Remember when The Economist magazine had the headline in January 2015: “A gun is now more likely to kill you than a car is.” News organization after news made a claim similar to The Atlantic in early 2015: “Gun deaths are poised to surpass automobile deaths in the United States this year.”
The claim that total automobile deaths have fallen relative to firearm deaths can be seen in this figure, though it is also clear that the drop occurred during the recession of 2008 and 2009 (part of that drop is due in part to some reduction in driving). Gun control advocates include firearm homicides and not firearm murders in their numbers, which don’t really make a lot of sense to us because homicides include justifiable homicides (self defense by police or civilians). So these first two graphs show the numbers with homicides and then with murders. With murders, the difference between motor vehicle and firearm deaths equals almost 5,900.
The types of deaths by cause show that auto accidents are overwhelmingly accidental deaths and those by firearms are suicides.
There are two problems with the claim that regulations are responsible for the drop in accidental motor vehicle deaths . First, virtually the entire drop occurred in two years during the recession (2008 and 2009) and it is hard to think of any new regulations that would produce such a sudden and large drop (most regulations would have a gradual impact over time has new cars with those features made up a greater and greater share of the cars on the road). Most likely the drop occurred because of changing driving habits (such as some reduction in how much people drove). It is because of this point that we are unlikely to see firearm deaths exceed motor vehicle deaths in 2015.
The long sustained high gasoline prices since the beginning of the Obama administration also had an impact. From the beginning of 2011 until the end of November 2014, the price of gasoline never fell before $3.00 a gallon. One has to go back to the beginning of the Obama administration to find gas prices as low as they have now gone. The new lower prices of gas at about $2 will probably also increase driving distances, particularly if the prices stay low for a while.
Second, the drop in accidental firearm deaths fell almost twice as much as the drop in accidental motor vehicle deaths, but gun control advocates are claiming that there were no new firearm regulations.
The increase in firearm deaths is due to the increase in firearm suicides (accidents fell, homicides and murders were essentially flat from 2000 to 2014 (they rose by about 18.5% from 2014 to 2015), and suicides increased by 33%), but this doesn’t seem like a problem with firearms per se as the increase in non-firearm suicides was twice as large as the increase in firearm suicides. Automobile suicides were small to begin with, but they soared by 53% (rising from 103 to 1741).
As to the claim that background checks are the great regulation that will save lives, the discussion ignores all the research that fails to find that these regulations reduce crime rates. In addition, the discussion ignores who the background checks actually do stop — overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens.
If we had space in the letter, there were other errors in their article that could have been included. For example, the article claims that “the actual rate of gun ownership is declining” is presumably based on one survey — the General Social Science survey. The GSS survey is the outlier in terms of gun ownership rates.