Preventable Deaths: Putting the Risks in Perspective

Preventable Deaths: Putting the Risks in Perspective

Perhaps as a consequence of the losses in my own life, perhaps because my mother, who passed away last month at the age of 85, worked to overcome the tragic loss of young lives through crime and violence, I find that I focus much of my energies on dealing with and, where possible, preventing loss. Even before our daughter Bakhita died, public service had taught me that we must have the courage to learn from loss, not merely accept it. We can never bring a loved one back from the grave, but we can strive to prevent the unnecessary deaths that snuff out lives before they have been fully lived.

Which is why, for years upon years, I fought (successfully) to secure funding to improve a stretch of 40th Street in Tampa. It’s also why I’m gratified to see additional efforts to prevent pedestrian and bicycle accidents on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. There are things we can do to make our roads safer, to reduce the risk of unnecessary death and serious injury.

That same commitment to sensible safety improvements leads us to invest in better communication systems and body armor for our police officers. It’s why we acquire better protective gear and more effective equipment for our firefighters, and the best EMS support we can manage for our paramedics.

This desire to confront unnecessary loss and prevent future losses drives media attention and public outcry against corporations that place a premium on profit and a discount on human suffering. When it was revealed that General Motors knew about a defect in its ignition switches that was causing deaths, and did nothing about it, their new CEO had to recall millions of vehicles, was compelled to testify before Congress and (apparently) has been cleaning administrative house.

This is the way it’s supposed to work. When a technology threatens us with mortal risk, its manufacturers or managers are expected to fix it, to reduce the risk of death at least to reasonable levels.

But wait . . . something’s out of whack here.

While the ultimate total number of fatalities related to the ignition switch problem is in dispute, it would appear that 13 deaths have been confirmed.

Thirteen deaths since the defect was identified in 2001. Thirteen deaths in 13 years. An average of one death per year. Of course, the number may be higher . . . but probably not astronomically so.

And Hillsborough Avenue? Two fatal pedestrian or bicycle accidents in five years (2008-2012). Less than one a year.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these investments in safety are warranted. GM should recall the cars. The Florida Department of Transportation and the City of Tampa should make Hillsborough Avenue safer. Because the design (of the ignition switch, of the roadway) is part of the problem, and the design can be improved.

What’s out of whack is that we are so focused on these unnecessary tragedies, deeply tragic, but small in number, while we fail to focus on another technology that causes vastly more preventable deaths every year.

In the five years that unsafe conditions led to the deaths of two pedestrians on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, 150,000 people were killed by this unsafe technology. In the years that GM’s flawed ignition switch killed 13, this particular flawed technology killed roughly 390,000 people.

What is this profoundly dangerous technology that takes 30,000 lives each year, and about which we have done almost nothing to make the design less dangerous?

It’s the gun.

We applaud Congress for going after GM. Congress has, over decades, required multiple improvements to the design of the automobile to reduce unnecessary deaths.

But apparently we also applaud our state Legislature for increasing the opportunities for people to use a gun in a situation of conflict, and to have a gun available under conditions of considerable stress (evacuations).

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are some issues these bills address that have some merit. I just wish that, at some point, we’d see some effort to make this remarkably unsafe technology a bit safer.

We do it for cars and roads. How about guns?

4 Responses to Preventable Deaths: Putting the Risks in Perspective

  • jimfrishe

    Just curious. What part of firearm technology is unsafe?

    The “unsafe” part of the equation is the human being holding the weapon. When criminals have guns, trouble results. When ordinary citizens have guns, lives are saved. The authoritative research shows firearms are used approximately 2 million times a year to resist criminals and save lives.

    Like the abuse of other things in life, the need is to repair the humans, not make the technology safer. As we all know, that solution is hard to find agreement on or implement.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Two points. One, the number of crimes averted by the possession of a gun is highly contested in the academic community, as is the overall relationship between gun ownership and crime. There’s a useful and relatively short discussion of the controversy in research in the U.S. in John N. Van Kesteren’s article in the British Journal of Criminology earlier this year. There are competing theories in the criminology literature, with research to support them, that argue for a deterrent effect against certain kinds of crimes as well as an increased risk of victimization due to gun ownership. I’m not an expert in this field of research, but I’ve read enough to say, with considerable confidence, that the relationship between gun ownership and crime victimization is complex and not settled to the satisfaction of the scholars in the field, whatever the NRA or any individual scholar may say to the contrary.

