Cars are no longer deadlier than guns in America. For the first time in modern history, the age-adjusted death rate for both guns and car crashes is identical: 10.3 deaths per 100,000 people.
It's a shocking statistic, but it's not true for the reasons you might think.
The data, previously reported by the Center for American Progress and Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post, doesn't show that gun violence is on the rise. Over the past decade or so, gun homicides dropped while gun suicides rose, keeping the rate of gun deaths flat. Instead, the real story is in the dramatic drop in car-related deaths — a trend that continued through 2014, in large part thanks to policy changes meant to make roads and cars safer.
The trends, then, provide an important lesson for US lawmakers: This is what happens when you take a public health issue seriously.
Over the past several decades, lawmakers have made serious efforts to make driving safer. Different levels of government enacted laws requiring seat belts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and other safety requirements in cars. States passed laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts. Officials also took on drunk driving by passing laws that raised the drinking age, and prioritizing police resources to catch drunk drivers. The results of all these efforts can be seen in the big drop in car deaths.
By contrast, gun violence has been treated much less seriously by lawmakers. Although tough-on-crime laws and mass incarceration policies were in part a response to violent crime, the research shows such measures only partly contributed to the crime drop of the past couple of decades. States and the federal government have passed some gun control measures, including federal background checks, but many of the measures are riddled with loopholes, considerably weaker than those in other developed countries with lower levels of crime, or were relaxed or allowed to lapse over the decades, such as the assault weapons ban.
This is not because we don't know how to prevent gun deaths. The research clearly shows that places with more guns have more gun deaths, and limiting access — or outright reducing the number of guns through a mandatory buyback system — can reduce both homicides and especially suicides. "Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide," David Hemenway, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center's director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.
But lawmakers haven't taken gun violence as seriously as they have taken car deaths. The result: Guns are becoming a bigger public health concern than cars.