Ruth Bass: Pollution, booze and nicotine were once as untouchable as guns

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RICHMOND — When the emissions police began to expand mandates for catalytic converters on cars, much of the reaction was more cataclysmic than catalytic. But California's statistics consistently showed diminishing smog and better breathing, and toxic emissions from cars became an accepted target.

When MADD and SADD started their campaigns to stop drunks from driving, parents and students hoped — but were not particularly optimistic — that attention would be paid. Drunks still cause accidents, but the term "designated driver" now resonates with millions. It's part of the vocabulary of young drivers who may still drink too much but who often make the effort to have one friend who can safely get them home.

When Kitty Dukakis and others set up national non-smoking days, they knew that many who managed to give up cigarettes for the day probably stayed up until a minute after midnight to feed their addiction and get started again. But No Smoke days were noticed. The cancer link put the pressure on, and industries produced patches because lo! Smoking was addictive — no news to everyone who had repeatedly given it up.

The crowning blows on inhaling nicotine were probably when the health police stepped in sharply, telling employers that smoking employees cost them more, that second-hand smoke was harmful. People began to enjoy ordering dinner in a smoke-free room. It took us a long time, but millions learned.

Still, we're not a quick study on things we need to change or things we cherish. We back off, put off, stall. Thus, in the aftermath of yet another assault-rifle killing, it unfortunately is the right time to talk about guns, not just build memorials of flowers and candles.

So many people, unofficial and official, say our gun violence tragedies are perpetrated by a mentally ill person, and we have to do more to treat them and more to restrict their purchase of guns. But aside from the Air Force totally messing up with recording the latest shooter's mental state, and the Newtown killer's mother buying her troubled son guns, it's hard to tell whether a gun customer is sick in the head or may become so next week or next year.

It doesn't work to blame the shooter for not taking his pills or not being diagnosed. Anyone who sprays bullets into an innocent group is certainly insane at the moment. But if all states had rules like Massachusetts, they might see a drop in their gun deaths by murder, accident and suicide. The commonwealth's laws are not perfect, but most assault weapons are banned for civilians, and in 2015, with 213 deaths or a rate of 3.13 per 100,000, the state had the lowest gun death rate in the country. Now Massachusetts has given police chiefs discretion on rifle or shotgun permits to an applicant who seems "unsuitable." The state is on a good track.

Our learning curve on pollution, alcohol and nicotine rose slowly. On the question of guns, talk is stalled because the National Rifle Association is running the show. While the Brady Campaign and, in Massachusetts, groups like Stop Handgun Violence have made progress, the extreme views survive. Both sides need to pause and talk seriously.

The Second Amendment never meant that you and I have the freedom to own a weapon that's a threat to family, neighborhood and town. It does grant "the right to bear arms," which certainly was essential in the pre-police, pre-army days when an individual had to nail a coyote before it grabbed the last sheep or protect the family from a band of marauders. In either case, they did a lot of reloading.

Extremists on the Second Amendment issue want total gun freedom. Extremists on the other side want no guns. Both need to realize that most issues are neither black nor white — just gray. So hunters should have guns, whether they hunt for sport or to feed the family or target shoot. People who beat their wives or husbands — even once — should never have any guns. No civilian needs an assault weapon. These ideas are quite logical, as is a possible limit on ammunition purchases.

But what also could continue the education process that might lead to a safer America would be if the hunters — the real sportsmen — were to abandon their membership in the National Rifle Association. They don't need it. With its wealth, the NRA has held Congress — a Congress focused on career paths and campaign funding — hostage for far too long. If Congress is stalling, reasonable gun owners need to speak out. With pollution, with smoking, with drunken driving, it is working for the greater good. If only.

Ruth Bass has never posted the woods where her deer live. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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