Today, I’m going to talk about guns and gun regulation (I’m not going to use the phrase “gun control,” because, Lord knows, I don’t need people losing their shit, thinking that I’m advocating some sort of Big Brother dystopic fantasy of government officials bursting into your home and forcing us all to only eat Raisin Bran for breakfast from now on. Chill the fuck out, guy I knew in high school, and just listen to me first).

But first, I’m going to talk about cars.

Cars have a fascinating history of government regulation. As early as 1904, the city of Detroit had set the legal driving age to 16 for its municipality and required all vehicles be registered with the city as well (for a $1 “wheel fee”). Detroit, naturally, was an example for vehicle regulation in the country, and soon the requirement for registration, as well as age limits on drivers, had spread to all 50 states.

By 1910, with the popularity of vehicle sales increasing in the United States, the number of vehicle related fatalities was soaring (New York Times, 1907), and people started raising a stink about the dangers of unqualified drivers operating ever-faster vehicles on roads that were still regularly peppered with pedestrians, carriages, and bicycles. By 1913, states started requiring all potential drivers to take licensing tests, and (based on the already-established European model) set the age for vehicle operation to 16 or 17 years old.

Car manufacturers continued to develop cars that were more affordable, but also faster, and highway and traffic administrators began taking notice as they charted the numbers of injuries and fatalities on American roads. In the late 1960s, the precursor to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was developed. They analyzed the data (collected since 1950), and promptly began multiple campaigns to increase driver and passenger safety for the ever-changing car market. By 1979, NHTSA was crash testing popular vehicles and publishing the results, making recommendations based on the safety of the cars they tested. This led to the seatbelt campaigns of the 1980s, which saw the implementation of mandated seatbelt usage in 49 states (New Hampshire remains the one hold out. What the hell’s wrong with you, New Hampshire??). Then, in 1986, NHTSA required all car manufacturers include a third brake light. More recently, in 2009, NHTSA required all vehicles included roll cages that could withstand up to 3x the vehicle’s weight.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, driver’s licensing tests became more rigorous, and individuals seeking licenses started going through months-long processes in order to be considered eligible for full licensing privileges. Whereas the age of qualified drivers varies slightly from state-to-state (South Dakota lets kids as young as 14 take driver’s education), by and large, a driver must be at least 16 years of age. Starting in the 1990s, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have established Graduated Driver’s Licensing (GDL) processes (though Louisiana began certain restrictions as far back as 1983), which force new drivers to go through a 3-stage permit process, limiting such things as passenger ages (new drivers must have an adult present) and time of driving (nighttime driving is restricted).

The automotive/driving industry in the United States is truly one of the most regulated, policed, and legally enforced privileges qualified citizens enjoy in America today.

And you know what?

It fucking works.

Automotive fatalities are at an all-time low. Every single time NHTSA required a new set of safety standards, the numbers of injuries and fatalities in America significantly, visibly dipped. GDLs have reduced young and inexperienced driver fatalities by 30%. Seat belt legislation has saved over 10,000 lives. Safety glass alone has saved probably hundreds of thousands of lives since its invention during World War I. Vehicle fatalities are at their lowest recorded percentage since 1973, and that’s even with an astronomical increase in cars on the road. (Interesting tidbit: 2008-2009 saw an increase in vehicle fatalities for the first time in 40 years. Concerned, NHTSA investigated the cause, and discovered that distracted driving was the likeliest culprit of the spike in deaths. They started a huge campaign, encouraging especially young drivers to stop texting while driving, asked individual states to consider putting laws in the books limiting cell phone use in the car, worked with cell phone companies to devise apps that would disable certain cell phone features while a driver was in the car, and managed to drop those deaths right back down again. NHTSA ain’t no joke, man!)

What is truly remarkable about the regulatory history of the automotive industry is not only how well it has worked in the last 100 years to increase the safety of drivers, passengers, and pedestrians, but how even these “big government” interventions have not squelched the feelings of freedom and liberty associated with the American automotive. Driving remains a quintessentially American pastime. It represents freedom, escape, liberation, rebelliousness. Americans are drivers. We have the biggest, best roads in the world, and we use the hell out of them.

My first car was a ’95 Chevy Cavalier. It was so stripped down, it didn’t even have a cassette player. The windshield wipers would stop working occasionally—often halfway through a heavy downpour—and the oil pressure gauge was broken, so I had to keep a stash of old rags in the trunk, pull over, and check the oil level any time the light would turn on. It didn’t have air conditioning, cruise control, power windows or locks, and it only had one cup holder. But that car was freedom. And, trust me, I didn’t feel any less free, any less American, because I had to pay insurance on it, or wear a seatbelt, or could only drive to the mall if my dad was sitting next to me. I was still an American kid in a car.

