Is it time for Social Marketers to get involved in the Gun Debate?

As I mentioned in my blog a few weeks ago I have been an advocate against guns for as long as I can remember. Maybe it is a Canadian thing, although many Canadians own guns. I am not against freedom of choice; I abhor most types of censorship and am not a big fan of government regulations. However, as a social marketer I do believe there are some issues worth fighting for. It seems that almost every week I hear about innocent people being killed by guns in the USA. Why is this happening and what can be done about it?

In a recent blog  I pointed out that gun control seems to be an issue where common sense seems to be non-existent and you wonder if normally intelligent people seem to lose their mind when confronted with it.

Fareed Zakaria   pointed outs in his article the solution to gun violence is clear ”the killing of young children and many other mass murders using guns is not a complex problem that will require a complex solution. In fact, the problem is straightforward and the solution is blindingly obvious to any thinking person.”

Zacharia points out that people point to three sets of causes when talking about events such as the shootings of young kids and their teachers in Connecticut:

  • First, the psychology of the killer;
  • Second, the environment of violence in our popular culture; and,
  • Third, easy access to guns.

Any one of these might explain a single shooting. What Americans should be discussing is not one single event but why they have so many of them.  The U.S. gun homicide rate is 30 times that of France or Australia, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, and 12 times higher than the average for other developed countries. Note, Canada with the tenth of the population of the USA had 173 firearm homicides in 2009.

First we hear that mental health is the issue but if psychology is the main cause, Zacharia points out the USA should have 12 times as many psychologically disturbed people. But they don’t, actually the USA does take mental disorders seriously and invest more in this area than do many other industrialized countries.

Is America’s popular culture the cause? This is highly unlikely, as largely the same culture exists in other industrialized countries. Think Canada for example, we are exposed to the same movies, TV shows, and video and Internet games and have a fraction of the gun murders than the USA. Zacharia points out that youth in England and Wales are also exposed to virtually identical cultural influences as in the United States. Yet the rate of gun homicide there is a tiny fraction of the USA. Why? Britain has tough gun laws. The Japanese who invented the video games industry ( think Nintendo/Sony etc.) and  are video game crazies and are at the cutting edge of the world of video games. Yet their gun related homicides rate in 2008 was 11 … yes 11 compared to the USA which was 11,029 in 2008.

Now it is true that Japan’s population slightly over 128 million  is less than half of the USA population but when you look at the stats you only need to know that Japan has perhaps the tightest regulation of guns in the industrialized world.

Australians with a population of 23 million people are exposed to video games and violent movies and they also have people with serious mental heal problems but gun related homicides rate in 2008 was 31. That as many people who get killed by guns in the USA every day.

So when you look at the  data it would strongly suggest to anyone with common sense , that  the USA have so much more gun violence than other countries because they have far more permissive laws than others regarding the sale and possession of guns.

Let’s face it in any society there will always be mentally deranged people with severe mental illness. And some might be influenced by popular culture. But if the movies and video games is the problem why is the killing of innocent victims by guns on a weekly basis not a problem in other industrialized countries?

A recent comment by Bob Costas  in an interview with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart got me thinking. Costas stated that “I think any sane person believes that we ought not to have high capacity magazines and assault rifles and that there ought to be background checks.  “We can tighten all that stuff up without replacing the second amendment.”

Costas told Stewart that “there is a gun culture in America. “We’ve changed the culture on a lot of things without changing the laws, no one repealed the first amendment, but we changed people’s attitudes towards racist or homophobic remarks. Cigarettes remain a legal product but attitudes towards them and an understanding of their dangers have taken hold, so the culture has changed.”

Yes change in attitudes about guns in America … sounds like a JOB FOR SOCIAL MARKETERS.

So I wonder why in all the debates on gun control, Americans are not talking about changing the gun culture? Why for example in a town hall meeting do I hear women living in fear in their homes, arming themselves to the teeth because they are afraid someone is going to attack them in their home. Why do we now hear from politicians and those wonderful folks at the NRA the idea that we should now extend homeland security i.e. armed guards in primary schools. Is this what Americans want to see in their schools?

Another issue for me as a social marketer and a public health advocate is why has gun control not become a public health issue in America

The National Center for Disease Control (CDC) data on firearm fatalities in 2005 showed that greater than 39,000 deaths were caused by firearms. These deaths included 16,000 suicides, greater than 12,000 homicides, 600 justified defensive uses, and the remaining deaths were accidental discharges. Source

Rauda Tellawi states that Guns hurt people, society and the economy in many ways, yet public health campaigns do not emphasize gun violence as a public health issue. In other words, though the Second Amendment conserves the basic right of self-protection, advocates also need to understand that fighting for this right is also a fight against others’ rights to a healthy life, free from the terror created by irresponsible gun owners.

