Gun Violence: Lessons Learned from Car Crashes

By Scott Burris, JD

“I have an absolute right to drive any vehicle I want, on any road, at any time, at any speed, and under any conditions.”

That’s an argument few people would take seriously. And few people would take seriously the argument that we should ban or substantially limit automobile use, despite the fact that America suffers more than 30,000 motor vehicle deaths every year.

Instead of an outright ban on driving cars, we regulate. We have rules to make roads safer to drive on. We have rules that make cars safer to drive. We have laws that make drivers use their cars more safely – by wearing seat belts, putting children and infants in safety seats, and limiting cell phone use. We limit when and with whom new drivers may drive. And we even prohibit some people from driving altogether – children, people with uncorrectable poor vision, people with impaired driving records.

For more than 40 years, a wise investment in research has guided public policy and changed social norms. Remember the era of the Corvair which was unsafe at any speed, the windshields that shattered, or the beltless seats? Today we are a nation of people who wear seat belts in air-bagged cars, buy special restraint systems for our kids, designate drivers, and accept long prison sentences for drunk drivers who take lives. We don’t complain about any of this. And the result is a five-fold decrease in motor vehicle deaths and injuries from 1962 to 2012 despite a steady rise in automobile use.

We haven’t even done all we could, but we continue to make progress on how to regulate driving to improve auto safety. The refinement of regulations gives us safer roads and cars and improved driver behavior.

Like cars, guns are here to stay. This is true legally, because the Supreme Court has taken the elimination of guns off the table. Courts are busy striking down restrictions of any sort that put a burden on owning or carrying guns generally. Besides the legal issues, there is also a social side to this. Many, perhaps a majority of Americans, want to own and use guns. And the vast majority of them will use the guns safely and in a way that gives them enjoyment or a sense of security. Just like the vast majority of us use our cars. So, we will never achieve gun control if we define control to mean rules that make guns very difficult to acquire or onerous to possess.

Like cars, the availability of guns carries with it an unavoidable, but reducible, death toll – these days about the same number as are caused by motor vehicles. People use guns to kill themselves and others on purpose, and guns kill sometimes people by accident. Many of these deaths, but by no means all, could have occurred using some other object. This week many compared the Chinese attack in which a man with a knife wounded 22 school children to the Newtown massacre in which a man with a semi-automatic rifle riddled 26 people with bullets, killing all of them, and then killing himself. That comparison does not mean that we should do nothing to ban knives and guns or ban knives and guns completely. We might as well ban cars or not regulate driving at all, if that were the case.

We have to craft rules over the next 30 years that will create safer environments (secure schools and other public places), safer guns (assault rifle and magazine bans, for example) and safer gun owners (secure storage, trigger locks, better access to mental health care, to name a few). The problem is that we don’t really know what those rules would be, and we haven’t been investing very much in figuring that out.  For years, research and policy experimentation have been stifled by political pressure.

What’s needed for change? Of course, a great first step would be a deep moral commitment to get past hyper-partisan simplification and figure out how to live as safely as possible with the widespread ownership and enjoyment of guns. Other than that, we have to agree to focus, within normal limits of politics, on learning as much as we can about the causes of gun violence, how to address those causes, and understand what measures contribute most efficiently to promoting safe gun ownership and enjoyment.  Researchers can indeed tell us more about the causes and processes of gun violence. Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, is one of those researchers, studying one aspect of gun violence. (You can read his recent three-part series on this subject that appeared on Bill of Health) He is being funded by PHLR and the National Science Foundation to investigate the links between mental illness and gun violence. Once we have the information, policy-makers can try new, plausible approaches. Researchers can then evaluate them to find out which policies work and how well. Policy-makers can respond with improvements. Over time, the cycle continues, we get it right and the death rate goes down.

Is it possible that gun ownership and use could go up while we see significant reductions in gun-related injuries and deaths? Well, guns aren’t cars, but giving it a practical try seems a whole lot more productive way to spend the next 30 years than fighting over the abstract principles of gun rights.

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Based at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, the Center for Public Health Law Research supports the widespread adoption of scientific tools and methods for mapping and evaluating the impact of law on health. It works by developing and teaching public health law research and legal epidemiology methods (including legal mapping and policy surveillance); researching laws and policies that improve health, increase access to care, and create or remove barriers to health (e.g., laws or policies that create or remove inequity); and communicating and disseminating evidence to facilitate innovation.

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