We made cars safer now we need to aim at guns


I’m playing bridge with the ladies at the Yacht Club: North bids one no-trump, pass, one heart, transfer. We’re chatting about gun control.

East is against it. “It’s like cars, you can’t tell people they can’t drive cars,” she says. “And cars kill as many people every year as guns do.”

She’s right. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, there were 33,736 US deaths from car accidents in 2016 and 33,594 deaths from guns.

But cars used to be far deadlier. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 11.59 traffic deaths per 100,000 of population in the U.S. in 2016. In 2002 it was 14.93, in 1988, it was 19.25, and in 1972, it was 26.01.

Like guns, people don’t want to give up their cars. So how did the U.S. bring down the number of fatalities from car crashes? We used a multi-pronged approach, and we should use a similar scheme to reduce gun fatalities. Driving has become safer through three main initiatives: Enforcing rules of the road, building safer cars and engineering safer roads.

Enforcing safe driving begins with the requirement to register vehicles and to license drivers (including current photographs) for specific types of vehicles. In most states registration must be updated annually and drivers’ licenses must be renewed every five years. Gun registration and licensing are clearly important tools to ensure guns are not sold to criminals or terrorists and to assist in finding criminals who have used weapons to commit crimes.

Like cars, all guns should be registered in a data base that is accurate, up-to-date and easily accessed by law enforcement nationwide. All drivers must be licensed for the class of vehicle they drive, and so too should all gun owners be licensed for the classes of weapons they have.

Nearly half of the 9-11 terrorists were able to get drivers’ licenses in Virginia, because the state’s rules were so lax. Now all states require applicants to show proof of identity before issuing a driver’s license. However, we do not currently bar those on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. If a suspected terrorist tries to buy a weapon, it only triggers an automatic 72-hour delay.

Since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System began checking prospective gun buyers against the terrorist watch list in February of 2004, “individuals on the terrorist watch list were involved in firearm or explosives background checks 2,477 times, of which 2,265 (about 91 percent) of the transactions were allowed to proceed and 212 were denied,” according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

The incentive to build safer cars comes from the natural inclination to protect ourselves and our families and to pay lower insurance premiums. Now it is routine for vehicles to have seatbelts, airbags, antilock brakes, traction control and accident avoidance systems

In the mid 1960s, public pressure grew in the United States to increase the safety of cars, culminating when Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed.

In 1966, Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings regarding highway safety, passed legislation making seat belts mandatory, and created the U.S. Department of Transportation. NHTSA, which was officially established in 1970, is charged with writing and enforcing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. NHTSA also administers the vehicle identification number (VIN) system, develops crash dummies used in safety testing, as well as the test protocols themselves, and provides vehicle insurance cost information. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Highway_Traffic_Safety_Administration)

It is time for the United States to think about how to make guns safer too. It may be oxymoronic to try making a gun safer, if the whole purpose of a gun is to kill some living being. But surely, there is room to make guns safer for the shooter, for the children of the shooter and for by-standers. We require cars to have safety features, and we should require them on guns, including trigger locks and gun safes.

Finally, we have engineered safer roads to improve driving conditions by improving signage and highway lighting, redesigning roadways to create divided highways, more turn-only lanes and better intersections.

We need to engineer a safer environment around guns by limiting the types of weapons and accessories that can be sold, such as assault weapons and bump stocks (which convert semi-automatic weapons into virtual automatic weapons). We need to provide gun safety and gun competency training.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) was originally founded in 1871 to advance rifle marksmanship. Its mission was to teach firearm competency and safety to youths, adults and law enforcement. It did not begin lobbying until 1975. By returning to its founding principles, the NRA could lead the U.S. in promoting gun safety and responsible gun ownership.

West passes, and North bids two spades; all pass. East leads, and the game proceeds. Not much changes.

Editor’s note: Mrs. Heckathorn and her husband retired to Cambridge from Arlington, Va. in 2006. Since then, she has been active on the Boards of Coastal Hospice, MAC, Inc. and DCS (Dorchester Community Services).

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