One of the mantras of the American gun lobby, and one repeated constantly by its right-wing media allies, is the absolutist view that new gun restrictions aren't needed because they won't work. That argument is often quickly joined by the fatalistic view that there's nothing we can really do to cut down number of gun deaths in America; that government regulations, including expanded background checks for all gun purchases, would have no impact.
Both views have been on constant display as President Obama urges Congress to take action and pass new control measures.
Fox News contributor Bill Kristol last week insisted he'd seen “zero analysis, zero argument” that any of the proposed regulations would “make any appreciable difference in reducing gun violence and murders.” On CNN, conservative Dana Loesch claimed “we have gun laws already on the books,” and that new gun proposals would simply represent redundancies.
The companion case to right-wing claim is that gun control regulations won't reduce deaths is that the only way to achieve that goal is to have more guns in circulation will achieve that goal. (That argument is false. Obviously.)
But the clear flaw in the anti-regulation claim is that new government rules have been credited in recent years with drastically reducing the number of U.S. fatalities surrounding another potentially dangerous consumer product: Automobiles.
Look at the data: In 2011, the number of people killed in traffic accidents fell to 32,367, the lowest annual U.S. tally since 1949. (Automotive deaths peaked in 1972, with 54,589.) That decline came despite the fact that in over the last five-plus decades the number of drivers on American roads has exploded: 62 million then vs. 210 million now.
More recently, vehicular deaths plummeted 25 percent between 2005 and 2011, according to the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Those numbers rose in 2012, ending a seven-year decline.)
What do experts point to for the recent overall reduction in automotive deaths? They credit, in part, state and federal efforts, often done in tandem with car manufacturers, which have made the potentially dangerous act of driving much less deadly.
From CNN in 2011 [emphasis added]:
Experts attribute the change to a variety of reasons, including changes to cars -- such as vehicle rollover protection -- and programs to change driver behavior -- such as campaigns addressing drunk driving, distracted driving and seat belt use. Laws aimed at young people also likely have had an impact, notably older minimum drinking ages and graduated drivers' licenses.
In other words, government regulations have helped dramatically reduce the number of vehicular fatalities in recent years. By treating driving as the obvious public safety issue that it is, and after new regulations were put in place in an effort to improve product safety and consumer behavior, the number of fatalities quickly dropped. Impelled by federal regulations, car manufacturers have made a concerted effort to make their products more safe via air bags, anti-rollover technology, and stronger vehicle roofs. For decades however, automakers waged the "regulatory equivalent of war" against the government's push for airbags and other safety initiatives. Today, those same manufacturers aggressively market new safety features to consumers.
Could a similar government push, aided by manufacturer cooperation, produce a comparable decline in gun deaths? Public safety experts insist the answer is yes. “Absolutely,” says Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.
In an interview with Media Matters, Wintemute noted how auto deaths have been reduced thanks to a coordinated effort to change perception and behavior. “We used to blame the user and we used say bad drivers were the problem,” said Wintemute. “Then we learned we could modify the product and improve the roadways and we changed the consequences of bad driving. We could do the same thing with firearms.”
A new study from the Center for American Progress found that states with looser guns laws have a higher rate of gun violence. And the Harvard Injury Control Research Center has concluded, “where there are more guns there is more homicide.”
Gun manufacturers, taking their cues from the National Rifle Association's obstinancy, remain firmly opposed to attempts to regulate the industry in an effort to reduce deaths. “The firearm industry is where the auto industry was, which is fighting regulation tooth and nail,” said Wintemute.
It's that refusal, and the inability of legislators to pass tighter gun regulations, that explains why in 2015 firearm fatalities are expected, for the first time, to surpass auto deaths as the leading cause of non-medical deaths in America.
That, according to a recent analysis from Bloomberg:
While the gun debate in America often centers on the issue of crime, it is first and foremost a public safety issue. (As well as a very costly health care issue.) But it's a public safety problem that comes under very little government supervision.
The fact is that firearms remain the only consumer product in America not regulated by a federal agency for health and safety. The federal government has an entire agency dedicated to car safety (NHTSA), in part because approximately 35,000 Americans die each year from car accidents. Yet nearly the same number die from firearms and the government doesn't have a comparable regulatory structure in place.
Another difference between carmakers and gun manufacturers, and one that helps explain the latter's unwillingness to embrace regulation, is the fact that gun makers cannot be sued for negligence. Enacted in 2005, and passed at the urging of the NRA, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) “shields the gun industry even when it makes guns that are unnecessarily dangerous and sells them recklessly,” Time recently noted.
Prior to the law's passage, gun manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson were fearful of courtroom liability costs and moved to make their guns safer and easier for law enforcement to trace. But once PLCAA passed, gun manufacturers had less to fear.
In other words, there's no longer any motivation for firearm manufacturers to produce safer products or to sell them cautiously. “There's no incentive,” says Wintemute. “There's a moral incentive, but nothing else. There's no liability or threat of increased government regulation.” It was those twin forces that convinced automakers to finally embrace safety initiatives (anti-lock brakes, electronic stability, etc.), which in turned helped produce the dramatic decline in roadway fatalities.
At the same time, the government, including law enforcement, got busy unveiling more aggressive drunk driving campaigns ( “Booze It and Lose It” ), setting up more sobriety checkpoints, building safer roads, and mandating new state laws aimed at young drivers, awarding them graduated licenses only after they've gained experience behind the wheel.
The result, as noted above, was a huge reduction in auto-related deaths between 2005 and 2011.
As for guns, public safety experts say if firearm regulations were passed into law they would quickly decrease the number of gun deaths, just as they did with auto fatalities. The proposed regulations include full background checks for all firearm purchases, complete record keeping for every transactions, the creation of a gun offender registry, an expanded assault weapons ban, ammunition restrictions, and a ban on bulk purchases of handguns.
The gun lobby and its far-right media allies insist news laws and regulations won't reduce gun deaths in the U.S. But automakers have already demonstrated that's not true. Recent regulations have helped revolutionize consumer safety, and have saved thousands of lives.