Mary Vriniotis: Woman shot dead in apparent road rage incident. Research shows having guns in cars spurs aggression
She says shooting gives lie to adage "a polite society is an armed society." Gun policies should reflect this
Editor’s Note: Mary Vriniotis is a researcher at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. She has more than a decade of experience researching and writing about the prevention of firearms-related violence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The death of 44-year-old mother of four Tammy Meyers in Las Vegas on Valentine’s Day after an apparent road rage incident is the latest tragedy to challenge the adage: “An armed society is a polite society.” Meyers was driving home after giving her daughter a driving lesson when she exchanged words with another driver, who was apparently annoyed she was only driving the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
Armed, that driver allegedly followed her home, where police say Meyer’s son confronted the other driver with his own gun and, reports indicate, opened fire upon seeing the driver’s gun. The driver also fired, authorities said. Now, Meyers is dead and the other driver is still at large.
According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, 66% of traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving. Over one-third (37%) of aggressive driving incidents involve a firearm, according to research for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Research also indicates that aggressive or risky drivers are more likely than safer drivers to: be young and male, have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, have received driving citations (for moving and non-moving violations), score higher on measures of aggression and psychiatric morbidity, use illicit drugs, drive more miles per day, drive in denser traffic more often, abuse alcohol, have higher levels of stress, and be more likely to attribute blame to other drivers.
They are also more likely to carry firearms in their car.
Of course, not all gun owners are alike, just as not all drivers are. But if the gun owners who drive with a gun are more likely to drive aggressively than those without a gun in the car (gun owners or not), the risk rises not only that a road rage incident will occur, but that it will become lethal. Many studies have found that where there are more guns, there are more deaths – not fewer. Ample research also documents that the mere presence of a weapon can intensify aggression.
One study compared responses to a pickup driver stalled at a light for 12 seconds. When the truck sported a military rifle in the rear window, other drivers honked more quickly and more often at the driver than they did if no firearm was visible. This so-called weapons effect counters the “polite society” argument, showing that weapons provoke visceral responses that increase aggression.
The ramifications extend beyond road rage. More and more traditionally “gun free” zones, such as universities and even state capitols, are passing laws permitting carrying a concealed firearm on their premises. While the relationship between gun carrying and crime has historically been difficult to document, the most recent available research links carrying to increased crime.
The public health approach to violence prevention is to identify opportunities to reduce violence at multiple levels – individual, family/peer, community, and societal. We can help angry drivers learn techniques to calm themselves down. We can encourage their families and friends not to ride with angry loved ones.
We can also consider whether aggressive drivers should be prohibited from carrying guns in the car.
As a society, without violating the Second Amendment, we have placed limits on who can buy, own, and carry guns; in the wake of Tammy Meyers’ death, should we also consider whether limiting who can drive and carry weapons makes sense too?
The complex relationship between guns and cars needs more study so gun policy can be based on the best possible evidence. We know too little about the risks and benefits of gun ownership generally, much less about guns and cars in particular, and perhaps we’ll never know more about the impact of guns on society if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not resume funding research in this area.
But if an armed society truly was a polite society, road rage would not involve guns, and the United States would not have the industrialized world’s highest homicide rate. Instead, Tammy Meyers’ children have lost their mother. So much for guns putting everyone on their best behavior.