Fifty years ago, Americans contended with similar public ignorance -- and similar industry misinformation -- about the hazards of cigarette smoking. The argument was settled by the famous surgeon general's report of 1964.
Congress in the mid-1990s forbade the federal government to fund its own research into the health risks presented by guns. By now, however, enough research has been done by privately funded scholars that the surgeon general could write a report based on existing material. Such a report would surely reach the conclusion that a gun in the home greatly elevates risks of suicide, lethal accident and fatal domestic violence. The first step to changing gun policy is to change public attitudes about guns, as Americans previously changed their attitudes about tobacco and drunken driving.
The surgeon general can lead that attitude change with more authority than any other public official.
The second step that might be taken -- again without the need for any congressional vote -- is for the Senate to convene hearings into the practices of the gun industry analogous to those it convened into the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
So many gun accidents occur because guns almost never indicate whether a bullet is present in the chamber. A gun owner might remove the gun's magazine and believe the gun unloaded, when in fact it still contains one potentially deadly shot. Why not require guns to be equipped with indicator lights? Why not require that guns be designed so that they will not fire if dropped? We have safety standards for every consumer product, from children's cribs to lawnmowers, except for the most dangerous consumer product of them all. Not only that, Congress has actually immunized makers of that product against harms inflicted by unsafe design.
Gun makers often design their weapons in ways that present no benefit for lawful users but that greatly assist criminals. They don't coordinate the issuance of serial numbers so that each gun can be identified with certainty. They stamp serial numbers in places where they can be effaced.
They reject police requests to groove barrels to uniquely mark each bullet fired by a particular gun.
They sell bullets that can pierce police armor.
They will not include trigger locks and other child-proofing devices as standard equipment.
They ignore new technology that would render guns inoperable by anyone except their approved purchaser.
Why? Why? And why?
U.S. gunmakers have never been required to answer these questions. But one Senate subcommittee chairman with subpoena powers could cast much needed light on an industry whose record makes the tobacco industry look a paragon of transparency and accountability in comparison.
There's a gun agenda that need not depend on politics and that will not snatch a single weapon from any owner, whether law-abiding or not. If Congress stalls on the president's ambitious legislative schemes, the president should fall back on this Plan B to publicize what guns really do to those who carry them -- and what gunmakers do to their customers.
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