Sara K. Rasmussen points out in her article, Surgeon’s decree: Gun control a public health issue that the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby has successfully blocked reasonable measures to control and regulate firearms in USA for years.  Consider these NRA “achievements”: 10 years ago they succeeded in eliminating federal funding to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for public health research that would examine the effects of gun violence on our society. The result is that there is currently no credible evidence on which to evaluate the effects of gun control. The NRA lobby actively seeks to remove from office those individuals who would make gun control policy a priority in the United States. And, they recently succeeded in making it illegal for a physician, to ask patients about guns in the home.

How did this happen? Why has public health in the USA not been more vocal on this issue?

It is time for public health people in the USA, including social marketers to take action on this important issue just like they did with smoking many years ago. Shouldn’t public health professionals have a say on what responsible gun ownership looks like.

As Rasmussen states, “I don’t think it looks like a country where unstable, isolated youths can easily access assault weapons. It doesn’t look like a country where a 4-year-old can be murdered for opening his mother’s front door.  And I doubt it looks like a country where our elementary school teachers are carrying concealed weapons.”

John Parisella writes in Maclean’s magazine Is it easier to buy a gun than a kitten in the United States?

Gun violence is a public health concern, and it is high time that social marketers take this issue up as a public health concern. There may be funding from the Mayor’s council and other organizations who may be interested in funding a social marketing campaign to address the “gun culture” in the USA.

Let me know what you think.

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Gun Violence in the USA… NOT a complex problem

“In America we value guns, flags & fake acts of patriotism over people, pain & real acts of courage.” Nelba Marquez-Greene,  6-year-old daughter  killed in Newtown, Conn.

I have been an advocate against guns for as long as I can remember. Maybe it is a Canadian thing, although many Canadians own guns. I am not against freedom of choice; I abhor most types of censorship and am not a big fan of government regulations. However, as a social marketer I do believe there are some issues worth fighting for. It seems that almost every week I hear about innocent people being killed by guns in the USA.

However as I pointed out in a recent blog over the many years working in the world of business and the public sector and following politics there is one issue that has constantly baffled me … gun control. It seems that this is one issue where common sense seems to be non-existent and you wonder if normally intelligent people seem to lose their mind when confronted with this issue.

Announcing that he would send proposals on reducing gun violence in America to Congress, President Obama mentioned a number of sensible gun-control measures. But he also paid homage to the  views about the many and varied causes of this calamity — from mental health issues to school safety. As Fareed  Zakaria   pointed outs in his  article The solution to gun violence is clear ”the killing of young children and many other mass murders using guns is not a complex problem that will require a complex solution. In fact, the problem is straightforward and the solution is blindingly obvious to any thinking person.”

Zacharia points out that people point to three sets of causes when talking about events such as the shootings of young kids and their teachers in Connecticut:

  • First, the psychology of the killer;
  • Second, the environment of violence in our popular culture; and,
  • Third, easy access to guns.

Any one of these might explain a single shooting. What Americans should be discussing is not one single event but why they have so many of them. Much more than any of the industrialized countries. The number of deaths by firearms in the United States was 32,000 last year. Around 11,000 were gun homicides.

To understand how staggeringly high this number is, compare it to other industrialized countries. England and Wales for example have about 50 gun homicides a year. Many people believe that America is simply a more violent, individualistic society. But again, the data clarify. For most crimes — theft, burglary, robbery, assault — the United States is within the range of other industrialized countries. The category in which the U.S. rate is magnitudes higher is gun homicides.

The U.S. gun homicide rate is 30 times that of France or Australia, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, and 12 times higher than the average for other developed countries. Note, Canada with the tenth of the population of the USA had 173 firearm homicides in 2009.

So what explains this difference? If psychology is the main cause, Zacharia points out the USA should have 12 times as many psychologically disturbed people. But they don’t, actually the USA does take mental disorders seriously and invest more in this area than do many other industrialized countries. (Note: the United States could do better if they had a more universal health care system hopefully this will be resolved in the next few years with Obamacare).

Is America’s popular culture the cause? This is highly unlikely, as largely the same culture exists in other industrialized   countries. Think Canada for example, we are exposed to the same movies, TV shows, and video and internet games and have a fraction of the gun murders than the USA.

Zacharia points out that youth in England and Wales are also exposed to virtually identical cultural influences as in the United States. Yet the rate of gun homicide there is a tiny fraction of the USA. Why? Britain has tough gun laws.

I can remember being in Japan many years ago and video games are sold everywhere, the Japanese are video game crazies and are at the cutting edge of the world of video games. Yet their gun homicide rate is close to zero! Japan has perhaps the tightest regulation of guns in the industrialized world.

