Sunday, February 25, 2018


When I was a kid, everybody smoked. If you're my age, you remember. Mom, Dad, Grandma all sat on the couch puffing away. When my sister and I were charged with cleaning the living room, we had to empty the ash trays. Remember that? Every home had ash trays. Every business had ash trays, too—tall, industrial size metal cans. At the bank. At the post office. At the library. At church....

People smoked in restaurants, too. It never bothered my mom at all—until she stopped smoking. "I can't believe they're smoking in here. It smells terrible," she would grumble, sotto voce, to make sure the person heard her. Of course, that was much later. After she'd smoked for 35 years.

In junior high and high school, I learned "the dangers of smoking," as every student did. But for most kids, those lessons fell on deaf ears. Because everyone smoked. It was part of the culture. If I suggested to my mother that she quit, she would smirk and say, "My mother has smoked all her life, and she's still alive."

See, there were studies that indicated smoking contributed to all kinds of evil in our bodies. But the idea of everyone quitting smoking was met with derision. Cries of, "It's my constitutional right to do what I want with my body!" were heard, and "The government's not gonna take my cigarettes away!" and "This is America; we're free to do as we choose here!"

If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it may be because we began to hear similar outcries in the wake of the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida.

This week, as some of us were pleading for tighter controls on the dissemination of guns across the country, others were clenching their fingers tighter around their assault weapons and parroting Charlton Heston: "...from my cold dead hands."

The difficulty here is multi-layered. Clearly, it won't be enough to simply tighten up some of the pre-existing gun laws. We can raise the age of majority to 21, but that wouldn't have stopped the Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 and wounded 851. We can make it illegal to own certain types of weapons such as the AR-15 (the semi-automatic rifle Nikolaus Cruz used to kill 17 people in the Parkland mass shooting), but opponents argue that "criminals will find a way to get them anyway." We can arm teachers—okay, no, not really, not realistically, oh my lord the thought of some teachers I've worked with having a gun in the closet—just NO.

But something has to be done. Something has to be done NOW.

Here is what my friend Doug Brooks had to say on his Facebook page about this issue:

The fact that anyone is surprised at the violence constantly being played out across our country is in itself a surprise to me. For several decades, we have been programming our youth for just this outcome. This programming has been achieved through what we call "entertainment." There has been a complete lack of any kind of moral compass in television, movies, and video games. Graphic violence in entertainment has become a "normal" part of our children's lives. Have you seen the first person shooter video games that children play every day? Our society is reaping exactly what we have sowed. This is not a gun control issue. It is a mind control issue. The United States of America was established to ensure and protect an individual's right to be "free." However, this freedom, without a strong ethical and moral base, ends up as chaos. And that, my fellow Americans, is where we seem to be heading....

He has a point.

I walked past my granddaughter's room one day to find her sprawled on the floor in the position of a military sniper, holding her game controller. On the monitor before her, the point of view was down the barrel of an assault rifle. My first--but non-verbal--response was 'holy shit.' My first verbal response was to ask about the "game." She explained that yes, she was killing people, but that "we're the good guys." So that made it okay.

That is not okay, at least not with me.

But she's 18. She can choose for herself--in the same way that she could choose to take up smoking if she so desired. "But," she told me (later, after the Parkland shooting) when we discussed whether playing violent video games contributed to the likelihood of someone shooting up a school, "I would never go crazy and start shooting anyone." No. She wouldn't. But... I have also seen my nephew, when he was 15, playing a far more violent video game. This is a young man with profound anxiety and mental health issues. He also has a severely violent temper and has threatened his own mother with bodily harm while enraged. (Before you panic, there are no guns in their home. He has never been around guns. Of course, that doesn't mean he couldn't easily get one, the way things are right now. Because now he's over 18. He's actually over 21, so even if the age of majority is raised, he can still get a gun if he wants one.

If you believe that it's okay for that young man to own an assault rifle because "it's his right as an American under the Second Amendment," I would have to question whether you are capable of thinking rationally. If you agree with me that no, he should not have access to any kind of weapon, nor should others like him, then we're taking a small step in the right direction.

And that's what it's going to take to turn this ship around--many, many small adjustments in the way we do things, the way we think about things, including the culture of gun ownership and availability in the United States. The process will be slow and arduous and, for some, painful (as was quitting smoking for so many people). Is it worth it, though? Oh, hell yes it is.

We need to bring about change that is substantial and far-reaching, just as we ultimately accomplished with smoking. Back then, some said it would be impossible to shake ourselves free of the spell the tobacco industry had cast upon us. Remember the Marlboro Man? He was so handsome, so cool. Until he was diagnosed with cancer....

Our culture is suffering from its own form of cancer currently. But we can beat it. One step at a time.

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