Of marksmen and marketing 

City Sage

A few years ago, digging through boxes of miscellaneous stuff from childhood, I came across my National Rifle Association Pro–Marksman Junior Diploma, dated July 12, 1952. The certificate states that I had achieved a minimum score of 20 points on each of the official NRA targets. I was 11 years old.

My father taught me to shoot. He believed, as did most men of his era, that knowing how to shoot was like knowing how to drive — an essential component of manhood. He had a fine gun collection, which he kept in a locked third-floor room. It included a beautiful Holland & Holland 12-gauge shotgun, a Winchester .22 WRF, a .30-40 Krag, and a pair of 19th-century Colt .44 revolvers.

I learned to shoot with the .22, a perfectly balanced, extraordinarily accurate example of the gunsmith's art. It was a joy to hold and use.

In those days, the NRA's mission was to support hunters and sportsmen, advocate for gun safety, and teach owners to care for and respect their weapons. To own a gun was a profoundly serious thing, a right to be neither abused nor taken lightly.

I wonder what my father would make of the "gunnies" of our era. Would he join them in advocating for concealed carry and for unrestricted access to light machine guns? (Yeah, I know that an AR-15 isn't technically a machine gun, but let's get real — it is.) Would he agree that American citizens need to be armed to the teeth just in case they want to overthrow the government? Would he agree with a Supreme Court that, in McDonald v. Chicago, prevented local jurisdictions from forbidding handgun possession?

A few years after I'd done him proud at the rifle range, my father died of emphysema. An asthmatic, he had never smoked, but he had spent his life beset by secondhand smoke. My mother smoked, as did most of their friends. Did that environment hasten his early death? I suspect so.

In the 1950s, cigarettes were marketed as fun and life-enhancing — a way to celebrate life, not shorten it. Thanks to brilliant marketing and canny exploitation of social change, cigarette use climbed from 5 percent of the population smoking 100 or more cigarettes a year in 1900, to 50 percent of men and 33 percent of women in 1965. By 2006, consumption had fallen back to 21 percent of the population.

Tax and regulatory policy contributed to the decline, but most of the change came through the gradual seepage of facts into public perception. Cigarette smokers weren't the movie stars, rugged cowboys or professional baseball players depicted in magazine ads. They were pitiable addicts, wheezing and smelly, robbed of health and life by remorseless corporate profiteers.

The triumph of gun rights is, like the triumph of the tobacco industry, a marketing phenomenon. Guns make you safer; guns are cool; guns don't kill people; when guns are illegal, only criminals will have guns; and so on ad infinitum. Despite all evidence to the contrary, tens of millions of Americans have been suckered into believing that a home with guns is a safer home.

When concealed-carry was first legalized in Colorado Springs, a lot of my geezer pals rushed to get permits. It seemed cool at first, but as geezer Jim told me recently, it got old pretty quickly.

"Guns are heavy, inconvenient and dangerous," he said. "And they're not like cell phones — you can't leave them in your coat pocket, or forget them in a restaurant."

In its current incarnation, the NRA wields enormous political power, just as Big Tobacco did a few decades ago. Politicians knew the facts then, but fear kept them quiet.

The facts about guns are simple. Owning a handgun or an assault weapon doesn't make you safer — in most cases, it makes you less safe. Your AR-15 is not a symbol of freedom, but a symbol of your own shallowness or paranoia.

You can still buy cigarettes if you so choose — but relatively few Americans do.

It may take years for attitudes to change, and for the gun epidemic to subside. But it will. A decade from now, there may be no more billboards advertising gun shows in Colorado Springs. And that won't be because our oppressive government has outlawed guns.

It will be because there aren't any buyers.


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