With respect to Canada they have much stronger gun laws although Canadians do have millions of guns. Private citizens owning assault rifles or handguns is rare. In Canada it takes up to 60 days to obtain a firearm, after registering, taking a course and going through background checks.

So when you look at the  data it would strongly suggest to anyone with common sense , yes pure common sense that  the USA have so much more gun violence than other countries because they have far more permissive laws than others regarding the sale and possession of guns.

It is hard to believe that the USA which has 5 percent of the world’s population has 50 percent of the guns. There are more guns in the USA than people and gun deaths will be overtaking traffic deaths in the USA by 2015, a stat which is hardly imaginable in any other industrialized country. You would think that intelligent people would see that there is clear evidence that tightening laws — even in highly individualistic countries with long traditions of gun ownership — can reduce gun violence. But this is not the case in the USA.

In Australia, after a 1996 ban on all automatic and semiautomatic weapons — a real ban, not like the joke of a ban enacted in 1994 in the USA with 600-plus exceptions — gun-related homicides dropped 59 percent over the next decade. The rate of suicide by firearm plummeted 65 percent. (Almost 20,000 Americans die each year using guns to commit suicide — a method that is much more successful than other forms of suicide.)

The deaths of 16 children aged five and six together with their teacher in the Scottish town of Dunblane in 1996 was one of Britain’s worst incidents of gun-related violence. The massacre stunned the country, but what did the UK do to try to prevent such a tragedy happening again?

Within a year and a half of the Dunblane massacre, UK lawmakers had passed a ban on the private ownership of all handguns in mainland Britain, giving the country some of the toughest anti-gun legislation in the world. After both shootings there were firearm amnesties across the UK, resulting in the surrender of thousands of firearms and rounds of ammunition.

In 2010/11 there were 11,227 offenses, 53% below the peak number, according to the official crime figures. Crimes involving handguns also fell 44%from 5,549 in 2002/03 to 3,105 — in 2010/11.

Let’s face it in any society there will always be mentally deranged or people with severe mental illness. And some might be influenced by popular culture. But if the movies and video games is the problem why is the killing of innocent victims by guns on a weekly basis not a problem in a country like Canada.   (Yes we have had a few mass shootings in Canada but nothing like they have in the USA and the guns used for many of these mass murders were smuggled into Canada from the USA)

Why not have government do something much simpler and that has proven successful: limit access to guns. And as Zacharia points out not another toothless ban, riddled with exceptions, which the gun lobby use to “prove” that such bans don’t reduce violence. (Note the NRA keeps on pointing out that the last ban did not work, what they do not say is they did not work because of their organization’s influence on weakening the regulations).

So what do the brilliant folks at the NRA come up as a solution to killing kids in school… more guns of course? Armed guards in every school.

The NRA does not use any common sense in their suggestion as they are ignoring two elements that strongly favour the shooter going into a school. First is the element of surprise. If there is only one armed guard that would be the first person taken out and, given it’s in a school, an armed guard cannot simply fire on the first kid that looks threatening. Can you imagine the uproar if an armed guard shot a kid he or she thought was armed but was just reaching in his coat for something else?

Second, armed guards would have to be concerned about hitting innocent bystanders so they cannot simply fire away. Lethal Weapon where police can blast away and never hit a bystander is a movie not reality. The shooter would not really care who he hits giving him a significant advantage. Besides, he could simply go somewhere else were young people hang out like the mall, football field, hockey rink, or even a school bus. What about summer camps or theaters where you will find lots of kids? Are they going to put armed guards everywhere?

The point is that there is plenty of room for discussion on gun policy and plenty of room for defining the common ground around reasonable restrictions that gun-owners and advocates can agree on. There is no reason that in the US they can’t increase background checks, and make it more difficult for people to buy 100-drum magazines and assault rifles that have no function except to kill as many people as possible as fast as possible.

Bob Costas famous sports broadcaster stated that “I think any sane person believes that we ought not to have high capacity magazines and assault rifles and that there ought to be background checks.  “We can tighten all that stuff up without replacing the second amendment.”

There is a gun culture in America. “We’ve changed the culture on a lot of things without changing the laws, no one repealed the first amendment, but we changed people’s attitudes towards racist or homophobic remarks. Cigarettes remain a legal product but attitudes towards them and an understanding of their dangers have taken hold, so the culture has changed.”

This all falls under common sense, yes simple common sense.

