If you’re like me, on Monday night you might have seen Jon Camp tell three of his constituents to stop bothering him at city council meetings (1:48:00 in the video), where we already know he doesn’t stand, er, sit, for politics. If you’re not, then you probably read in the LJS that he would rather see an education campaign around safe storage of firearms than a law.
So I am here with some education, y’all.
We’ll start with some other examples of the life-saving benefits of passing laws that create new social norms and expectations for behavior when education campaigns failed in public health initiatives.
The story of seat belts
In 1984, New York State became the first state to mandate the use of seat belts in cars, thirty years after the American Medical Association voted to support installation of lap belts in all automobiles. Why? Because the history of the automobile is one riddled with deaths. By the 1930’s, nearly 25 out of every 100,000 Americans died in car crashes each year. That number, along with the deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled fluctuated through the 20th century as cars have gotten safer, but also increased in number and speed. However, both figures have generally declined since the mid-1980’s when states first began putting seat belt laws on the book. Of course, other factors have contributed, such as airbags, which were mandated in 1989. However, by the CDC’s estimates, seat belts alone have saved a quarter of a million lives since the 1970’s.
The CDC has some more facts on the matter
- Most drivers and passengers killed in crashes are unrestrained. Fifty-three percent of drivers and passengers killed in car crashes in 2009 were not wearing restraints.
- Seat belts dramatically reduce risk of death and serious injury. Among drivers and front-seat passengers, seat belts reduce the risk of death by 45%, and cut the risk of serious injury by 50%.
- Seat belts prevent drivers and passengers from being ejected during a crash. People not wearing a seat belt are 30 times more likely to be ejected from a vehicle during a crash. More than 3 out of 4 people who are ejected during a fatal crash die from their injuries.
- Seat belts save thousands of lives each year, and increasing use would save thousands more. Seat belts saved almost 13,000 lives in 2009. If all drivers and passengers had worn seat belts that year, almost 4,000 more people would be alive today.
My home state of New York has maintained strong seat belt laws, as one of the handful of states where simply not wearing your seat belt will get you pulled over and fined $50. According to the CDC, primary enforcement states, such as NY, have seat belt use 9 percentage points higher than secondary states. Nebraska is a secondary offense state, which means you won’t be pulled over for not wearing your seat belt, but you will be fined an extra $25 on top of that speeding ticket. That 9 percentage points generated by higher penalties and stiffer fines saves a lot of lives. Incidentally, New York also primary enforcement laws against cell phone use while driving and it carries a heavy fine. Why? Because the police, fire, and medical personnel who will come cut you out of your wrecked car cost tax-payers money. And the best way to prevent you from killing yourself, and others, is to create strong social norms that come with negative penalties for failure to follow them.*
Do you remember smoking in bars?
I do, sort of. Smoking in workplaces, including bars, was banned in Washington, DC, where I spent the halcyon days of my early 20’s, in 2005. By the time I left four years later, the need to shower after a night out faded to a distant memory. You could go out and not come home smelling like an ashtray. Nebraska followed suit in 2009 with legislation that even allows local governments to be MORE restrictive than the state law.
Because you might remember from the public health campaigns, smoking kills. It kills you, it kills other people through second hand smoke. According to the CDC, smoking is bad for nearly every part of your body and is the leading cause of preventable deaths. You want to kill yourself, have at it, but we have largely as a society recognized that your reckless smoking behavior should not be allowed to endanger the lives of other people. And that is codified into law in 26 states. Including Nebraska. In case you missed that.
Which is not to mention the cost we all bear in treating the coronary disease, strokes, and cancer caused by smoking. The literal dollars and cents we sink into healthcare. Reducing smoking in public spaces by making it illegal changes behavior and ultimately reduces these costs.
What the NRA learned from tobacco
We have made progress in reducing deaths from motor vehicle accidents and smoking through a combination of public health education campaigns AND laws. Why have we not been able to do so in a country where about 40,000 people lose their lives each year to gun violence, suicides, and accidents?
Because the NRA.
Because the NRA was paying attention during the tobacco industry’s fall from grace. They have blocked research into gun deaths, employed scorched earth tactics to continue to sell a deadly product, lobbied Congress to suppress information, worked to put gag orders in place restricting doctors from asking about guns in a patient’s home, pushed Congress to give the firearm industry liability through the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), and worked to limit municipality’s ability to set their own gun ordinances.
Remember that smoking law I mentioned before? In Nebraska, cities and other municipalities are free to set more restrictive gun laws just like smoking laws. In Nebraska, we still have the ability to set municipal firearms laws because NAGV has successfully fought preemption and NRA lobbyist for the last five years.
The city council of Lincoln is in a position to do something about safe storage. We know we have a serious problem with guns being stolen from unlocked cars. These guns enter the black market and are likely to be used in crimes. We also know that in every community in the United States, children and teens are struggling with mental health problems. Even those without a history of mental health problems are impulsive in times of distress. We also know that small children like Matthew (1:01) don’t always listen and follow directions. And that the forbidden fruit is always the most tempting.
While the kindergarten teacher in me knows that positive reinforcement works better than punishment for changing behavior, we can hardly go around giving every responsible gun owner a gold star for locking up their gun when not in use. However, safe storage laws as a secondary offense, much like Nebraska’s seat belt law, would allow the police to charge individuals when a child in their care is accidentally shot or when their teen takes their own life. We don’t let kids drive until they’re 16 because they aren’t responsible enough to handle a deadly machine. We need to hold parents responsible for keeping guns out of the hands of children. Because they are not responsible enough to handle a deadly machine.
I’m going to leave you with this image of some diseased lungs from smoking because it’s apparently easier to find images of rotted lungs than images of victims of gun violence. I will also leave you with a reminder that public health education campaigns are about changing people’s behavior. Time and again, it’s been shown that education alone is insufficient. Laws are how we codify our social norms and they do work to change behavior. Not everyone’s behavior, but enough to reduce motor vehicle and smoking deaths significantly. And they would likewise make a dent in Lincoln’s stolen gun problem, as well as keep guns out of the hands of would be school shooters, teenagers in despair, and curious two year olds.