What Vox Article Gets Wrong In Guns-Cars Comparison

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

It is the natural order of things for the press to get reporting on guns grossly incorrect, or to opine on them with a toxic mix of ignorance and bias. That behavior finds its way even into the most innocuous and unrelated reporting, as seen in a recent article from Vox. 

In a generally well-written article on road safety titled, “America’s car crash epidemic,” Vox reporter Marina Bolotnikova goes off-target right in the subheader:

“Driving kills as many Americans each year as guns do. Experts say that’s preventable.”

The comparison between driving (a human action on an inanimate object) and guns (inanimate objects) is incorrect to begin with. A gun is as dangerous as a parked car, unless a human actor picks one up and performs a series of deliberate actions on it: loading the gun with ammunition, disengaging the safety, pointing the gun at a target, and pulling the trigger. A similar sequence holds true for a car; a human actor must perform a series of actions for the car to have kinetic energy that can be used to hurt or kill someone. Freak accidents can happen with guns as they can with cars; however, in most cases, there is either negligence or clear intent involved.

The problem with Bolotnikova’s analogy is also one of categorization: most firearm-related deaths are suicides, and that’s a complex problem that will take better mental health interventions to fix, not gun control. It is infuriating to see gun control activists not acknowledging that there are countries with lower gun ownership and higher suicide rates, because that would be an implicit admission of the crucial role of mental health as opposed to guns.

The flipside to the aggregation of data without proper categorization is not only that vehicular homicides and vehicular suicides are lumped in with total car-related deaths, but it also glosses over the fact that cars, like guns, are merely tools that can be used mostly normally or for the infliction of harm.

The article proceeds to state the following in the first paragraph:

Virtually every American knows someone who’s been injured in a car crash, and each year cars kill about as many people as guns and severely injure millions.

Raw number comparisons don’t get the big picture right. The above statement must be put in the perspective of the number of cars and guns owned by the American public. According to the Hedges & Company, there were 279.1 million registered vehicles in the U.S. in 2018. For the same year, according to the Small Arms Survey, there were 393.3 million firearms owned by the American public. 

In 2018, there were a total of 39,740 firearms-related deaths (suicides, homicides, negligent or unintentional discharges). That same year, according to NHTSA, there were 36,560 vehicular deaths, 31,575 if you subtract motorcycle fatalities.

Even using 31,575 car deaths and leaving out motorcycle fatalities, and assuming that the 279.1 million registered vehicles don’t include motorcycles, we get a car death rate of 11.31 per 100,000 vehicles. If you include motorcycle deaths, you get 13.1 deaths per 100,000 vehicles.

As for guns, using all 39,740 deaths as the numerator, you get 10.1 deaths per 100,000 guns. If you exclude the 24,432 suicides and use only homicides and negligent/unintentional/other deaths, you get a mere 3.89 deaths per 100,000 guns. That’s less than the car death rate, with or without including motorcycles, with or without including suicides.

As a gun owner, car driver, and a motorcyclist, I am interested in lowering deaths across the board. The Vox article is a good one, but it clearly misses the mark in its comparison of cars to guns. Probing just a little bit under the surface can reveal information that contradicts popular assumptions, and the Vox article provides one such example.