Cars are dangerous. Riding in a car is the single most dangerous discretionary activity that I do nearly every day, and I've always assumed that they remained the most dangerous objects in the country. As of 2017, though, the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that, for the first time, guns are killing more Americans than motor vehicles. Perhaps more important than the raw numbers, though, are the reasons behind them: Thanks to significant public and private sector research into automobile safety, coupled with widespread concern in the industry about vulnerability to class-action lawsuits, cars are getting safer and safer. Guns, meanwhile, get more and more dangerous.
We knew this day would come. As of 2015, as Christopher Ingraham reported in the Washington Post, guns and cars had come to cause a roughly equivalent number of deaths. Ingraham noted that we'd seen a steady, transformative, rise in automobile safety driven by technical innovation and policy shifts. Advances like seatbelts, anti-lock brakes, airbags, rear-view cameras, and collision warnings have been followed by regulations that require automobile makers to install these devices in their vehicles, and for drivers and passengers to use them. Consumer groups and lawyers have helped make cars safer as well: From Ralph Nader's attack on the Chevrolet Corvair in the 1960s to the Toyota unintentional acceleration lawsuit settled in 2015, the threat of financial ruin at the hands of lawyers has propelled motor vehicles toward safety.
Meanwhile, firearms have trended in the opposite direction. Whenever legal threats or governmental regulation might have done for firearms what seatbelt and airbags did for cars, the National Rifle Association and its politicians have halted progress. In 1996, Congress barred the CDC from studying gun violence, when House Republicans inserted the Dickey Amendment into an omnibus spending bill. In 1999, after the Columbine shooting, gunmaker Smith & Wesson partnered with the Clinton administration to create "smart guns" that could only be fired by a registered owner, mandate new trigger locks, and refuse to sell to shady dealers. The NRA and other pro-gun groups quickly organized boycotts and letter-writing campaigns against Smith & Wesson, nearly bankrupting the company.
The GOP Congress of 2004 allowed the assault-rifle ban to lapse. Legal firearms are now able to fire much more rapidly, making mass shootings more deadly. In 2005, President George W. Bush and the GOP Congress passed legislation that shielded gun makers from liability when their products are used to kill. While mass shootings are horrific, a bigger problem is the easy proliferation of handguns, which are used in most homicides and suicides. Gun-show and private-sale loopholes mean that an angry or distressed person can lay their hands on a firearm just moments before using it to do harm to themselves or others.
For John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, comparing the trendlines of fatalities linked to guns and cars leads to an obvious conclusion. Through a spokesperson, Feinblatt writes: "Common-sense laws to make American cars, roads, and drivers safer played a key role in the steady decline of auto deaths—and common-sense laws are exactly what we need to make American communities safer from gun violence."
Most Americans mostly agree on gun control. Cars provide an excellent model for the public-health benefits of regulation. It's long past time to stop treating firearms as a golden calf and put the safety of humans first.