Writing in Forbes in September, 1958, John D. Williams, a mathematician at the RAND Corporation, suggested the United States was getting a little carried away with its interest in auto safety. “I am sure that there is, in effect, a desirable level of automobile accidents — desirable, that is, from a broad point of view; in the sense that it is a necessary concomitant of things of greater value to society.”
Williams continued: “We accept it as a creed that human life is priceless and react involuntarily against anything that kills. In so doing we confuse the values of the individual and of society.”
This is essentially the argument of the National Rifle Association more than half a century later — only turned inside out. Williams viewed society as more or less indifferent to a bit of pointless death now and then so long as cars delivered speed and convenience. Individuals, meanwhile, were deeply invested in saving their own skins. The NRA's position is the inverse: Society's efforts to protect life are oppressive and constitutionally trumped, in any case, by the individual's right to possess and use — or carelessly leave on the night table — firearms.
The publication of Ralph Nader's “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965, seven years after Williams' essay, marked a change in public consciousness. The consumer products safety revolution followed along with the creation of federal bureaucracies devoted to protecting air, water and workplace safety, among others. The comprehensive child-proofing of middle-class homes came later still.
The results of the safety revolution can be measured in mortality rates. In 1958, there were 35,331 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. After a half century of improvements in auto and road safety, that number declined to 32,367 in 2011 even as the population increased by three-fourths. Fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles in 1958 were 5.32; by 2011, they had plummeted to 1.1. “Aspirational” brands such as Volvo, Mercedes and BMW now market cars based on their safety ratings.
The gun industry, aided by an ideology-infused gun culture, has resisted even attempting similar gains. Guns kill about 30,000 Americans annually — almost as many as cars — and injure another 70,000. It's unclear if gun-safety measures could achieve similarly dramatic results as auto-safety initiatives, or with similarly minimal inconvenience. But certainly they could achieve much — if they were tried. Laws designed to keep guns away from criminals, domestic abusers, drug addicts and others have been thwarted, along with efforts to keep guns away from children. Technological fixes — such as smart guns using fingerprint scanners — get little encouragement from the NRA and its backers.
But the death and injury toll from guns is large, and the logic of resistance to safety improvements is small. Eventually, public demands to protect human life will overcome the gun lobby's interest in maximizing gun sales and promoting right- wing ideology. Reckless gun owners and gun dealers will be reined in to protect life, just as the worst cars and most dangerous roads were upgraded. John D. Williams underestimated his fellow citizens' appreciation of life. So does the NRA.
Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.