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Gavin Magrath Headshot

For 2013, Let's Ban Cars and Guns

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Cars and guns kill people. In America, guns kill over 30,000 Americans annually -- that's more than ten 9/11's, every year. It's trending slightly down from a high of 37,666 in 1993, but U.S. gun deaths are projected to exceed deaths from auto accidents in the next three years.

No one is suggesting we ban all cars -- and no one is suggesting we ban all guns. Pretending all regulation is equivalent to a ban is a classic false dichotomy: a total ban is not the only alternative to the status quo. It's not even on the table. It's a red herring designed to prevent reasonable debate and discussion. So let's forget banning guns completely, and banning cars for that matter.

The analogy with cars is a good one though: most Americans own cars: at 888 guns and 812 cars per 1000 Americans, the U.S. is #1 in gun ownership (way ahead of Serbia and Yemen at 582 and 548 guns per 1000 respectively) and #2 in per capita car ownership (behind Monaco and ahead of Lichtenstein). A car is part of the American Dream. No one is talking about banning cars. Or guns.

But cars kill people,or, more accurately, people driving cars kill people, just as people shooting guns kill people. They're both inanimate objects that are very dangerous to the user and to those around them but that are considered indispensable to the American way of life, so the analogy seems a very strong one: sensible measures we take to regulate cars and ensure they are as safe as possible for Americans to operate are also probably sensible regulatory measures for guns.

No one would ban cars (or guns) but we do (and should) require:
  • licensing with written and practical tests;
  • frequent renewal including updated photo and medical questionnaire;
  • specialty licensing and training for specialty products;
  • product registration and mandatory liability insurance policy;
  • effective enforcement of product safety and use regulations;
  • key locks and other anti-theft devices;
  • manufacturer-funded safety research;
  • adoption by manufacturers of identified best safety features in spite of additional cost;
  • industry or publicly funded awareness and safety campaigns; and
  • restriction of high-performance, unsafe products to private courses/ranges.

We already do every single one of those things with motor vehicles. When we finally woke up to the problem of drunk driving we tightened DUI regulation and enforcement and no one ever complained that we wanted to ban cars -- because that retort is not an argument, it's just an irrational barrier to reasonable discussion. Sensible gun control would include other things not relevant to cars, like waiting periods and restrictions on felons or the mentally ill.

Sadly the gun lobby -- which is not just the $200 million-a-year NRA but also the domestic and foreign gun manufacturers that help fund it, actively impedes good research into gun violence and safety. A powerful emotional propaganda campaign has ensured that the deeply personal "from my cold dead hands" gun-ban dichotomy is not the only common talking point used to obstruct discussing the adoption and implementation of sensible regulations:

Guns do kill people: It is indisputable that more guns correlate with more gun death, both murders and suicides. This Harvard study concluded simply "more guns = more homicide" both among high-income countries and among U.S. states and after controlling for income. This Australian study found "[b]eyond reasonable doubt, a causal relationship exists between gun ownership and firearm suicides and homicides." The difference is the access to guns.

Guns do not make you safer: On the contrary, someone with a gun in their home is twice as likely to be murdered in their home a someone without. A young man is 10 times as likely to kill himself if there is a gun in the home. A woman is only five times as likely to kill herself when a gun is present, but women are three times as likely to be murdered by a family member if there is a gun in the home.

And let's remember that the Fort Hood shooting involved a single perpetrator who killed 13 and wounded 29 on a U.S. military base where there was surely no shortage of either guns or trained users. Columbine had armed law enforcement on call; Virginia had an armed security service. Two armed Samaritans were present when Congresswoman Giffords was shot; one mistook the other for the shooter and almost added another innocent to the toll. People may believe they have a gun for protection, and in a nation of over 300 million there will be thousands of stories of heroism, but the data are clear: Their decision to "protect themselves" by keeping a gun is a decision to endanger themselves and everyone else in their household, and it's a decision they make unilaterally for everyone else around them, innocent people endangered by their decision. The difference is the access to guns.

The U.S. is an outlier in both gun ownership and gun killing: At 888 per 1000 Americans, the U.S. is #1 in the world number in per capita gun ownership by far. Switzerland, which still has mandatory conscription, has barely half the rate of gun ownership (457 per 1000). A bunch of countries, including Canada, France, Sweden, Norway, and Germany, have about 1/3 the level of gun ownership (around 300 per 1000). Israel? Seventy-three per 1000. England? 62, less than 1/10th the U.S. rate.

As for gun killing, at 10.2 deaths per 100,000 per year the USA is the only wealthy nation in the global top 10; Americans kill each other at double the rate of Canadians, the next closest peer country (#17 in gun deaths at 4.78 per 100,000); more than double 'heavily armed' Switzerland (#20 at 3.84); three times the rate of France, five times the rate of Israel, and more than ten times the gun death rate of Germany, England, or Japan. All of those places have violent movies, all have rock music (or rap music or jazz music); all have violent video games; and most of them (including Canada, the UK, France, and Germany) have large ethnic minority populations. The difference is the access to guns.

