In “Safe From Fire, but Not Guns” Mr. Kristof has a question: If we have safety regulations even for toy guns, how about some for real ones? Well, seeing as the NRA seems to control almost every elected official in America it probably won’t happen in my lifetime. You could carve a Congress with more backbone out of bananas. Ms. Collins went “Where the Jobs Are.” She says yes, people, the unemployment rate in Williston, N.D., really is 1 percent. She went there to scope out the situation so you won’t have to. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Cinemas like the one in Colorado where the shooting took place last week are closely regulated in virtually every respect but one.
Federal law requires large theaters to have wheelchair seating, ramps as well as stairs, and bathrooms that are accessible to the disabled. Fire codes limit audience size. Emergency fire exits must be illuminated.
We have a ratings system to protect children from nudity or offensive language. Indeed, on that horrific night in the theater last week, only one major element wasn’t regulated: the guns and ammunition used to massacre viewers.
As a nation, we regulate fire exits, but not 100-round magazines. We shield youngsters in cinemas from violence — but only if it’s on the screen.
Almost a week after the cinema shooting, we can also be sure what won’t happen: serious gun control. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have supported a ban on assault weapons in the past, but both seem to have backed off for an obvious reason: the public has become pro-gun.
Since 1959, Gallup has asked Americans if they favor banning handguns. When the polling started, 60 percent said yes; the latest poll showed support from a new low of 26 percent.
The latest poll also found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans, 53 percent, opposed a ban on assault rifles.
Indeed, the immediate reaction to the Colorado shooting was a scramble to buy guns. The Denver Post reported a roughly 40 percent jump in background checks to purchase firearms.
“It’s been insane,” a gun store employee told the paper.
Yet if traditional efforts at gun control are at a political dead end, there should still be room for a public health effort to mitigate their harm.
Take auto safety, one of the great successes of public health. Many car accidents involve unlawful behavior such as speeding or driving while intoxicated. We prosecute those offenders, but, for decades, we’ve also taken a broader public health approach. We’ve required seat belts and air bags, we’ve created graduated licenses for young drivers, and we have engineered roads and intersections so that accidents are less lethal.
The upshot is that the traffic fatality rate in the United States has fallen to a record low. Seat belts alone save more than 12,000 lives a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So if we can make cars safer, without banning them, then why not try to do the same with guns?
Look, I know this isn’t sexy. It certainly isn’t as satisfying to gun opponents as a ban on some kinds of firearms. But this approach might actually save thousands of lives.
Yes, the National Rifle Association will rant. But N.R.A. members are much more reasonable than their organization. There’s room for progress if politicians will show leadership. Hello, President Obama?
A recent survey found that more than 70 percent of N.R.A. members approve of criminal background checks for would-be gun owners. That suggests broad backing for one of the most crucial steps: a universal background check for all gun buyers, even when buying from private citizens. I’d also like to see us adopt Canada’s requirement that gun buyers have the support of two people vouching for them.
Other obvious steps include restricting high capacity magazines and limiting gun purchases to one a month. Making serial numbers more difficult to erase would help. And bravo to California for trying to require that new handguns imprint a microstamp on each bullet so that it can be traced back to the gun that fired it.
We should also finance research to design safer firearms. Many accidents would be averted if a gun always indicated if a round were in the chamber. And there should be ways to employ biometrics or a PIN so that a stolen gun would be unusable.
David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health has written an excellent book about public health approaches to firearms. But he argues that we need changes not just in laws but also in social mores — just as we’ve stigmatized drunken driving. Not to mention other kinds of irresponsibility.
“Where I see social norms changing is dog poop,” Hemenway said in an interview. “You’re not allowed to let your city dog run loose now, and you have to pick up your dog poop.” He muses: What if people felt as responsible for their guns as for their dogs? For starters, one result might be more people buying gun safes or trigger locks.
The bottom line is that to promote public health and safety, we regulate everything from theater fire exits to toy guns (that’s why they have orange tips). And if we impose rules on toy guns to make them safer, shouldn’t we do the same with real ones?
