Cars are a useful analogy in the gun control debate: a response to critics

A common talking point in the gun control debate is the analogy of cars. Usually it plays out on social media at a shallow level. The gun control advocate (GCA) points to the number of gun deaths in America and assumes that merely stating the statistic is argument enough for their position. The “anti-gun control” person (AGC) responds by observing that car deaths exceed the number of gun deaths in America.* Usually the exchange doesn’t go much further than this or, if it does, it devolves into mudslinging.

However, a few on the GCA side have attempted to spell out more clearly why the number of car deaths is not analogous to the issue of the number of gun deaths. Their points are as follows: First, it is no longer true that the number of car deaths exceeds the number of gun deaths, at least not in many states. And, second, cars are heavily regulated and we are constantly working to make cars safer and reduce the number of car deaths — gun control advocates are simply demanding we do the same with guns.

Has the appeal to cars been successfully defeated?

Not quite. The car analogy** can still be put to good use and the points above can be answered, but we have to get clear on what contention we are trying to respond to with the analogy.

Usually the analogy is offered by the anti-gun control advocate as a response to a claim made by a gun control advocate. But there is no monolithic gun control argument to which the car analogy is a response. There is, rather, a family of gun control arguments which have as their supporting premise the number of gun deaths in America. Here is a sample of the sorts of gun control contentions we might run into:

We need to significantly restrict access to guns, without banning guns entirely.

America is a t a crisis point with the amount of gun violence.

Gun violence is a defining feature of America.

We can take the first contention as our model for how the argument usually goes:

Map created using Rationale Online (Austhink)

(Note: I will reference the argument mapped above by the assigned numbers. So the first premise (that there is some amount gun deaths which is acceptably low) will be 1.1, the second premise (“When the amount of gun deaths is…”) will be 1.2, etc.)

Again, this is just one example of how a gun control argument might go. Regardless of exactly what contention we are trying to support (an “assault weapons ban” or magazine size restrictions or universal background checks) the first three premises (1.1 through 1.3) will likely be an important feature in any gun control argument.

I think everyone who doesn’t want an all-out gun ban would agree with the first two premises. The controversy is in the last two premises (1.3 and 1.4). While there are many things one might want to address in these two premises (e.g., the difficulty of agreeing upon what would be an acceptably low amount of gun deaths), we’ll focus only on that which is relevant to the car analogy.

In order to see how motor vehicle deaths (MVDs) come into play, let’s take a closer look at 1.3. Two premises could be given in support of it:

How MVDs might come into play in the anti-gun control response at this point should be obvious. Sometimes the car analogy is presented in a very strong form as an a fortiori argument (that is, from the lesser to the greater):

(Note that the objection is not really to 1.3 or its supporting premises per se, it is to how the conjunction of 1.3 and 1.4 are being used to support the contention. There was no way to preserve this in the full map (below), so I chose to attach the objections to 1.3 in the end.)

Plugging this a fortiori into the overall argument, we should arrive at the conclusion that we need to significantly restrict access to motor vehicles, even more than we need to restrict access to guns.

Before getting to the gun control responses to this argument, what exactly is the pay-off of this a foritori supposed to be? The goal might be to expose hypocrisy on the part of the GCA or, better, to expose a flaw in the method of reasoning being employed by the GCA. If this line of reasoning, when applied to cars, seems unreasonable then so too is the line of reasoning applied to guns.

In response, the gun control advocate could challenge 3.1, though I’ve not seen any do that. They could argue that there is no reason to assume that the acceptable amount of MVDs is the same as the acceptable amount of gun deaths. Car deaths are more acceptable, because cars provide more benefits to society. More precisely:

While I think 5.1 and 5.2 are perfectly reasonable, it would be hard to establish the truth of 5.3. Of course cars are used by more people on a daily basis and this use provides many benefits. But while guns are used less often, the type of benefit they provide is of greater value (protection of life and property) than the types of benefits provided by cars (which are often a matter of convenience, related to the ability to get from point A to point B relatively quickly). In other words, it’s not just the number of benefits that are relevant, but the weight of the benefits themselves. At any rate, this line of attack enters into issues that are less empirical and less clear than the more common objection, which is to 3.2.

The objection to 3.2 is that the amount of car deaths does not exceed the number of gun deaths. Let’s call this the empirical objection. One gun control advocate, Daniel Brezenoff, cites this source to support the claim that “As of 2015, more Americans are killed by a gun than are killed in car crashes.” That source doesn’t cite any statistics on 2015 but it does cite this source and this source to support the claim that gun deaths exceeded MVDs in 2013. (I’m not sure why two different sources were used for running the numbers, since both can be done on the CDC website.)

It is, perhaps, worth noting that one can run the same query themselves here.*** When I’ve done that I’ve arrived at slightly different numbers than the sources given in support of Brezenoff’s claim. The number of MVDs for 2013 come out to 33,804 and the number of gun deaths for the same year are 33,636. On the same sheets one will note that in 2015 there were 36,161 MVDs and 36,252 gun deaths. Thus, Brezenoff’s claim would be correct for 2015, though the PolitiFact source doesn’t support it.

