The March for Our Lives went within shouting distance of my apartment last weekend, and as the topic has filled the news cycles I keep noticing how the technological parallels between guns and cars pop up in conversation.
For one thing, there are the slippery slopes:
"If you ban guns, why not ban cars too?"
"OK with me!"
More seriously, in a recent episode of the Reveal radio show about gun reform, a reporter make a comparison more explicitly. They asked whether gun reform could follow a similarly "successful" path as auto safety efforts.
Here's the description:
Reveal’s Stan Alcorn looks at another public safety threat that used to be responsible for more deaths each year than guns: automobiles. While gun deaths have remained about the same for decades, car deaths have declined dramatically. That decrease began when the government started collecting data on car accidents and passing it on to carmakers, which used it to design safer cars. Public safety advocates say what happened with cars could serve as a model for reducing gun deaths.
I had a few thoughts pop into my head while listening to this, and wanted to quickly share them.
The Car Safety Track Record
kill about the same number of Americans, and if you add in public health problems linked to driving (i.e. not walking), cars are still the worse technology!
(At least owning a gun doesn't make you horribly unhealthy. Not physically, anyway... )
Even with the safety improvements of the mid-century, American car culture remains a fast track to the early grave. We shouldn't be touting our car-dependent society as any kind of success story, and there's a long way to go if we want to solve the public health crisis caused by driving and traffic crashes. In fact, with the addition of cell phones into the car-driver mix, those problems are quickly getting worse.
The Agency Problem
One of the tropes of the gun debate is the well-known phrase "guns don't kill people, people kill people."
That line of logic is interesting in compared to how we treat the car. In both cases, the technology forms a complex relationship that challenges the notion of fundamental human agency. Both examples bring into focus the distributed agency of the technological social structures that surround our human selves.
In other words, with guns, some people collectively adopt an an anthropocentric worldview that places humans as the fundamental (and often, the only) actor in the technological relationship. We pretend that guns are a passive technology, and the problem lies with individual human brains, connected to individual itchy trigger fingers. Therefore, solving "gun violence" should focus on things like mental health or policing.
(Never mind the thousands of cases of guns "accidentally" going off and killing people, or many situations where the gun-using human is not mentally fit to make decisions, as is the case with children.)
Meanwhile, in the world of cars, human agency is almost always stripped away. When faced with car violence, "I didn't see you there," or "it was an accident" are everyday utterances and entirely defensible within our deadly social and legal system. Except in extreme cases of intentional impairment -- the most common by far being drunk driving -- humans are never held responsible for the violence and death that they cause. The difference in these two cases between our social norms is striking to me, and the wonderful Andy Singer cartoon illustrates it neatly.
However, I believe both cars and guns offer the exact same type of human-machine relationship, and should be treated in similar manners. Each time you drive a car, it is as if you are waving around a loaded gun on a crowded city street. In both cases, the machines wield a real agency over our lives.
Distribution of Cars vs. Guns
|[% of US household ownership: guns on top, cars on bottom.]|
While on the one hand, and bizarrely to me, there are a similar number of cars and guns in the United States. We have something like 265 million cars in this country and something like 300 million guns. In both cases, it's a bit less than one per person.
There are even relatively comparable percentage rates: for guns, it's around 40% of US households, and for cars it's 90%.
On the other hand, a big difference emerges around everyday social usage. The stat I've been seeing recently is that "three percent of the population own half of the American guns," for example. With cars, that would be far more evenly distributed.
And that collective acceptance holds for how guns and cars appear in our everyday lives. For example, unless you are in rural Wyoming, the social normalization of guns is extremely small in most US cities. I can't remember the last time I saw someone with a gun in public who wasn't a police officer, thank goodness, whereas I can't go for more than a minute without seeing or hearing a car driving the streets of Saint Paul.
Conclusion: More Similar than Different IMO
When it comes to guns and cars, I see both of problems having more similarities than differences. Both are technological challenges with huge public health risks. Both challenge our traditional "personal responsibility" assumptions about human agency. Both are structural issues that the US desperately needs to tackle if we want to improve our quality of life.
Maybe someday we will have marches to end car violence, where millions of people take to the streets to end the everyday normalization of car violence in our lives. Because car violence happens in a less focused way, with many many small deaths and violent incidents instead dramatic attention-grabbing moments, a movement like that is a difficult thing to imagine. And yet, a movement like that happened in Amsterdam in the early 1970s, and it really changed things in that city. At least at the local level, I do think there's hope for car reform.
|[A "march for our children's lives", only aimed against cars, in Amsterdam, 1973.]|