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Debunking the NRA's Utterly and Provably False Claim that New Gun Laws Won't Save Lives

With gun deaths set to exceed auto deaths, it's useful to take a look at how regulating the auto industry saved lives.


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 argumen 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."

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