s sticking with obesity. But you could persuade him otherwise.

Your “gun safety at home” campaign won’t get the criminals’ guns off the streets. But it’s a start. And if today’s children grow up thinking that guns at home spell trouble, we’ll all benefit.

Sincerely,
A possible supporter – and a committed voter

Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
8/31/2015 10:10 AM