Speeding, distraction, drinking, poorly designed intersections – a lot of things cause road accidents, injuries, and fatalities. But some of them have nothing to do with driving. Like guns. In a recent NY Times Opinionator piece, Mark Bittman drew on his old community organizing background and wrote, “Back in the administration of W., we looked for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the wrong place; they’re here at home.” And on our streets, where incidents of gun-involved road rage are on the rise.
The recent murders of Sikhs in Wisconsin and of “liberals” in Arizona have sparked another round of discussion about the danger of unregulated access to weapons. Given the current Supreme Court, it is unlikely that any limits will be imposed. But the way that groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have changed cultural attitudes about buzzing around with a few under your belt suggests that we may be able to de-escalate road rage through similar methods. We need to make it as unacceptable to have a loaded gun in a car as it is to have an open bottle of alcohol.
There have been at least 60 gun-related mass murders in 30 US states since 1982, about 30,000 annual gun-related deaths, and nearly 70,000 injuries. Some were done by individual psychotics. Some were carried out by domestic terrorists, who – in this country, and despite the old headlines about Black Revolutionaries or the current ones about Muslim Extremists – are primarily far-right recruits, racists, or fundamentalists. According to a recent report: “The START database on terrorism in America, which tracks all incidents of political violence, shows that most attacks in the last two decades have been on black churches, reproductive rights facilities, government offices, and individual minorities. And those have been committed mainly by right-wing extremists….” whose danger has been ignored by the FBI because of Republican insistence that only Muslims are an “existential threat” to the US.
But mass murder is just the tip of the iceberg. People get angry, it’s human. And they sometimes lose control and fight. But fists don’t kill. Murder occurs when enraged people have too quick access to a lethal weapon. (It doesn’t help that we are such “fundamentalists about personal agency” that we lack ways to identify and help the millions of us with mental illness.)
People kill people, but they do it most often with guns. There are over a hundred million guns floating around this country, the US gun ownership rate is 50% higher than our nearest competitor. (About a third of the population owns a gun, many more men than women, mostly Southerners and Midwesterners over age 30 who are white and vote Republican.) It shouldn’t be a surprise that approximately 60% of all USA homicides were done with a gun or that our gun-involved murder rate is nearly 20 times higher than in about two-dozen comparable high-income nations.
Encouraging the escalation of arguments is not the only way that guns are dangerous. They are accidents waiting to happen. There is an abundance of evidence showing that the people most likely to get hurt by a gun are the family members of the gun owners – having a ready weapon around causes, rather than reduces, injuries.
It’s not surprising that the violence of our culture rolls out on the road, too. Being a hostile jerk doesn’t prevent someone from driving a car, but the presence of a gun encourages aggressive idiots to act out against others. According to a recent study, nearly a quarter of car drivers admitted to aggressive on-road behaviors — obscene gestures, cursing or shouting, aggressively tailgating. But the people most likely carry out their road rage are those “who carried a firearm in their car.” And it can get worse: states such as Missouri have laws explicitly allowing anyone over age 21 to carry a loaded weapon in their car and to use it with no liability anytime they “feel threatened” by someone else.
At the same time, the National Rifle Association does have a point. One of the essential characteristics of government is that seeks to have a monopoly on the use of force. It’s for a good reason: the success of a society is in direct proportion to the degree to which it can internally limit personal and group violence, reducing as much as possible the most vicious forms of hatred and competition (free market advocates take note!) in order to create space for the emergence of supportive interactions ranging from marriage to trade. Progress depends on the replacement of vigilantes with police, private militias with the army. “Police power” is the hidden legal justification and operational starting point of every government.
But monopolies are inherently tempted to exploit their power. States are inherently tempted to expand their control – or more accurately, to expand the wealth, power, and privileges of the elites that dominate society and its government. And here is the historical basis of the NRA’s arguments, as well as of the Constitution’s Second Amendment: some of the founders of this country believed that the existence of local and state militias would create a counterweight to the national government’s police power, thereby preventing the abuse of federal authority. Ironically, back then it was the more radical and democratic leaders who pushed this strategy; it was the conservatives who felt that this would set the stage for mob violence, the use of weapons by unauthorized groups – a concern realized by both Shays Rebellion (put down by Massachusetts) and the Whisky Rebellion (crushed by George Washington).
The problem with the NRA’s argument is that this strategy no longer has any relevance. As we’ve learned from events in Europe during the Cold War and in today’s Middle East, small arms are no match for modern armies, civil society has little power against technologically sophisticated or just successfully totalitarian central authorities. Brutally dictatorships only fall, rebellions only succeed, when significant branches of the Armed Forces mutiny. Power may come from the barrel of a gun, as Mao Tse-Tung pointed out, but the amount of power depends on the size and numbers of the gun – and personal armaments don’t have enough. In the modern world the military rules.
In the years since the second Amendment was passed, we’ve learned that there are much better ways to control the military. First is the preservation of civilian control over the armed forces – a lesson that the newly elected President of Egypt has been quick to apply. Despite the repeated election of former successful generals to high office, we have – so far – avoided military coups and preserved the fundamental legal requirement that it is the elected President who is the Commander In Chief. Second is the preservation and steady expansion of democracy – the steady extension of civil rights and access to the vote to new sectors of society has been one basis for our society’s continued commitment to civilian rule and the stable business environment it creates. (This is only one reason why recent right-wing efforts to restrict voting is so dangerous – it won’t stop voter fraud, which barely exists, but it will begin to erode belief among the sectors of the population who are being deliberately prevented from voting in the legitimacy of the democratic process.)
The historic and constitutional basis for unregulated gun ownership no longer exists. That’s not to say that gun ownership should be outlawed, just that it no longer has a democratic function. (What does overthrow tyranny is massive civil disobedience, catalytic repression, and the defection of key elements of the armed forces – as happened in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.) And to be clear: I’m not anti-hunting, although only about seven percent of the population actual does it. In fact, as a two-time sufferer of Lyme Disease, I wouldn’t mind some thinning of the deer population, specifically in heavily populated areas where bow and arrow are more appropriate than guns (and yes, I know that mice are also part of the vector chain).
GETTING SAFELY HOME
On the personal level, and at the level of our roads, we’ve also learned from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). When I was a kid, joy-riding around with a buzz was a high school treat. But it wasn’t just kids, everyone did it. Driving while high was simply a normal part of life. MADD changed the cultural frame: instead of being “cool” or normal or even invisible it became a type of anti-social violence against kids. It took the deaths of too many children, but finally the media began running outrage stories that included mention of the driver’s inebriation. New laws got passed. Drunk driving is no longer socially acceptable. Neither is letting your kids not wear a seat belt or use a car seat – no matter how often the new “norm” is ignored in actual practice.
If the right-wing dominance of the Supreme Court won’t let us control gun ownership, it may still be possible to make its use on the road culturally unacceptable. A recent Gallop poll found that only 26% of Americans favor a ban on handguns; the figure was 60% in 1959. So rather than ownership, the focus has to be use. We have to change the frame from “guns are important for my manhood” or even “guns keep me safe” to “guns are poison for my family” and “a loaded gun in a car is as unacceptable as an open liquor bottle – don’t drive and carry.” And we need new laws heavily penalizing any use of a weapon during a road incident.
Our roads are dangerous enough as it is, simply from traffic accidents. We need to eliminate these escalating factors. It’s your kids – and mine – who need to be able to get home alive.
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