I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.

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6 thoughts on “Guns versus cars

  1. “I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen.”

    It seems to me that this sort of defeatist argument (asserting that it’s impossible to change US attitudes towards guns) is just as applicable to argue that it’s impossible to change US attitudes towards cars. Indeed it seems like MORE US citizens view cars as an inalienable inevitable right than consider guns that way!

  2. Yes, but my point (perhaps not spelled out here the way it should be) is that you have to change the societal attitudes first, and then let the laws follow along afterwards.

    The model I like to point to is Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Their early efforts to change the laws on drunk driving were largely failures. But they managed to change the terms of the debate. Before MADD, drunk drivers were treated as an appropriate source of humor—I can remember movies and cartoons depicting some drunk being poured into his car and weaving his way down the road, and you were supposed to think it was funny. When you see those scenes now, you don’t laugh.

    But I see very little of that from the anti-gun crowd. They seem to think that you can change the laws first—and that’s never going to work. They push an incrementalist approach that tries to nibble away at gun rights around the edges, which is slightly less futile, but no more effective. (The “assault weapons” ban never banned anything but cosmetic details of gun design, and then expired.) They also argue about whether this or that weapon has any legitimate purpose, which is also never going to work, if their goal is (as it needs to be) to change the terms of the debate.

    What might work is to deal substantively with the notion that a very large fraction of the US population thinks that being an armed people is a good idea, and that each one of us has a constitutional right to be armed, so as to be a member of the armed populous. But the anti-gun folks seem to find that notion so incomprehensible that they just can’t deal with it seriously.

    (Ditto, of course, with cars, pedestrians and bicycles. I’ve been very glad to see the ads that oppose “distracted driving” by quoting the banal text messages that people were reading just before they killed someone. That needs to come first, before we’re going to get laws against using cell phones while driving.)

  3. In the main, I agree. By the numbers, the Pareto-optimal strategy is to do whatever you can about lifestyle diseases and traffic accidents, and ignore everything else.

    But, I have a devils’-advocate response to this prompt:

    > There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle.

    One possibility is to move to one of the car-free places in the world, and do your best to stay inside it. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_car-free_places )

    That’s unrealistic for most people (and a bit trite), but you can approximate that extreme by minimizing your contact with cars. I think if you lived in a place like Manhattan or San Francisco, and walked and used transit, and only crossed the street on signal at major intersections, the odds of being involved in an accident would be extremely small. And anyone can minimize their time on the road, no matter where they are, by doing business by Internet, phone, or mail, and by chaining trips. All of the tactics for frugal driving aimed at reducing mileage, are also effective at reducing the risk of being in an accident.

    Also, in “Effective Cycling,” John Forester has an argument for why vehicular cycling is safer than it appears based on the raw statistics, which is similar to your analysis of gun safety. He argues that the overwhelming majority of car-on-bike accidents involve either unsupervised children or adult cyclists making egregious moving violations — running red lights or traveling on the wrong side of the road. So, you can make cycling very safe for yourself, if not everyone, by following traffic rules and supervising children.

  4. All good safety tips. I read Forester years ago, and have long incorporated a lot of his thinking into how I cycle. I don’t generally feel at risk when I ride in traffic.

    Thanks for the link to some car-free urban areas. I had previously considered roadless wilderness, but had concluded that (tempting as it is) it’s not an overall win. There’s the inconvenience, the additional risks, the additional time and distance to emergency care if you do get injured, etc. (It might be occasionally inconvenient to stick to a commitment to not do business with violent criminals, but I don’t think it would ever rise to the level of inconvenience in living where your daily activities don’t bring you within reach of motor traffic.)

    Elsewhere, a friend of mine suggested that step one is never riding in a vehicle driven by a drunk or distracted driver. That’s the sort of advice that both helps and is simply solid good sense. It’s just not nearly enough.

  5. Yeah, I think pursuing self-sufficiency in the wilderness creates more problems than it solves. But if one is willing to move far, they can just join one of the already-existing communities of people that are committed to living without cars. Many of the places on that list are neighborhoods of large metropolises with all the infrastructure and culture that goes along with that. For instance NYC Roosevelt Island, San Antonio River Walk, or the Copenhagen Strøget.

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