      Second, guns are designed to be dangerous. The purpose of a gun is to deliver a projectile at a high rate of speed to a chosen target, for the purpose of doing damage to that target. That’s why guns were invented and, indeed, that’s why they have whatever deterrent effect they have on crime victimization. It’s a weapon; it has to be dangerous.

      What I am objecting to in this blog post is that we don’t treat this particularly dangerous technology the way we treat other dangerous technology. Cars, for example, have keys. If you don’t have the key, it is difficult (though certainly not impossible) to use the car. And to legally own and operate a car, you have to demonstrate at least a passing knowledge of the relevant laws and best practices for driving. Why? Because the technology is dangerous.

      I know that some will immediately respond that there isn’t a constitutional amendment about cars, and that’s true. But even the most recent Supreme Court cases expanding earlier interpretations of the 2nd Amendment do not prohibit requiring gun owners to secure licenses and to do so by demonstrating a degree of competence in the use and safe storage of a gun. Nor do they prohibit requiring safety measures that might reduce accidental deaths and crimes of passion where guns figure prominently.

      So let’s be honest. Guns are dangerous (of course). They also are useful. Is it too much to ask our legislature to pay a little attention to the dangerous part, given how much attention they pay to creating more opportunities to use them?

  • Richard L. Block

    Things which are given to man can be used for evil or righteous purposes. A stone, stick, knife, sword and a gun are all weapons. They are available to men who are wicked and to men who follow good moral principles. Even Jesus at the Last Supper advised his Apostles to sell their cloaks and buy a sword. Most gun owners in our country are responsible and look at their weapons in a purely defensive manner. Society’s problem begins and ends with people who do not respect life and use weapons to endanger, wound or kill their fellow man. Our laws must be targeted to punish these perpetrators severely. The right to bear arms appears at the beginning of our Constitution along with the clause ” Shall not be infringed “. Our founding fathers had good reason to consider it crucial to our rights. Federal Government and in some cases State Government has been systematically chipping away at our citizens gun rights while at the same time militarizing their law enforcement personnel. Gang bangers aside, have any of you noticed how our “use to be friendly” neighborhood patrolman has morphed into a fully armored soldier type. What is more troubling is that they are assuming a mental perspective and attitude to go along with their full body armor and automatic weapons.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Thanks for reading and commenting. A couple of notes:
      1. The reference to Jesus recommending the purchase of a sword (Luke 22:36) is correct, but it would be difficult to make a case for Jesus advocating the use of physical violence, even in self-defense. Jesus repeatedly and thematically advocates and demonstrates suffering harm from others rather than striking back or striking first (try Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:27-29,35; Luke 22:51; John 18:11 as a sampling). Not a strong basis for weapon ownership or use there.
      2. The Constitution does not begin with the right to keep and bear arms. Indeed, the Bill of Rights (including the 2nd Amendment) was added after the Constitution became the law of the land. The Constitution begins with a sentence that speaks of union, justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blesssings of liberty. There is, I believe, no reference anywhere in the original document to citizens’ weapons (though there is considerable discussion of militias in the service of the common defense).
      3. However, it is clear that our founders had concern for a right to keep and bear arms, since that does appear as the second amendment in the Bill of Rights. It also is clear, based on more than two centuries of jurisprudence, that no right enshrined in the Bill of Rights or elsewhere is absolute. Similarly absolute-sounding language protects most of the most significant rights in the Constitution, and there are well-established judicial precedents for how far those rights actually extend, and where justice, domestic tranquility, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for all may constrain their exercise. The right to keep and bear arms, like these other vital rights, allows room for lawful regulation.
      4. Finally, the latter portion of your post makes a point I appreciate having made. Among those who advocate strongly for an extensive view of gun rights and privileges are some who see these weapons as necessary for defense against the government itself. I don’t share that view, but again, that’s not the point. The point is that it is not at all clear that the 2nd Amendment expresses that view, especially in light of its reference to the role of (government-organized) militias in defense of the people and the state. But the idea has currency among some gun advocates, and observers and critics can understand some of the arguments and proposals of gun advocates better in this light.