Editor’s Note: Michael E. Webber is a professor of mechanical engineering who studies energy and transportation at The University of Texas at Austin. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
As yet another shocking school shooting leads to predictable political debates, it seems like gun violence is a problem Americans will never solve. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Gun safety is not a threat to the Second Amendment, and there is a road forward we can take that’s tried and true.
We need to look at the successful history of improving transportation safety as a model. Transportation used to be a major killer. More than 50,000 people died annually in the United States in the 1970s from motor vehicle accidents, and it seemed like there was no solution. But society stepped up, and the results have been dramatic: Deaths are down 20% since 1980 even though the population has grown by 100 million people and Americans are driving twice as many miles, up from 1.5 to 3 trillion vehicle miles annually. Of course, deaths in motor vehicle accidents are still a huge problem, but many thousands more Americans might have died without improvements to transportation safety.
The solution to progress was to transcend political entrenchment and tackle road safety with every tool imaginable.
Research yielded concrete tools to make cars safer: anti-lock brakes, collapsible steering columns, airbags, tempered glass and better seat belts. Local, state and federal governments made roads safer with better paving, striping, guardrails, signage and reflectors. Medical procedures and technologies have improved as well. Injuries that would have been fatal decades ago are now more treatable.
The most important contribution came from a combination of cultural change and implemented regulations that made drivers safer. With economic pressure from insurance companies and the threat of withheld federal dollars for highways, states were looking for ways to change. States more consistently implemented seat belt laws and comprehensive driver’s education, reducing the risks of death from accidents and preparing drivers for the responsibility of managing a vehicle that has the capability to kill.
Families made the final difference. A cohort of well-organized and angry mothers tired of losing their children in accidents caused by drunken drivers elevated the issue into our cultural lexicon as a moral necessity. When MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, mobilized to toughen laws about driving under the influence, our politicians took action. States passed laws targeting drunken driving, establishing firm limits for blood alcohol content and conducting Breathalyzer tests. A public information campaign taught the importance of driving sober, and cultural pressure helped create the concept of a designated driver.
Now that transportation is safer, gun violence (including suicides) is as big a killer nationally as automobile accidents. But what happened years ago with transportation offers the blueprint for how to reduce gun violence.
Much of the politicized argument about gun safety hinges on the Second Amendment. But there is more to the story. Just as we sought to make cars safer, we should make guns safer. Just as we sought to make drivers safer, we should make gun owners safer, with comprehensive gun safety education, universal background checks and age limits for purchases. Fingerprint scanners or other technology can restrict a gun’s usage to its proper owner. Guns can be made safer with elements that limit the number of rounds fired per second. And, just as drivers who cannot operate a car safely shouldn’t drive, shooters who cannot operate a gun safely shouldn’t shoot. Imagine incorporating technologies that disable the gun’s function if a shooter is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
All these actions can be taken without running afoul of the Second Amendment. Just as the right to vote comes with certain requirements — voters have to be 18 years old, a citizen and registered — so, too, could the right to bear arms include better registration, stricter age requirements and other measures. Even the First Amendment’s right to free speech has reasonable limits against speech that harms or unnecessarily puts people at risk, such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
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A notable missing ingredient in today’s conversation is a well-organized coalition that will shift our mindset. This time, instead of angry mothers, perhaps the source of change will come from the schoolkids themselves. High school students who survived the attack in Florida are speaking with more moral clarity and forcefulness than the politicians who represent them. We should look to them and their savvy with modern social media-based organizing tools to force a national conversation about gun safety the way MADD did decades ago.
Just like auto deaths were decades ago, gun violence is scary, expensive and traumatic. But change didn’t happen overnight and it won’t in this instance either. As we have learned, we can solve this if we approach it systematically and try every possible solution. Because it takes years to gain traction, we should get started.