Each day, how many motor vehicles do you see or actually use?
You probably couldn't keep track.
Now, how about guns. How many do you see or actually use during the same period?
For most people, not that many. If any at all.
And yet, in 10 states gun deaths actually outpace motor vehicle deaths.
According to a new analysis of 2009 federal government data (the most recent year for which state-by-state information is available for motor vehicle and firearm mortality) by my organization, the Violence Policy Center, the 10 states that experienced this counter-intuitive shift are:
- Alaska: 104 gun deaths, 84 motor vehicle deaths
- Arizona: 856 gun deaths, 809 motor vehicle deaths
- Colorado: 583 gun deaths, 565 motor vehicle deaths
- Indiana: 735 gun deaths, 715 motor vehicle deaths
- Michigan: 1,095 gun deaths, 977 motor vehicle deaths
- Nevada: 406 gun deaths, 255 motor vehicle deaths
- Oregon: 417 gun deaths, 394 motor vehicle deaths
- Utah: 260 gun deaths, 256 motor vehicle deaths
- Virginia: 836 gun deaths, 827 motor vehicle deaths
- Washington: 623 gun deaths, 580 motor vehicle deaths
While motor vehicle-related deaths are on a steady decline as the result of a successful decades-long public health-based injury prevention strategy, gun deaths continue unabated -- the direct result of the failure of policymakers to acknowledge and act on this ubiquitous and too often ignored public health problem.
Experts agree that the formation of the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1966 coupled with a sustained decades-long effort to develop and implement a series of injury-prevention initiatives have saved countless lives. Numerous changes in both vehicle and highway design followed the creation of NHTSA. Experts also cite the increase in the use of seat belts beginning in the mid-1980s as states enacted belt-use laws as well as a reduction in alcohol-impaired driving as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other organizations changed the public's perception of the problem and laws were enacted to increase the likelihood that intoxicated drivers would be punished. Graduated licensing laws are credited with helping to reduce the number of teen drivers crashing on our nation's roadways. Between 1966 and 2000, the combined efforts of government and advocacy organizations reduced the rate of death per 100,000 population by 43 percent which represents a 72 percent decrease in deaths per vehicle miles traveled.
And while the health and safety regulation of motor vehicles stands as a public health success story, firearms remain literally the last consumer product manufactured in the United States not subject to federal health and safety regulation.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is charged with enforcing our nation's limited gun laws, yet it has none of the health and safety regulatory powers afforded other federal agencies such as NHTSA (or the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency).
As Dr. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and the Youth Violence Prevention Center, notes in his 2004 book Private Guns, Public Health: "[T]he time Americans spend using their cars is orders of magnitudes greater than the time spent using their guns. It is probable that per hour of exposure, guns are far more dangerous. Moreover, we have lots of safety regulations concerning the manufacture of motor vehicles; there are virtually no safety regulations for domestic firearms manufacture."
Such an approach to injury prevention has been applied to every product Americans come into contact with every day -- except for guns. And as is the case with motor vehicles, health and safety regulation could reduce deaths and injuries associated with firearms.
Comprehensive regulation of the firearms industry and its products could include: minimum safety standards (i.e., specific design standards and the requirement of safety devices); bans on certain types of firearms such as "junk guns" and military-style assault weapons; limits on firepower; restrictions on gun possession by those convicted of a violent misdemeanor; heightened restrictions on the carrying of loaded guns in public; improved enforcement of current laws restricting gun possession by persons with histories of domestic violence; more detailed and timely data collection on gun production, sales, use in crime, involvement in injury and death; and, public education about the extreme risks associated with exposure to firearms.
America is reaping the benefits of decades of successful injury prevention strategies on its highways, but continues to pay an unacceptable, yet equally preventable, price in lives lost every year to gun violence.