Obama’s first instinct is for the moral approach. He gives a powerful speech, like the one he delivered in Connecticut on Sunday night, announces that the time for change has finally come, and calls on Congress to act. This is the classic, and preferable model of reform. It is transparent, persuasion-based, employs the democratic process, and doesn’t smack of the nanny state. At this point, however, we would do well to acknowledge that America’s gun problem is not amenable to that kind of change
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been the exemplar of the alternative, paternalistic model, in which government uses any regulatory, legal, or political power at hand to protect its citizens from harm, self-inflicted or otherwise. The case study is smoking, where Bloomberg in 2002 championed an initially unpopular ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. This became, in a few short years, the national and even global norm. Combined with punitive taxes and a program of supportive services for people who wish to quit, New York has reduced smoking rates, which had been stagnant for years, from 22 to 14 percent over a decade. Teen smoking has gone from 19 to 7 percent in the same period. Bloomberg has lately been trying a similar approach with unhealthy fast food.
With guns, a public health approach would begin by focusing on the legal anomaly that federal agencies can regulate devices meant to keep people alive, but not those designed to kill them.