Now, that’s not to say that there haven’t been a ton of people who argue that our vehicular freedoms have been compromised. There have, and there are. We all know that one “uncle” who, while cracking open his fifth Natty Light after Thanksgiving dinner, has to chuckle and scoff, “Seatbelts?? Hell! You’re better off just getting thrown from the car!” (You’re not. Not in any sense. Not in any way. NHTSA states: “Most crash fatalities result from the force of impact or from being thrown from the vehicle, not from being trapped. All studies show you are much more likely to survive a crash if you are buckled in. Ejected occupants are four times as likely to be killed as those who remain inside.” All studies. All. Regardless of age. Regardless of gender. Just shut up and wear your damn seatbelt already, okay, Uncle Vick?)

And even as far back as 1904, when the city of Detroit mandated vehicle registration, Henry Ford and Horace Dodge sued Detroit, claiming the new laws were unconstitutional, infringing upon the vehicle owners’ rights. Ford and Dodge argued brilliantly, bringing in the best legal minds. They campaigned and publicized with all the impressive force of their incredible wealth, whipping the public into fervent support of their cause.

Then? They lost.

Because rational minds prevailed. Because the collective populace took a look at cars and said, “Hey, these things are becoming really easy to get. They’re everywhere. And they’re awesome. But they’re also potentially really, really dangerous. And when something goes wrong with one of these things, it’s usually not just one person who gets hurt, or just one person who’s inconvenienced. So, yeah. Let’s regulate these things. Because we can all recognize that a general public safety is perhaps more important than this false definition of ‘freedom’ that is being manufactured by those who oppose legislation.”

If we take the history of vehicle regulation in the United States as a good example for how to control the safety of an American “right,” then I think that we need to consider several key aspects to its success, and then apply these same principles to gun legislation:

  1. Research. NHTSA’s effectiveness as a government agency comes primarily from the free reign the United States’ government has given it concerning research and development. They are privy to all injury and fatality information throughout the country. They work with automotive manufacturers, are present at crash tests, and are given copies of the data. They look at the information provided, analyze it, and reach logical conclusions based on the information before them. (Take the example of texting and driving I mentioned above. NHTSA knew that nothing had happened on the manufacturing side to create a spike in young driver fatalities, so they concluded that the cause must have been driver-error. That’s some good data analysis right there!)
  2. Enforcement. Police and highway patrol aren’t the only ones looking out for vehicular safety. The American automotive industry has always been highly competitive, and has responded to this competition by making safety one of its primary concerns. In an effort to be seen as a caring company, many American manufacturers (and foreign manufacturers with a manufacturing or R&D presence in America) emphasize their safety features alongside power and speed. (Of course, though, such enforcement is really circular. Customers demand safety from car manufacturers just as much as any regulating body does.)
  3. Publicity. Commercials, billboards, YouTube videos, social media experiments. They work. They spread the word, and have been shown to be highly effective. Though we might mock certain commercials for being cheesy, or trying too hard, study after study has shown that getting a message out works. Even if it’s doomed to become a late night comedian’s tagline. “Click it or Ticket.” “Txt Ltr.” “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” We all recognize them, and that’s a good thing.
  4. Unpopularity. In 1904, when Henry Ford and Horace Dodge sued Detroit, they had the popular vote on their side. People were furious about having to pay an additional $1 to register their car. They considered it double taxation. Ford and Dodge had all of the support they needed to win and to make vehicle registration illegal and unconstitutional. But they didn’t. Because someone was willing to be unpopular. Because someone was willing to sacrifice political safety for public safety. Americans don’t like being told what to do, especially by authority figures. But I, for one, really like knowing that sometimes, when smart people are brave, the American populace can be pulled, kicking, screaming, and clutching that last can of Natty Light, right onto the right side of history.

But it’s only when smart people are brave.

Be brave, America.

I am not anti- individual ownership of firearms. I am not pro- nobody gets a weapon. This is not an all-or-nothing post. This is a post about being the right kind of brave.

Research. Enforcement. Publicity. Unpopularity.

We don’t have to keep seeing these headlines. We don’t have to keep hearing about the deaths. About the fear. We can be brave.

Research. Enforcement. Publicity. Unpopularity.

Only then will we ever be fully armed against these shootings.

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