I’m not sure where the different numbers for motor vehicle deaths in 2013 are coming from, but we can ignore that point since Brezenoff seems to be correct about 2015. However, one will note that for 2016 MVDs again exceeded gun deaths (38,748 and 38,658 respectively).

Nevertheless, while there may be some uncertainty in my numbers, it is at least obvious that MVDs and gun deaths are sufficiently close such that, in any given year, gun deaths may exceed car deaths. This leaves the a fortiori argument in a tenuous position. One could abandon it for another argument that I’ll mention below, but before we do that I think there is more to say on behalf of it.

The idea that gun deaths are equal to or greater than car deaths relies upon a combined gun-death statistic. By far, the majority of gun deaths are suicides (about 2/3). Many in the anti-gun control community think it is illegitimate to lump all sorts of gun deaths together, while virtually everyone that is a GCA will conflate the numbers when talking about gun violence. Thus, one AGC response to the empirical objection would be that if we compare gun homicides to car deaths, it is an empirical fact that car deaths far exceed gun homicides.

Our argument map would now look like this:

4.2 would be the empirical objection and 5.4 is the anti-gun control response.

The problem, from the GCA side, is why we should think 6.2 is true. There is, in fact, an easy answer. Distinguishing suicide and accidents from homicide is valid because gun control policies targeted at reducing gun violence would only be effective in regard to homicides, not suicides, with the possible exception of Gun-violence Restraining Orders (GVROs). And, when it comes to GVROs, there is wide-spread support even among those considered anti-gun control.

So, for instance, suppose that our GCA wants to argue that we should ban all assault-style weapons. In support of their contention, they rely on premises similar to 1.1–1.3, the AGC person responds with a car analogy similar to 2.3, and the debate proceeds up to the point of our GCA pointing out that the number of gun deaths either exceed or are significantly close to car deaths.

It seems clear that, in this scenario, it’s perfectly legitimate for our AGC person to object to conflating gun suicides and gun accidents with gun homicides, since banning assault-style weapons will do virtually nothing to reduce the number of gun suicides or accidents. In other words, relying on a statistic that won’t be effected by your policy is illegitimate.

Whether or not 8.1 and, thus, 6.2 holds true will depend upon the specific policy proposal by the gun control advocate. As suggested above, it may not hold true in the case of GVROs, but it is also the case that many people who are otherwise pro-gun are in support of GVROs.

So far the car analogy holds up to scrutiny. But as I mentioned above, it is conceivable that as AI and self-driving technology progress we will see MVDs drop dramatically, possibly down to a few hundred deaths a year. If gun homicides remain the same, they will far exceed MVDs.

In that scenario, which seems likely to me, the a fortiori argument will no longer be useful except, perhaps, as a thought experiment. That thought experiment would be something like this: Suppose that programmers run into a recalcitrant AI bug that makes self-driving cars even more dangerous than human operated cars have ever been. Subsequently, the DMV decides to outlaw self-driving cars. Is it plausible that people would willingly return to a pre-AI MVD state with around 35,000 deaths per year? I think the answer is obviously yes. The fact that we exist so comfortably in that state of affairs right now supports that answer.

However, one need not rely on the a fortiori argument. It’s possible to make the car analogy simply based on the relatively close number of deaths:

One can then object to 3.3 the same as 3.1, but the rejoinder to that will be the same. Instead of rehashing that, let’s focus on a different objection — one that is very common among gun control advocates.

In any argument by analogy, the strategy for rebuttal is to find some fair, relevant point of disanalogy. The key is in the words fair and relevant. It won’t do to point to just any sort of difference and claim, on that basis, that the analogy fails. For instance, suppose that I tried to make the analogy that Trump is like a child because both have relatively little impulse control. Would it be fair for one of Trump’s defenders to confidently assert that my analogy fails since children do not have drivers licenses whereas Trump does? Clearly this is a difference that is irrelevant to the point of analogy.

The gun control advocate wants to argue that MVDs are a poor comparison for gun deaths, since there is a difference in the sorts of steps we take to reduce MVDs and the sorts of steps we take (or don’t take) to reduce gun deaths. We have implemented many safety features and have adopted many laws in our attempt to reduce the number of MVDs, but we have not implemented many safety features or adopted many laws to reduce the number of gun deaths.

Is this a fair point of disanalogy? No. As GCAs frequently point out when trying to rebut the analogy, cars are not designed to kill people, guns are. One could say that cars and guns have a different telos. This doesn’t undermine the AGC person’s point of analogy, it actually undermines the relevance of the point of disanalogy appealed to by the GCA.

How? While there have been many successful efforts to make cars safer, both in terms of technology and regulation, virtually no steps have been taken that have significantly frustrated our access to cars or their ability to fulfill the primary purpose even though there are such steps that could be taken and would dramatically reduce the number of annual MVDs!

