It didn’t take long after people started reacting on social media to the news the at least 50 people were killed in an Orlando, Florida gay nightclub (and at least 53 were seriously injured) by a lone gunman before the arguing started. I made the mistake of sharing a comment about one very specific gun law that actually would have applied to this gunman’s purchase of the weapons used in the crime just a week or so ago, and commenting about who blocked the bill. And I was immediately accused of calling for the total ban of all guns everywhere, and reminded how badly prohibition worked with alcohol and drugs.
It’s a common argument. There are some problems with it. And those problems are most easily illustrated by looking at the topic of drunk driving. See, I’m old enough to remember when people actually argued that nothing at all could be done to reduce the number of deaths due to drunk driving. People have a fundamental right to imbibe alcohol, it was argued. People will find a way to get alcohol, look what happened during prohibition! The only person at fault is the “nut behind the wheel,” it was asserted, and no law is going to deter an irresponsible person! Just as no law or policy or other external force could prevent stupidity.
Editorials were written making the argument that while the traffic fatalities that resulted from the misuse of alcohol were tragic, no meaningful solution could be enacted—certainly not through the law!
I know, because I wrote one or two such editorials.
The first scientific paper drawing a connection between alcohol use and motor vehicle collisions was published way back in 1904 (it’s a little weird to realize that automobiles have been around that long). A much more rigorous study conducted in Sweden in 1932 is generally regarded as the first to definitively show that alcohol impaired drivers were more likely to have accidents leading to significant property damage, injury, or death than sober ones. But even as more studies piled up, the “nut behind the wheel” argument still prevented anything more than token laws that in many states treated driving while intoxicated about as severely as failure to use a turn signal.
In the mid-sixties several events managed to crack the public’s obstinance enough to recognize that automotive design and road design also significantly contributed to traffic fatalities. Congress created the National Highway Safety Bureau (later renamed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and gave it the mission to research the causes of highway fatalities and recommend solutions. Most of Congress and the public expected the Bureau only to bring back recommendations for safety regulations of the vehicles and roads, but the science made it clear that more would be required.
During the 70s, due to recommendations from the Bureau, a series of regulations were enacted improving both the safety of the cars and the roads. There was also a concerted effort to educate the public on two areas: seat belt use, and not driving after drinking. Various studies later found that the education campaigns alone didn’t have much effect. The improvements in vehicle construction and changes to road design did not reduce the number of fatalities annually, though the rate of fatalities as a percentage of total number of miles driven annually did go down. Population growth meant the more people were driving, therefore more miles total driven each year. Bottom line: the first decade of safety improvements had only a minimal effect.
Between 1982 and 1997 is when things took off. Congress made a lot of federal highway money dependent on states enacting more uniform laws about such things as the blood alcohol level that qualified as legally impaired, minimum age for legally purchasing alcohol, and bringing real penalties to bear for the drivers who were caught. Education and treatment programs were mandated, and regulations about the sale and serving of alcohol to individuals were enacted. All of these actions, along with activism and education campaigns from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, combined to do what the PSA campaigns of the 70s alone couldn’t do: the public’s attitude about drunk driving (as measured in surveys) changed, and (more importantly) the number of alcohol-related crash fatalities went down about 10% by 1990.
This prompted the non-profits and government agencies working on the issue to set a goal of reducing the number by another 20% by the year 2000—a goal we hit in 1997! Something that we said we couldn’t possibly do, and for all the same reasons that we are currently told are why absolutely nothing can be done about mass shootings and gun violence in America.
Is a total reduction of alcohol-related crash fatalities by 30% a complete elimination of the drunk driving problem? No. But if we could have fewer multiple-victim shootings next year instead of more, that would be a good start.
I am not proposing a ban on all gun sales. I never have. I’m a former NRA member, myself, for goodness sake! And no serious proposals I have seen have called for that, nor for anything even close to that. The big problem we have right now is that the moment any of us say anything about trying any of the measures which have already been demonstrated to work, people start howling at us about prohibition.
I was told yesterday that the 50 queer latinx lives snuffed out in Orlando yesterday were less important than the right of a dealer to sell an assault rifle to someone on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. I was told that me being angry about an industry lobbying group blocking even one reform bill that would have applied exactly to yesterday’s murder case was rude. I was told that pointing out that the NRA is more concerned with protecting the profits of the gun manufacturing industry than promoting responsible gun ownership was rude.
When I was challenged, I did get rude, yes. Fifty queer people were murdered yesterday in what was actually a quite preventable crime, and I’m not allowed to ask that maybe a measure supported by 90% of the population in the country should be given a try?
Fifty queer people were murdered, and yes, I’m taking it a little more personally than some of the earlier shootings. Maybe it’s a failing on my part that I didn’t get as angry before. But just because I’m taking it personally does not mean that I don’t have a point. We can tweak regulations and close loopholes without destroying freedom—we did it to reduce drunk driving, we can do it to reduce gun violence. Just because there isn’t a single, elegant solution doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything.
But we have to be allowed to actually try.