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President Obama: We've improved cars and toy safety. Why don't we improve gun safety?

Why do we allow safety improvements and policies for cars, toys, and medications, but we don't seem to apply the same standard to guns? That was President Barack Obama's big question at the start of his CNN town hall in support of his new executive actions on firearms.

"There's nothing else in our lives that we purchase where we don't try to make it a little safer if we can," Obama said. "Traffic fatalities have gone down drastically during my lifetime. And part of it is technology. And part of it is that the National Highway Safety Administration does research, and they figure out, 'You know what? Seat belts really work.'  And then we pass some laws to make sure seat belts are fastened. Airbags make a lot of sense; let's try those out."

Obama is not the first to ask this type of question. But he's right that deciding to treat other products with serious policy concern has real consequences: For the first time in modern history, in 2014, car crashes no longer killed more people than gun violence, according to federal data. That year, the age-adjusted death rate for guns and car crashes was identical: 10.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

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.


Watch: America's real gun problem is the one we don't talk about