There are no gun utopias: Many people incorrectly believe that Switzerland and Israel are examples of places where most people have guns in the home, and therefore places that have lax gun control, but without the American death rate. This is wrong in almost every way. First, these countries have much lower levels of gun ownership than the U.S. -- Switzerland has less than 1/2 the rate of gun ownership (and killing), and Israel less than 1/10th the rate of gun ownership (and 1/5th the rate of killing). Second, conscription in these countries means that these gun owners are almost all trained and organized reservists, not a militia-of-one. Thirdm and most importantly, both Switzerland and Israel have tougher gun control laws and regulations than the United States. In fact Israel saw suicides of off-duty soldiers decline 40 percent after enacting tough new regulations in 2006 requiring service weapons to be stored at barracks. The difference is the access to guns.

They will not just grab a knife: When it comes to suicide, accidental death, or heat-of-the-moment killing, nothing beats the ease and speed of a handgun. The Israeli study showed a 40 percent reduction in suicides when soldiers did not have access to their weapon off duty: they certainly could have chosen another way, but they didn't and are still alive. Half of U.S, gun deaths are suicides, which dramatically increase in both attempts and success rate with guns. A 40 percent reduction in suicides would save 15,000 American lives per year. The difference is the access to guns.

The handgun is by far the most popular for U.S. mass killings, followed by the assault rifle -- and 80 percent were bought legally. Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech: these recent school shootings all involved more than a dozen dead (as did Canada's École Polytechnique tragedy). No knife mass murder in history has killed that many. A series of copycat knife attacks on schools in China in 2010-2012 resulted in many dead and wounded, but never more than ten and frequently with no fatalities at all. On the very day a gunman killed 27 and wounded two at Newtown, a knife-wielding maniac wounded 22 and killed zero in China. The difference is the access to guns.

It's not "crazy people": Richard Florida's in-depth U.S. analysis found no connection between mental illness and the rate of gun violence (and immigrants, another common bogeyman, correlate negatively with gun violence). Nonetheless, those worried about crazy people should support mandatory federal licensing and regulation with tests and frequent renewal. This would give us the best chance of identifying those people. Those worried about crazy people should support trigger locks and gun storage regulations so they do not steal and use the guns of friends or family, as was the case in the Newtown tragedy. Those worried about crazy people should support a national public health strategy that will ensure all American have access to medical care -- they should support Obamacare now, and a national mental health strategy in the future. Any person or organization, including the NRA, that is rightly concerned about guns in the hands of crazy people and killers should support those measures.

Gun regulation makes a difference: Florida's analysis also showed that gun crime correlates strongly with states permitting weapons in schools, and negatively with states requiring trigger locks, imposing storage requirements, or banning assault rifles. The U.S. is alone in its permissive attitude to guns among wealthy nations, and also alone in its gun ownership and gun killing rates. Intentional killings constitute only 1/3 of U.S. gun deaths and in both accidents and suicides access to guns is absolutely causative. And while the data are biased by the exceptional violence of the preceding 15 years, this Australian study showed homicides and suicides both decreased at an accelerated rate following strict gun control legislation in the 1990s, with no mass killings at all in the nation since then and no significant substitution effect (e.g. of increased knife crime for reduced gun crime). The difference is the access to guns.

There are several local examples of failed gun control regulation in the U.S.; these efforts are laughable since there is no national registry and no check whatsoever on a person's ability to travel across city or state lines to obtain a gun where the laws are laxer. These examples do not show -- as some advocates pretend -- that gun control in the U.S. does not work. What they do show is that attempting to regulate locally in a sea of guns will never be effective: coordinated national efforts are required by history and common sense.

Some gun regulation is Constitutional: A ban on hand guns in the home is not constitutional (McDonald v Chicago); that's why it's such a popular false dichotomy. But even in that case it was not the requirement to register guns that was found unconstitutional, only Chicago's refusal in fact to register any handguns. Certainly the Court has shifted to the right on gun control and many other issues, as can be seen from the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. But while we know the 2nd Amendment applies to handguns, the Court has not said it applies to assault rifles or heavier weapons; while we know a state cannot require a gun to be kept unloaded and disassembled, the Court has not said 'no' to background checks or a national registry or licensing standards or waiting periods and specifically permitted "laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." And the Court has said "Yes" to bans on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, to restrictions on carrying guns near schools, and to prohibitions on ownership for felons and others.

Of course, the Constitution can be changed. It has been changed 17 times, including one amendment to make alcohol illegal (1917) and another to permit its sale again (1933). It was never perfect: it was changed to abolish slavery (1865), to permit black people to vote (1869), to permit women to vote (1919), and to extend the vote to all those 18 and older (1971). The Second Amendment itself was not in the original document, but added two years later in 1789. If the Second Amendment is truly a barrier even to sensible regulations that do not restrict ownership, then it can be changed.

Indeed, if the Second Amendment is the only barrier then it must be changed. Although gun ownership and gun deaths have been declining slightly since the 1990s, Americans kill Americans with guns in staggering numbers not seen in any peer nation. There is no silver bullet: no country is crime-free or murder-free. But many thousands of lives could be saved every year that are today uselessly wasted if Americans would demand sensible, effective, legal, and co-ordinated regulation of dangerous guns, just as they do for dangerous cars.

Let's make 2013 the year America resolves to save thousands of lives by having a rational discussion about gun control.