In a new piece for The Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, Henry Farrell considers the potential implications of new gun control legislation in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and the ongoing activism of surviving teenagers from the school.
While recognizing the uncertainty of new gun restrictions leading to significant change as a result of the millions of guns already owned by Americans, Farrell argues that the effect of laws can sometimes be less straightforward: “…laws are not only about enforcement and punishment. They are also about setting the ordinary norms of what people find acceptable and unacceptable in everyday life.”
As an example of this dynamic, he points to anti-smoking laws in Ireland:
“One example of how this can work is anti-smoking laws. Over the past 15 years, countries such as Ireland have introduced general legal bans on smoking in the workplace. This means, for example, smoking was prohibited in pubs in Ireland, where drinking and smoking seemed to go together. On the face of it, this ban seemed unenforceable, as it was unlikely that the police would arrest smokers, and the fine was, in any event, quite small. Irish people are also not noted for their willingness to obey legal rules that seem nonsensical and inconvenient (jaywalking, for example, is nearly universal). However, the ban worked.
The reason for its effectiveness was not that smokers irrationally feared they would be caught and punished. It was that the law shifted everyone’s default expectations. Previously, the norm had been that people who wanted to smoke in public places could smoke, and those who did not like it would have to accept it. Now, that norm shifted, so that smoking was no longer the default. Nonsmokers who did not like the smell and the increased cancer risk felt empowered to complain. Smokers felt less able to resist. The result was that the ban effectively became self-enforcing.”