Guns Are Dangerous, Like Autos Why Not Regulate, Like Autos?


The absence of any capacity to regulate guns in the US is increasingly apparent. There are almost daily reports of politically motivated and/or mentally deranged individuals obtaining guns and going on shooting sprees. What to do? Since the US background checks system is full of holes. It is time to consider alternatives. We start by looking at how other leading killers are regulated.

The Killers

In an earlier piece, I identified the most important but preventable US killers as alcohol, tobacco, and obesity. The deaths and DALYs[1] from these sources are given in Table 1.

Table 1. – Selected Deaths and DALYs from “Killers”

Sources: Harvard School of Public Health and World Health Organization

The DALYs share for the US has not been calculated but is much larger than the global total: 74% of Americans are overweight and 36% are obese – much higher numbers than for the world or other developed nations. In comparison, auto and gun deaths in 2013 were much lower at 33,804 and 33,636, respectively. So what do we do to regulate these non-gun killers? And might some combination of these methods work for guns?

Given the large numbers of deaths from these killers, it is remarkable how little is done to regulate their use. There are age limits on who can purchase cigarettes, alcohol, autos and guns. In addition, cigarettes are heavily taxed and alcohol somewhat less with restrictions on where cigarettes can be smoked and alcohol drunk (part of the popularity of gambling casinos is they allow customers to smoke and drink in public).

Light regulation is attributable in part to lessons learned from Prohibition when alcoholic beverages were outlawed. It became that whenever there is a significant market for a product in the US it will be filled. For legal items, it will be filled by legal vendors. For banned goods, criminals will be the suppliers. Outright US bans exist for the purchase of certain drugs. And not surprisingly as I noted in an earlier piece, these have proven almost completely ineffective (the UN has found that in the US, the number of prescription overdose deaths exceeds the number of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine deaths combined).

In considering regulation for the five killers, a couple of distinctions are worth noting. In the US, individual freedoms are highly valued. That means if someone chooses to smoke, drink or eat to excess, it is tolerated so long as others are not injured. However, citizens are concerned about second-hand smoke and intoxicated drivers. And shortly, I believe citizens will become concerned as information on the jump in medical care costs resulting from the US obesity epidemic becomes widespread.

Both automobiles and guns are killers of innocent people.  Automobiles kill but are seen as a necessity for basic transport. But how we regulate them might be worth considering for guns.

Why All the Concern Over Shooting Deaths?

According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, there have been 203 mass shooting incidents in 2015 through July 20th resulting in 259 deaths and 744 injuries. It is easy to remember – on average, it works out to one mass shooting per day. Schools have been particularly popular vistas for such sprees. Between 2000 and 2009, there were 92 shot to death and 118 injured in 50 school shooting incidents. Since 2009, the frequency of school incidents has increased: from January of 2010 through May 24 of 2015, there have been 289 deaths and 378 injured in 110 events.

And US citizens have amply demonstrated that guns are far too dangerous for most of them to manage. Examples from the last few months:

  • A 3-year-old boy shot his father and pregnant mother inside a hotel room in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • A 29-year-old mother was fatally in an Idaho Wal-Mart when her 2-year-old son in the shopping cart grabbed a gun that was in her purse and shot her in an apparent accident.
  • A gun instructor was accidentally shot to death as he instructed a 9-year-old girl on how to fire a 9mm submachine gun. I guess the parents, who taped the incident, felt it was important for their daughter to learn how to shoot an automatic weapon before the age of 10.
  • A security officer was cleaning his gun when it discharged and shot his one-year old daughter.

What Needs to Be Done?

1. Repeal the Second Amendment of the US Constitution

 It says: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Nonsense. This amendment is completely outdated and irrelevant in today’s world. We no longer need or have a civilian “well regulated militia.” Instead, we have an active, fulltime professional well regulated militia with 1.4 million soldiers costing $600 billion annually.

