Monday, 31 December 2012

A car crash, Sandy Hook and the limits of freedom

My BlackBerry takes really poor pictures -
but somewhere in there are an upturned car
and a bunch of firefighters

“Bang! Boom-boom-boom-boom.” The successive thuds I heard from my apartment’s kitchen one Tuesday night two-and-a-bit weeks ago sounded out of the ordinary, even for an area where subway maintenance, truck movements and any number of other things are apt to create noise. When I then heard the wails of multiple emergency vehicles, I knew something was seriously amiss. Reporter’s instincts awakened, I headed out to the street, to find a car overturned further up the block. The driver had come down neighbouring Court Street too fast, according to people who’d seen it, misjudged the turn into our street and somehow flipped the car. The driver, who by now was in police custody, had seemed very drunk on getting out – mercifully unhurt – from the car, onlookers told me.

The incident could easily have qualified as the biggest event of my week had it not been for the events of the Friday. Just as I remember working in the Edinburgh newsroom of The Scotsman in 1996 when news started coming through of a shooting at a school 35 miles away in Dunblane, I found myself that Friday following reports of an incident at a school 75 miles away in Connecticut. Once again, I experienced the gut-jolting realisation that this incident, far from being a run-of-the-mill, local tragedy, was on a scale that would grab the attention of an aghast world. Whereas the Dunblane massacre killed 16 children, the one in Connecticut had killed 20.

The crash and the Newtown shootings might, at first blush, look unrelated. They are certainly of contrasting gravity. The car crash dented a few vehicles and led to the driver’s arrest. The Connecticut shootings killed 20 children, seven adults and culminated in the shooter’s suicide. But they both ultimately raise the same questions – ones that apply both to road-users and gun-owners – about the limits of individual freedom. It’s an issue that I confront every evening as I cycle a few blocks on Court Street amid cars that no-one restrains from driving at grossly excessive speed. It extends all the way to my worries about my own children’s safety in their own elementary school, where “shelter drills” train them how to react if a dangerous intruder is on the loose.

Midtown Manhattan in winter sun:
not self-evidently a city built by stupid people
It certainly makes a difference to my perspective that I’m writing in the United States, where I moved in August, rather than the United Kingdom, where I had been living for nine years. It’s fashionable in Europe to sneer at some of the US’s freedoms – particularly when it comes to gun ownership – as if they were merely factors in a general national craziness. Why, patronising European voices ask, doesn’t the US just ban guns? The tone of the comments often carries undertones of the ultimate European sneer - that the people of the world’s richest, most successful country are either collectively a bit stupid or morally bankrupt.

Yet there is something profoundly valuable about many parts of the American constitutional system – and one of them is undoubtedly the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of certain freedoms. Only the most unbending critic of the United States could fail to be impressed by how the country’s constitution and democracy have flexed to deal with successive historical challenges. The system has adapted to stitching the US back together after the civil war, national mobilisation for the second world war, the cold war and the civil rights movement. Many constitutional rights – including the rights to free speech and freedom of assembly – have come under attack at the times of the worst strain. It has surely been part of the US’s successful negotiation of these crises that the rights have largely survived intact.

Nor is there something unique about US politicians’ willingness to sacrifice the lives of vulnerable citizens in the name of other people’s freedom. The day that Philip Hammond was appointed the first transport secretary in the current UK government, he vowed to end the “war on the motorist” – shorthand for a series of measures that included the introduction of speed and traffic-light cameras at the most dangerous accident blackspots. The gradual withdrawal of funding for such successful safety measures has been accompanied by a slow but steady increase in the number of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists thrown fatally into the air by speeding vehicles, crushed under trucks’ wheels or bleeding slowly to death amid the wreckage of their cars.

These cars were all free to drive over the Brooklyn Bridge on
Christmas Eve - so none of them was free to cross it fast.
There is a similar fear in many countries of the world – including the Netherlands and United States – about introducing distance-based charging for road use. Nearly every transport economist knows that only a direct charge for road use, varying according to the time of day, can tackle most rich countries’ congestion problems. Yet the only country so far to have introduced a national scheme to charge for using the busiest roads is Singapore – which uncoincidentally suffers an acute shortage of land, allied to intense relaxation about restricting individual freedoms.