Now here’s Ms. Collins, writing from Williston, ND:
Right now you are probably asking yourself: “What would it be like to live in a place with an unemployment rate of 1 percent?”
Me, too! So I went to Williston, N.D., to find out. There are certain things that journalists do as a public service because you, the noble reader, are probably not going to do them for yourself — like attending charter revision meetings or reading the autobiography of Tim Pawlenty. Going to Williston is sort of in this category. The people are lovely, but you’re talking about a two-hour drive from Minot.
If you did come, however, you would feel really, really wanted. Radio ads urged me to embark on a new career as a bank teller, laborer, railroad conductor or cake decorator. The local Walmart has a big sign up, begging passers-by to consider starting their lives anew in retail sales. The Bakken Region Recruiter lists openings in truck driving, winch operating and canal maintenance work, along with ads for a floral designer, bartender, public defender, loan officer, addiction counselor and sports reporter. All in an area where the big city has a population of around 16,000.
There’s an oil boom. The Bakken formation, which runs under the western part of North Dakota and into Montana, contains a huge amount of oil, which the industry figured out how to extract about five years ago. Williston’s median income, which was under $30,000 when the serious drilling started, has jumped to well over $50,000 a year. Job-seekers flooded in. The schools are now so crowded that teachers are holding classes in modular units, some dating back to the ’80s, and one that was constructed by a high school shop class.
“It’s a place of opportunity,” says E. Ward Koeser, the genial head of a local communications company who has also been Williston’s part-time mayor for the last 18 years. A waitress at a restaurant that Koeser patronizes recently told him that she made $400 in tips on a single night. “Although I’m sure that’s not the norm,” he added hastily.
You are probably wondering about the downside. Obviously there has to be one, or you and I would already have moved to Williston, or at least taken up a collection to send unemployed college graduates.
Well, the oil is extracted through the environmentally suspect method of hydrofracking. The area appears to be geologically well suited to the process, but it still uses up a ton of water. Also, an endless progression of large trucks create spills, tie up traffic and tear up the roads.
“Is it dustier, dirtier — yes,” said the mayor. While it’s normal for some of the town’s retirees to move south, these days, he acknowledged, a lot of residents are just packing up and going to Bismarck. “My goal,” Koeser said intently, “is that the day comes when they say: ‘I want to move back to Williston.’ ”
You would expect that, as population and incomes rose, new stores, theaters and restaurants would follow. But, in Williston, they haven’t. Lanny Gabbert, a science teacher at the high school, says his students yearn for a mall where they could shop, “but the closest thing is Walmart.” The most ambitious restaurants would be classified under the heading of “casual dining,” and the fast food is not fast, given the lunchtime lines that can stretch out for 20 minutes or more. Neither retailers nor restaurateurs are interested in investing in a place where they have to compete with the oil fields to attract workers.
“The retailers are at least looking at us,” said the mayor. He is a stupendously positive thinker who wants to build Williston into a city that rivals Fargo and Bismarck as a convention destination. “Why can’t Williston be the best little city in America?” he demanded.
Well, right now because there’s no place to live. Honestly, no place. To house its teachers, the school district has already purchased two apartment buildings, which have long since been filled even though the residents are all required to share their homes with another teacher. Superintendent Viola LaFontaine has taken to the radio airwaves, urging citizens to come up with places for the new faculty to stay.
“We’ve been getting good applicants,” LaFontaine said. “But they’ll make $31,500. When they find out an apartment is $2-3,000 a month, they say they can’t pay that.”
Yes! Housing costs in Williston, N.D., are approaching those in New York City. Many of the oil workers stash their families back wherever they came from, and live in “man camps,” some of which resemble giant stretches of storage units.
“The man camps — I call them the necessary evil,” said Koeser, who added, apologetically, “that’s a little derogatory.”
If the place you love can’t quite climb out of the recession, think of this as consolation. At least you’re not living in a man camp and waiting half an hour in line for a Big Mac.