In his passionate response to the Oregon shooting last week, President Obama called on the American people to support stricter gun laws, contrasting the way we treat guns and the way we treat cars — both of which kill about 32,000 Americans every year. “When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seat belt laws because we know it saves lives,’’ he said. “So the notion that gun violence is somehow different . . . doesn’t make sense.”
After Volkswagen’s recent admission that it used illegal devices to cheat on emission testing of nearly 500,000 diesel vehicles in the United States, the company faces fines as high as $18 billion, along with the prospect of expensive recalls, class action lawsuits and criminal charges.
But while the impact of automobiles on public health and safety is closely regulated, astonishingly, the firearms that are used to kill Americans are not subject to any such government oversight.
Why the difference in approach?
In October 2005 a Republican-led Congress passed a law that largely exempts guns from federal consumer-safety laws, and provides immunity for gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits. The bill was intended to block lawsuits by individuals and municipalities seeking to hold gun manufacturers and dealers liable for negligence when their weapons were used in crimes.
Dennis Henigan, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that the statute was “literally unprecedented in American history, because it is the first time that the federal government will be stepping in and retroactively depriving injured people of their vested legal rights under state law.”
Not only are firearm manufacturers protected from liability, they are also (unlike automobile manufacturers) shielded from the production of new evidence about the harmful impact firearms impose on society. That’s because the Centers for Disease Control has been effectively barred, since 1996, from funding research into the causes of firearm-related deaths after Republican Representative Jay Dickey stripped from the CDC budget the $2.6 million allotted for gun research the previous year. As the law now states: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Comparable admonitions against generating data from research that might be used to promote smoking cessation or avoidance of unhealthy diets are nowhere to be found.
The weakness of firearm legislation stands in stark contrast to the tightening of regulations related to auto safety and environmental pollution. As a result, whereas hundreds of thousands of automobiles deaths have been averted, the same public health success cannot be claimed for deaths due to guns.
The turning point was the federal Clean Air Act of 1970 — introduced by Republican President Richard Nixon. Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, estimates that the Clean Air Act has averted tens of thousands of premature deaths. On average, he says, people living in the most heavily polluted areas “can expect to live an additional 1.6 years, for a total gain of more than 336 million life-years.”
The Clean Air Act succeeded because it took a systematic and scientific approach to the impact of the activities of private actors (from auto owners to power station operators) on the health of their fellow citizens. The force of the law was then used to ensure that these externalities were borne by the companies contributing to the problem. A similar public health approach to reducing crash-related transportation fatalities has, over the past half century, led to empirically informed life-saving improvements in road safety and car design, such as the rumble strips that alert drivers when they are veering outside the lane, and mandatory air bags. As a result, today the number of Americans killed in vehicle accidents, per mile driven, is 25 percent of what it was in 1970.
The stunning success in reducing automobile-related fatalities is attributable to a regulatory system that has emphasized prevention. The same approach should be applied to gun control.
Firearm manufacturers can help reduce gun accidents if they stop making guns that can go off when dropped and guns that fire when the clip is removed but a bullet remains hidden in the chamber. Just as automobile manufacturers make personalized radios that will not work if stolen from a vehicle, so too it would be easy to make it harder for criminals to steal and resell guns by introducing personalized identification systems. Many firearms are currently obtained without a background check. Universal background checks are the rule in virtually every other developed nation and should be required for all gun transfers in the United States as well (approximately 40 percent of all gun transfers today occur without a background check). Other regulations supported by a majority of Americans, such as a ban on high capacity magazines, whose sole purpose is to kill many people in as a short a time as possible, could be adopted as well.
Gun manufacturers could easily do more to address the problem of deaths resulting from accidents and crimes involving their products, but, like manufacturers of most commodities, won’t do so unless new nonvoluntary standards emerge.
Firearm violence is a public health crisis no less serious than those associated with automobiles. Our experience with autos and pollution shows that, along with other measures, sensible gun regulations could save lives.
Let’s learn from the Clean Air Act and the Volkswagen scandal, and work toward sensible gun regulation.
Jennifer Tucker is associate professor of history and college of the environment at Wesleyan University. Matthew Miller is professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University and codirector of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.