Would a NHTSA, but for Gun Safety Work?

Creative Commons photo.

In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, I’ve been writing extensively about the gun issue here, here, and here. The main goal of mine being: How do we stop these types of public mass shootings? In trying to find an answer, I’ve obviously been turning to arguments made in favor of gun control and gun safety — arguments that certain measures would prevent these public mass shootings.

One of the most bizarre ones I came across this morning, I have to say, came from the editors of Scientific American magazine in an editorial. The editors write:

In the U.S., we have existing infrastructure that we could easily emulate to make gun use safer: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Created by Congress in 1970, this federal agency is tasked, among other things, with helping us drive a car safely. It gathers data on automobile deaths. It’s the agency that monitors and studies seat belt usage. While we track firearm-related deaths, no such safety-driven agency exists for gun use.

I find that argument peculiar because I’m not sure I would point to the NHTSA as a model to emulate, given how many Americans annually die on American streets.

In fact, earlier this month, the NHTSA released its early estimates of traffic fatalities for 2021, and projected 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes, a 10.5 increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020. That projection, if it holds, is the highest number of fatalities since 2005, and the largest annual percentage increase in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System’s history, according to the NHTSA. The latter statistical point isn’t as startling as it might seem: After all, far fewer Americans were driving in 2020 compared to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good news is that the average vehicle today is much, much safer than it was in the 1950s. In other words, if you do happen to get into an accident, your chances of survival are much better than if you got into the same crash in the 1950s. The NHTSA estimates that average vehicle on the road in 2012 would have an estimated 56 percent lower fatality risk for its occupants than the average vehicle on the road in the late 1950s. They further estimate that vehicle safety developments helped raise the annual number of lives saved from 115 in 1960 to 27,621 in 2012.

That’s pretty staggering! Imagine if on top of that 42,915 fatality number last year, we added about 27,000. But it’s also staggering to think that even with those vehicle improvements, we’re still seeing such high fatality numbers.

However, how much of that is credited to the NHTSA and how much of that is technological progress (on a variety of fronts to make cars safer)? I would be interested in seeing that parsed. It is true that there is a relationship (correlation but not causation again) between the creation of the NHTSA in 1970 and the decade-after-decade of the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled decreasing from 4.74 in 1970 to 1.11 in 2019. That’s good news! But is that the newer cars are safer cars aspect, the creation and efforts of the NHTSA, or both?

Actually, a strong point in favor of the NHTSA not exactly being the catalyst for safety: The rate has essentially been dropping since data was first tracked in 1921. The rate continued to drop year-after-year for nearly 50 years before the creation of the NHTSA. It wasn’t just that the rate suddenly started dropping in 1970; it already was, for years! So, I don’t see a compelling reason to think that trend would not have continued had the NHTSA never been created.

More importantly, I think, than trying to parse this relationship out is the fact that the existing bureaucracy of the NHTSA, much like we’ve seen with the Food and Drug Administration, kills people due to its delays and hampering of consumer groups, the auto industry, and engineers. The Washington Post has a good article from 2019 explaining how that bureaucracy can be deadly.

Here’s a nice example of how absurd it is, though:

The Auto Alliance, which represents many of the world’s biggest car companies, told the Transportation Department in 2017 that at the current pace, merely writing the rules governing the new technology could take decades.

Again, much like the FDA, our European counterparts are already doing what we are seeing mired in red tape here.

I’m not suggesting that a gun safety agency/administration would also result in people dying the way one can compellingly argue the FDA and the NHTSA do, but that if I was making an argument for gun safety, I wouldn’t look to the NHTSA as an example of what to do.

Overall, I just don’t think calling for a gun safety agency akin to the NHTSA is the compelling argument the Scientific American editors think it is, and none of the other proposals in the editorial would specifically address public mass shootings (aside from perhaps red flag laws, but they only mention that in passing).

Let me decouple it, though, from their analogy: Would a federal gun safety administration be useful and effective in helping solve our gun problem in America? I’m not really sure. There is some reason to think that making guns safer (akin to making cars safer) could reduce accidental deaths (like the dreadful cases of children shooting other children by mistake), or guns that are stolen and then used in the commission of a crime (by making them “smart guns” where only the owner can “operate” it). But I’m not sure we need an entire federal agency to propel that forward, although this article makes a fair case that the gun manufactures need to be pressured by legislation and/or litigation to make the guns more personalized, and therefore, more safe. However, this article makes the compelling point that it’s not clear such technology (if it is even reliable) would have the far-reaching implications its proponents (especially in Congress) espouse. Primarily, the issue you run into: There are 330 million guns in the United States already. We have to contend with that reality. Some bills have suggested retrofitting guns made prior to the bill with the new technology, which seems incredibly expensive and a logistical nightmare. And on the whole, the personalizing guns, or using smart guns, wouldn’t address the vast majority of deaths related to firearms.

Ultimately, any way I look at this, whether as the editors of Scientific American did, or on its own merits, I don’t find it convincing. What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s