Sunday, May 05, 2013

Guns Vs. Cars

Firearms and automobiles are, obviously enough, different varieties of device.  One is made to kill, the other to transport.  It is important to keep this teleological distinction clear in our minds, because the discussion that follows may tend to muddy it up a bit.

A few weeks ago, we mentioned stumbling across some writing by a gun enthusiast which misrepresented official data concerning the number of deaths caused by firearms each year.  We've found another example here, unsurprisingly, at  A guy named Awr Hawkins writes that

According to the federal government, the number of people killed in automobile-related deaths annually is approximately three times higher than the number of people killed by all gun-related deaths combined -- handgun, shotgun, and rifle.
Yet there is, to my knowledge, no concerted effort to ban automobiles. 

Wow.  Zinger, right? We first came across this claim not in Hawkins' original piece, but in an online exchange with somebody who had clearly read this, or read something like it.  Our interlocutor -- let's call him Skippy -- argued that "America pays too much attention to gun deaths, when drunk drivers kill so many more people."

It's a strange argument, when you think about it, like saying that we worry about Al Qaeda when cigarettes are so deadly.  But set that aside for a moment.  The real question is whether cars really do kill three times as many people as guns.

They don't.

Legit numbers can be had from three sources:  the FBI, the CDC, and the Century Council.   They vary from year to year, although the general outlines remain consistent.  And here is what, for example, 2010 looked like:
Firearms deaths:              31,672 (10.3/100,000)
Motor vehicle traffic deaths: 33,687 (10.9/100,000)
Basically, guns and cars kill the same number of Americans most years, although cars are indeed a little bit ahead.  So where does Hawkins get his "three times the number"?  Easy:  he's talking about homicides, which represent a quarter to a third of all gun deaths.  But, conveniently enough, DUI deaths represent about a third of all motor vehicle deaths.  Voila, 2010 again:
Firearms homicides:  8,874
DUI deaths:         10,228
So it is absolutely true that cars kill more people than guns, and DUI accidents kill more people than gun murders.  But the numbers are fairly close, meaning that these are comparable threats to public safety.

Now, when we pushed him on the numbers, Skippy claimed that "most of these gun deaths are suicide," which is another half-truth.  Guns are used for suicide more often than they are used for homicide -- in 2010, there were 19,392 firearms suicides in the US.  That's colossal and terrifying, and deserves all the attention we can give it.  But, obviously, the numbers we have compared above don't include suicide.  Year in and year out, over the last few years, guns and cars have killed almost the same number of people, as have gun murders and DUI crashes.

But there is one enormous difference.  Since 1980, the number of drunk-driving deaths has dropped by 52%.  The  number of gun murders has dropped by about 10%, depending on the year.

When Skippy said that "we don't pay enough attention to drunk driving," he may have been forgetting that, for the past thirty years, Americans have put enormous energy into the campaign against drunk driving.  Think about the hundreds of PSAs and billboards you have seen -- the wine glasses smashing into each other, the reminder that "friends don't let friends," and so forth.  Add to that the lectures in school, and the stern warnings required by most states as part of the licensing process.  Add to that the random stops instituted by some jurisdictions, at least on holidays.  Add to that the invention of the breathalyzer.

On top of all that, of course, is the fact that automobiles are regulated in a way that guns are not.  Both cars and drivers are examined and licensed.  Changes of ownership are carefully tracked.  These are things that the gun lobby is reluctant even to let legislators consider.  Safety belts and airbags are required by law, where mandatory trigger locks remain deeply controversial and the idea that every handgun owner should also be required to posses a biometric gun safe will no doubt be dismissed as "Nanny- State Thinking."

The weak link in the chain seems to be judges, who are still reluctant to take a drunk driver's license away permanently.  Nonetheless, 52% is a big drop.

As a society, we have put a lot of pressure on the drunk driving problem, and we have seen remarkable results.  Now it is time to put the same sort of pressure on the problem of gun violence.


Daniel Rinehart said...

This is awesome: my sentiments exactly. (I'm glad there are some numbers to back them up!)

The following sentence looks like it contains a typo:

"So it is absolutely true that guns kill more people than cars, and DUI accidents kill more people than gun murders."

The numbers show that cars kill more people than guns (although on the same order of magnitude), right?

It seems like in much of today's America, use of a car is much more necessary to human flourishing than use of a firearm. It seems odd that use of cars should be so much more heavily regulated than use of firearms.

Father Anonymous said...

Thanks -- typo fixed.

The truth is that I'm reluctant to push the guns/cars comparison too far, because they are meant to do such different things. But, yes, a car is a necessity for the average non-New Yorker, and a gun is luxury for all but a few subsistence hunters and security/law enforcement professionals. So why is the necessity regulated in ways that the luxury isn't?