Lethality and Utility

Yesterday Tim Burns wrote about the political intractability of the gun fatality problem in the United States and offered a way forward.  A couple of those passages were particularly interesting.

"Being someone who has shot guns, studied guns, and studied the law of guns, this is an impossibly mindless statement. Silencers do nothing to increase the lethality or rate of fire of guns.”

… and a later portion …

“Republicans: we need to act. Give money, give blood, use your knowledge of firearms to contact your elected representatives and offer your expertise to help craft policies that limit dangerous instrumentalities, toughen sentences on illegal guns, provide additional security measures, and can prevent future tragedies.”

This brings to mind something interesting.  One of the most common post-mass-shooting tropes (yes, I am aware that even having occasion to come up with that phrase is profoundly depressing) is to list things that are more tightly regulated than guns.  I want to be clear:  that list is absolutely crazy.  There are things we regulate more tightly than guns whose destructive power isn’t even on the same plane.  The most common comparison, however, is instructive for more reasons than just that.

New York City recently unrolled a program to eliminate pedestrian deaths in traffic accidents.  It was called “Campaign Zero” and it devolved into a political shit-fight that involved high profile ticketing of Upper East Side jaywalkers and paparazzi catching the mayor jaywalking near his Brooklyn home.  But the biggest initiative was oddly specific.  They aimed to transition the default speed limit of all unmarked streets to 25 mph.

It seems oddly specific but the premise was that traffic accidents become much less likely when cars travel at 25 mph than when they travel just 5 mph faster.  Pedestrian fatalities when the involved car is traveling at 25 mph are apparently half as likely as when it is traveling at 30 mph.  Drunk, sober, rich, poor, licensed, unlicensed, young, old, the speed that the car is traveling is something that could be changed and had an enormous impact on the ability of drivers to kill while driving.  The program is still young and has been modestly successful but the approach itself is interesting.

In a lot of ways the debate revolves around a false choice between restricting access to guns or doing nothing at all.  As with making roads safer, the solution probably lies in the middle with restricting the things that make weapons more lethal and their availability to those who are more inclined to use them that way while preserving their utility for those who don't.  What does that – in particular – look like for the problem with guns?