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Answers to gun violence may lie in nonsmoking campaigns

Even as a Senate hearing on gun violence draws ideas from both Gabrielle Giffords and the NRA, a lesson in curbing a risky product like guns can be found in the recent history of nonsmoker rights.

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Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was injured in a mass shooting two years ago, arrives at a Jan. 20 Senate hearing, hand-in-hand with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, to discuss what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence in the wake of last month's shooting rampage that killed 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.

AP Photo

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For those looking for quick action by Congress to curb guns in America, here’s a lesson from the effort to ban smoking in public places: An official curb on risky products or practice isn’t nearly as powerful as a shift in public attitudes about what is acceptable.

Nonsmoking zones became commonplace in the 1990s, but not until public concern about the hazards of tobacco smoke to nonsmokers had doubled in the 1970s and the ’80s. By the ’90s, smoking was already in decline and smokers were isolating their habits out of concern for the newfound “rights” of nonsmokers.

To be sure, movements against high-risk problems like guns and tobacco need a strong public aspect – scientific studies, grass-roots groups, and new laws. On Wednesday, for example, Congress held its first hearing on gun violence since the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Gabrielle Giffords, former congresswoman and a shooting victim herself, made an emotional plea in asking for immediate action.

While government curbs on guns are necessary, they are not sufficient. What is first needed is a change in thinking about America’s gun culture and the violence it brings. It’s difficult to know if or when that tipping point might take place. The recent string of mass shootings, especially of children, should have provided a final shove of conscience. But the belief that personal guns are protective remains strong. And Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association (NRA), told Congress that law-abiding gun owners “will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals.”

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