I still remember the raspy voice of the shrill cancer patient with the hole in her throat. So addicted to the poison that was killing her – cigarettes – she interspersed her words of warning about the dangers of smoking with taking cigarettes through her tracheostomy hole.
It was a short, disturbing public service video shown in my sixth-grade classroom as part of an anti-smoking campaign linked to a Report of the US Surgeon Generalwho for the first time formally linked smoking to cancer and heart disease.
That night, I flushed my father’s cigarettes down the toilet. The image of the woman haunted my anxieties for years. After watching that video, I was never turned on.
Today, this type of video would probably not make it into the classroom, which is considered inappropriate for teenagers, too provocative.
But this is clearly just the kind of aggressive messaging campaign — especially to young people — that we need right now to combat what has become the No. 1 threat. 1 of the nation’s public health issue for young Americans: guns.
Firearms became the leading cause of death among those 19 and younger in 2020, due to a dramatic increase in youth gun violence deaths during the pandemic. The US gun homicide rate for people aged 15-24 was already 49 times higher as in other developed countries more than a decade ago. It is also a matter of racial justice. Black males 15 to 34 are more than 20 times are just as likely to be victims of gun homicide as their white counterparts.
Although much of the media attention surrounds mass school shootings and the proliferation of semiautomatic weapons, handguns were used in 59% of murder and “manslaughter”. Most gun homicides involve the shooting of a small number of people, “ones and twos.”
There is little national data on the age of the perpetrators of this daily violence, but there is evidence that they are getting younger. Where I live, in Washington, DC, 40% of shooting suspects were between the ages of 18 and 24, and 11% were under the age of 17, according to a 2021 report.
Dr. Babak Sarani, co-chief of trauma surgery at George Washington University Medical Center, tells how he had treated a teenager four times since 2018 for gunshot woundsuntil the young man died after being shot in November, aged 19.
In response to rising gun violence, Congress last year passed the first gun safety measure in decades and more than 500 state gun safety measures have passed in the last decade.
But the carnage continues, and laws alone are unlikely to stop it, with gun ownership protected in some form by the 2nd Amendment and a Supreme Court that take a broad view what does it mean. year 2020 saw the largest number of gun sales in the country’s history. Our country is overrun with guns.
Despite all this, one important lever remains surprisingly underutilized: the use of the media, social media, and the entertainment industry to rebrand guns from symbols of status, power, and personal freedom to those of death and carnage.
Gun manufacturers, following the playbook of the tobacco companies in the 1940s and 1950s, have created a positive image on deadly weapons among American youth, especially males. And they’ve had accomplices in the process—violent movies, TV shows, and video games that glorify and glamorize guns.
Smoking was the norm in America until public health officials took it away. What allowed the ban on smoking in public places to gain traction was decades of public health work to re-image the cigarette — often and forcefully — by officials like Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Anti-smoking campaigns depicted the health disaster in images and language that were often deeply disturbing. This message was then echoed by public service announcements featuring sports celebrities and movies. Research has revealed that such emotionally charged ads can work in quitting smoking.
Today we recognize guns as a threat to public health. So it’s time to act with the same kind of indoor public campaign that flushed my father’s cigarettes down the toilet.
Today’s public service announcements on gun safety feel somewhat sanitized. None truly captures the terrible physical and emotional damage caused by guns. Perhaps if we showed the public what it looks like when a child is shot, the shock and disgust—a glimpse of reality—would counteract the societal fascination with guns.
The airwaves and social media channels are filled with messages that appeal to the youth take care of their mental health. Where are the ads that say it’s not good to pack a handgun? Would filmmakers commit to making action movies without guns, the way filmmakers stopped making smoking sex in movies?
Of course, there will be debate as to whether it is the images of gunshots and bodies it would be traumatizing, especially for the children and families of the victims. But some may feel differently. Emmett Till’s asked the mother for his body to be exposed in an open casket because “everybody needed to know what happened to Emmett Till.” Disturbing images have proven powerful in arousing public outrage and spurring action: the gruesome video of George Floyd’s killing fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.
If we want gun violence to end, there may be little choice but to show the public the true harm of guns in all their ugliness and brutality.
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