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Unintended consequences in the world of gun registries and teacher evaluations

The law of unintended consequences is an adage or idiomatic warning that an intervention in a complex system always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes. Akin to Murphy’s Law, it is commonly used as a wry or humorous warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them. Many scientific and sociological fields of study embrace this concept,

Unintended consequences can be roughly grouped into three types:

  • a positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as serendipity or a windfall)
  • a negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis)
  • a perverse effect that is contrary to what was originally intended (e.g., when an intended solution of a problem actually makes the problem worse). This situation can arise when a policy has a perverse incentive that causes actions contrary to those which were desired. Source

One example of unintended consequence  is the debate regarding the gun registry in Canada. Whether the registry lives or dies will have no impact whatsoever on the vast majority of Canadians, and scarcely more on the minority that pay it close attention. Take the cost, first. It is certainly true that the costs of setting up the registry were substantial, and outrageous. If the issue were whether it was worth spending $2 billion just to draw up a list, not of handguns or newly purchased rifles, but of the rifles people already owned, I doubt there’d be many takers.

But the registry has been set up. The $2 billion is a sunk cost: it’s gone, and nothing we can do will get it back. The relevant factor in any decision we make now is not what we paid in the past but what we’ll have to pay from here on, that is, the annual cost of maintaining the registry, which the RCMP informs us is less than $4 million a year. Not terribly costly and not terribly intrusive either: as its defenders point out, we are obliged to register many other of our possessions, most of them far less capable of havoc than a gun. Source

And guess what ! Acquiring a firearm would still mean sending a photograph verified by a friend, along with two character references from someone who’s known you for three years or more. Background checks? Still required. Phone numbers so your spouses can be notified that you’re getting a gun license?  All of that detailed personal information would live on in the existing electronic database, along with registration data for restricted weapons like handguns, where it will be at the fingertips of police attending complaints or investigating crimes. That may come as a surprise to the farmer who thought the government was about to leave him alone with his rusty 22.  The gun registry is about to become a registry of gun owners.

All of which invites a question: if getting rid of the registry would leave the most invasive components of the gun-control system in place—and if it leaves most safeguards for public security in place too—exactly what is this fight about? Beats me. Source

Getting back to unintended consequences, the debate over long gun registration has brought out an interesting new political dynamic in Canada, one that should concern firearms owners. An Angus Reid poll has revealed a large increase in the percentage of Canadians who think that owning firearms of any kind should be illegal. Not just handguns, mind you, a ban on all firearms.According to the poll, 49 per cent of Canadians now support a complete ban on handguns, up from 46 per cent last November.

What is more surprising is that, in a different question on the poll, the number who would make all firearms illegal is now up to 45 per cent, versus only 40 per cent who would keep ownership legal and 15 per cent unsure. Making it illegal to own long guns, an extreme position, appears to be the more popular view. Despite efforts in the political debate to make a distinction between long guns and other types of guns, this distinction is no longer present in the mind of Canadians who participated in their surveys. The old opinion that handguns should be prohibited but long guns are OK no longer exists.

From a political point of view, it means that a complete ban on firearms could have majority support. No political party is taking that position yet, but the polarization of the debate makes it a politically tempting target.

So you may ask why has the middle ground vanished, the people who don’t own a firearm but don’t mind that others do?  It could be that the registry, whatever its true effectiveness,  to gives them confidence that guns were “under control”, but when they are told that it is ineffective they conclude that stronger measures are needed. Telling urban Canadians that gun owners won’t register their weapons, that police are no safer and can’t trace guns, and that keeping track of guns is a lost cause might just convince them that allowing ownership with some restrictions is not working out.

It could be that the success of the registry was the only thing that kept support for a complete ban at bay. Source

So the irony is getting rid of the registry may end up with strong public opinion supporting the ban in guns. Clearly an unintended consequence.

Another unintended consequence is professor evaluations at universities. In the United States, a newsmagazine reports that college students are attending so few classes that one institution is now tracking their attendance electronically.  An accompanying image shows students floating in a campus pool watching television.

It gets worse. A new comprehensive study by two professors in California found that students at four-year colleges in 1961 studied 24 hours a week. Today they study just 14 hours.

The reasons are part-time jobs (often to pay for those fancy “minimum-wage coffees”) and the Internet (though most of the erosion came in the 1980s). The rule of thumb had been that for every hour in class, two should be spent studying. That is no longer so. One reason is said to be the growing power of students — through teacher evaluations and their importance in winning tenure — and the reluctance of professors to challenge them.

This doesn’t make students less smart today. But they are less ready for the world than their parents. Employers are learning this painfully. The head of a large mutual fund allowed the other day that he had recently let go an eager, promising graduate with a good résumé. After a few days on the job, it became clear that the young man couldn’t write an English sentence. Source

So what do we have? Clearly when universities introduced professor evaluations I doubt that they anticipated that this would lead to students using these evaluations as a lever to intimidate professors. But this seems to be another unintended consequence.

Let me know if you are aware of other  unintended consequence scenarios.

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