And what if this right to “bear arms” infringed on the rights of others? The Declaration of Independence talks of the inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?” And the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution does offer protections to “life, liberty, or property.” Being shot most definitely impinges on one’s right to life.

2. Apply Auto Regulations to Guns

US regulations for autos have proven workable. They should be tried for guns. They require a concession the National Rifle Association (NRA) is unwilling to make: that like autos, owning/using a gun is a privilege and not a right. Once we get the 2nd Amendment “baggage” behind us, it is obvious that owning a gun should be seen as a privilege and not a right.

What are the regulations for auto owners/users?

  • They must be trained, tested and licensed to drive.
  • Motor vehicles must be registered.
  • Driving records are kept in a database that police can access online at any time.

Such regulations seem eminently reasonable and applicable to gun owners/users. Now, you might say how would this system be better than the current background check regime? First, all states would be required to be in compliance and include all past gun incidents in their reports. And those reports would be available country-wide to police and other government officials running the program. Second, it would not be perfect from the outset, but requiring strict compliance in all states would improve it over time. Third, from the outset, it would be superior to what is now in place – a patchwork of laws without a national registry.

There is one more extremely important auto regulatory requirement: all cars must be insured. Again, it would seem quite reasonable to require guns to be insured, at least for liabilities. Would the insurance companies be willing to offer such insurance? Of course, they would love the new business. And they have plenty of data to make sound estimates of appropriate fees.

Of course, having to insure guns would add to their costs. Good. Fewer people would want guns. And that would mean fewer gun mishaps.

Reasons Why Not

It would appear to be quite sensible to regulate guns as we regulate autos and their drivers. But let’s consider the arguments against doing it.

  1. Regulating guns like autos won’t solve the problem that there are now 300 million guns in the US and criminals will always have access. Whenever any suggestion to curb guns is brought up, we here this. My response: guns are a huge problem in the US and you have to start somewhere. The steps proposed above are a good starting point.
  2. People, not guns are to blame. Lame. Guns make potential killers far more efficient at killing.
  3. Self defense: whenever there is a mass shooting, the NRA is quick to point out that if the victims were armed, it would have been a different story. An NRA member recently made this point about the South Carolina shooting: “Eight of his church members…might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church….”

Claims that guns are used defensively millions times every year have been widely discredited.  Using a gun in self-defense is no more likely to reduce the chance of being injured during a crime than various other forms of protective action. At least one study has found that carrying a firearm significantly increases a person’s risk of being shot in an assault; research published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that, even after adjusting for confounding factors, individuals who were in possession of a gun were about 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession.[2]

  1. Finally, we get to hunters, a rapidly declining breed. They claim to be law abiding citizens who know how to use guns. In actual fact, “hunters” are increasingly “hunting” from the back of pickup trucks (illegal) with plenty of booze on hand. Guns are dangerous as demonstrated by the fact that a few years back, Vice President Cheney shot and seriously injured another hunter. But if guns were regulated like autos, hunters would still be able to hunt.


In light of the ineffective regulation of guns, this piece reviewed how leading preventable killers are regulated. The conclusion was that regulating guns as motor vehicle use is now regulated would be a marked improvement. I close with the following story:

Recently, a Florida man was arrested and charged with aggravated assault on his girlfriend. That arrest was the third domestic violence incident the man has been involved in during just the last 18 months and the fourth time during that period police have been called because of violent or threatening behavior. He also allegedly threatened to kill another driver during a road rage incident late last summer. Years earlier, the man was arrested for assaulting a police officer and was the subject of a temporary restraining order for another domestic violence incident. This man did one other thing: he shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin. He still has a legal concealed weapons permit.

The system is broken.

[1] The Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) “harm” statistic has been developed by the World Health Organization to measure years lost both because of a premature mortality and years lost due to time lived in less than full health.

[2] Charles C. Branas, et al, Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault, 99 Am. J. Pub. Health 2034 (Nov. 2009)

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