Gun violence often dominates the daily news cycle, exemplified by the mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park. The U.S. has more than one mass shooting a day in which four or more people are injured or killed. However, mass shootings account for less than 3 percent of all homicide deaths.

Gun violence has seeped into every aspect of American culture. Schools and offices routinely practice active shooter drills. People in group settings such as malls, movie theaters, and concerts respond instinctively to a sudden loud noise with the numbing feeling that they could be shot at any moment.

Among developed nations, the U.S. is an outlier in both gun possession and gun deaths. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but 46 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns. With 120 firearms per 100 citizens, it is the only country with more civilian-owned firearms than people. The U.S gun-related suicide rate is eight times higher than other high-income countries even though the suicide rate is similar. Since 1975, gun deaths from homicides, suicides and accidental shootings have claimed more American lives than all wars since the American Revolution. Gun deaths also have significant emotional and economic consequences for survivors, communities and the psyche of the nation.

Calls for reform are often ignored. The current polarized political environment — abetted by the National Rifle Association — is an obstacle, but efforts to promote gun safety are doable. Political environments change.

As a result of the public outcry after the recent Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, Congress passed and the president signed modest bipartisan gun legislation, ending nearly three decades of congressional inaction. The legislation includes incentives for states to pass so-called “red flag” laws that allow groups to petition courts to remove weapons from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. It expands an existing law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun to include dating partners as well as spouses and former spouses. Also, it expands background checks on people under the age of 21 seeking to buy a gun, adding time to allow authorities to examine juvenile records, including mental health records beginning at age 16.

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The history of contentious issues, including smoking and automobile safety, suggest meaningful change can occur over time. When the first Surgeon General‘s Report on Smoking and Health came out in 1964, 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked. As a result of education, legislation and taxation, by 2020 cigarette smoking among U.S. adults had declined by more than two-thirds to an all-time low of 12.5 percent.

Another example is automobile safety. The first gasoline automobile was built in 1893. In 1903, Massachusetts became the first state to require a test to become a licensed driver. The first seat belt was introduced in American in 1950. Forty-nine years later, in 1999, seat belts became mandatory. Federal safety standards, including child safety seats and passenger airbags, were gradually introduced and then adopted on a national level.

Initially, some of these advances were opposed by the auto industry and met with a mixed response from the public. Today, safety is an important selling point by auto manufacturers. The effect has been dramatic. In 1913, 33 people died for every 10,000 vehicles on the road. In 2020 the death rate was 1.5 per 10,000 vehicles, a 95 percent decline.

Such changes are often associated with sustained advocacy and education efforts — usually occurring over many years. Eventually, public opinion also shifts.

Knee-jerk reactions calling for gun bans by frustrated anti-gun supporters or removal of any restriction by dogmatic Second Amendment advocates is counterproductive. It only causes further polarization. It would be better to rally support for the many areas of gun reform already supported by public opinion. Over time, public opinion can be a powerful influence in a democratic society, as evidenced by the recent passage of gun legislation, the first in nearly three decades. Abraham Lincoln summed it up well, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

Thomas O’Rourke is professor emeritus of community health at the University of Illinois.

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