Consider the sorts of safety features and regulations that have been implemented into cars to make them safer: seat belts, air-bags, camera technology, lane assistance, tire technology, crumple zones, break technology, etc. All of these are great, have made driving safer, and reduced MVDs, but none of them have had any significant effect in our ability to access cars or their benefits related to getting from point A to point B quickly.

Now consider the ways in which we could regulate and manufacture cars that would immediately lead to significant reductions in MVDs: no drivers licenses to those under 25, no drivers licenses to those over 65, no speed limits above 25 mph, no motorcycles, no compact cars, no convertibles, no sports cars, no lane sharing with bicycles, no pedestrian crosswalks, no male drivers, no media display technology (including GPS or phone connections) that distract from the road, etc.

Ask yourself: why is it still legal to manufacture cars that drive above 25 mph, when implementing a universal speed-limit of 25 mph would significantly reduce MVDs? Not only would it reduce MVDs, it would reduce carbon emissions. Yes, a universal 25 mph speed limit may add 30 minutes or an hour to your daily commute, but are you suggesting that over 30k deaths annually isn’t worth thirty minutes to an hour a day?

It’s easy to propose some plausible sounding safety measure and then rhetorically maneuver in such a way that anyone who doesn’t agree with said policy proposal is morally depraved. Gun control advocates do it all the time. But it’s actually a legitimate question that there can be legitimate disagreement about: is 30k+ MVDs worth the cost of saving yourself 30 minutes to an hour driving each day? I would suggest that there is no obvious answer.

Why is it commonly believed that a 17 year old is not mature enough to own a gun, but is mature enough to own and operate a car, when about 8 teens died per day in car accidents in 2013? Can you understand why an anti-gun control advocate might find the responses to school shooting statistics oddly disproportional to teen driving statistics?

Why are we on the verge of hysteria over school shootings but not the far greater killer of teen driving? Why does the NRA have blood on its hands, but not the Department of Motor Vehicles?

But I digress… My primary point here is that our society has willingly adopted many safety features and regulations regarding cars, so long as those safety features and regulations have had no significant impact on our access to cars or their benefits. Our society seems to be unwilling to consider regulations and safety features on cars that would limit our access to them or their benefits, even when those regulations would significantly reduce MVDs.

The analogy with guns still stands then: if we could implement safety features or regulations on guns that would prevent suicide, accidents, or homicide without significantly impacting our access to guns or their benefits then I would support such proposals — and I’d like to think that many of my fellow 2nd Amendment enthusiasts would too. But therein lies the difficulty. How does one implement safety features on guns, which are designed to kill, without significantly impacting our access to them or their benefits? It is unfair of the GCA to expect us to adopt regulations which frustrate the very telos of guns, while they and the rest of society are unwilling to do the same for cars. The talk of safety features and regulations of cars turns out to be a red-herring, when none of those steps frustrate the telos of motor vehicles, and those steps which could be taken but would frustrate the telos are ignored.

A simplified map of the argument to this point might be as follows:

I would imagine that GCAs would want to take issue with premise 5.7. How would a universal gun registry or universal background check bill frustrate the primary purposes or benefits of guns? How would a ban on AR-15s frustrate the primary purposes or benefits of guns?

With these questions we leave the car analogy behind and enter into different debates that are beyond the purview of this post (those who are itching for an answer can start here). In this post, I’ve tried to show that the car analogy is still useful and that we can push back on the objections raised to the analogy by gun control advocates.

There isn’t a single, monolithic gun control argument. There are, rather, a family of gun control arguments and all of them, in one way or another, make use of the number of annual gun deaths as part of their case for gun control. Likewise, there isn’t a single, monolithic aim for the car analogy as employed by those who generally oppose gun control. Sometimes (often?) it might be used in a shallow manner, where it’s not clear exactly what the point is supposed to be.

I’ve given one example of how a pro-gun control argument might go and how the car analogy might be used in response. When the analogy is meant to reorient our perspective on whether x amount of deaths is outrageous and demands immediate action (i.e. to, perhaps, calm down the fervor or visceral reaction associated with the mere mention of ‘x amount of deaths’) or when it is meant to expose some flaw in our method of reasoning then the car analogy can be useful. The attempt by some to refute the validity of the analogy is not successful. But we do quickly reach the limits of its relevance, as we saw in several places through the argument (e.g., 5.3 and 5.7). The car analogy won’t settle the debate.

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*The terms “gun control advocate” and “anti-gun control” are not very helpful or accurate in this debate, but I will use them here because they are common and because people generally understand who is being referred to with these terms even if the rhetorical framing of the terms is not quite fair or accurate.

**”Car deaths” and “motor vehicle deaths” will be used interchangeably. I don’t mean to signify only a segment of MVDs when I speak of “car deaths”.

***If you’re not sure how to run the query, go to the last page in the CDC PDF cited by PolitiFact and you can see the criteria used.

P.S. Here is a the entire argument map. If you think I’ve missed something or misrepresented something please comment.

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John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.