Even on guns, the shocked insistence of some US politicians that citizens must be able to retain guns for hunting, self-defence and other legitimate uses is not unique. I remember vividly the controversy when the Duke of Edinburgh, the queen’s husband, insisted after the Dunblane massacre that proposed bans on the ownership of certain kinds of handguns were an unfair imposition on sportsmen. He asked whether, if someone had burst into a school and beaten 17 people to death with a cricket bat, the government would also legislate to ban them. The obvious point that guns’ capabilities set them apart from other potentially deadly weapons passed the Duke, like so many US gun lobbyists, entirely by.

Yet I remain instinctively suspicious of any freedom that is predominantly exercised by the well-off and already free at the expense of their poorer, less-free neighbours. US advocates for gun-owner freedoms tend to be overwhelmingly white and relatively rich. Even in a country with car ownership as high as the United States, the heaviest users of cars - and those of whom the politicians are most fearful – are the better off. Anecdotal evidence around New York suggests that the pedestrians paying the price for uncontrolled car use are disproportionately people like Maleka Begum, a 54-year-old mother of three, originally from Bangladesh. Ms Begum died after a bus hit her on a pedestrian crossing in Queens in October, in an incident that witnesses attributed entirely to the bus driver’s poor driving.

A speed-limit sign by the Brooklyn Bridge.
Most people accept in theory that
speed limits are a reasonable restriction
on freedom - for other people, at least.
The truth is that even the keenest advocate of the freedom to drive a car or shoot a gun ultimately depends on some curtailment of those rights. Motorists share roads with each other, cyclists like me and pedestrians. If everyone were given pure freedom to drive anywhere at whatever speed they liked, with no price restrictions to curb demand, gridlock would quickly set in and the accident rate soar. Even the US’s National Rifle Association would surely eventually tire of the arms race if, for example, anyone in the US who wanted it could arm him or herself with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, depleted uranium rounds or – why not? – biological or tactical nuclear weapons. Drivers depend on the police’s restricting the rights of the worst drivers to drive, while gun-owners ultimately rely on the state to prevent their finding themselves outgunned by fellow citizens toting battlefield weapons.

The question, consequently, isn’t whether to impose curbs on drivers’ ability to speed drunk down Brooklyn streets or to hold large caches of deadly, high-powered weapons. It’s where to set the tipping point between their rights and others’ rights to protection from them.

It’s my powerful conviction, based on my own experience of trying to bring dangerous drivers to account and witnessing the toll of gun crime in the United States, that the emphasis in recent years has fallen far too heavily on protecting the drivers and gun-owners. Some of the clearest evidence is how cowardly many countries’ police forces and legislators have become about enforcing even existing, sensible rules. There are, for example, no speed cameras in New York City, even though excessive speed seems to be a factor in many fatal crashes. Astonishingly, background checks on those planning to buy weapons are not enforced at gun shows, which as a result account for a growing proportion of gun sales. Eagerness to safeguard drivers’ and gun-owners’ rights is slowly but surely toppling over into a lawless free-for-all.

The barriers in the way of better, more effective enforcement of road rules are at least relatively minor, both in the United States and elsewhere. Properly-framed laws or police procedures could re-energise the effort to catch drivers that, for example, speed through busy junctions or ignore red lights. In the US, the constitution’s strangely-worded second amendment, with its guarantee for the right to bear arms, stands in the way of change. It’s not a right that I personally would have chosen to enshrine in the constitution. But it’s not an amendment that’s going to be repealed or changed in the foreseeable future.

As a result, my modest proposal would be that gun-owners should be subject to one new obligation that already faces drivers – and that seems to be reducing deaths on the roads. The owners of the cars that the drunk driver on my street hit could at least be confident, it occurred to me afterwards, that the driver had – or should have – comprehensive insurance. The families of Sandy Hook’s dead will know the guns’ owner carried no comparable insurance. It’s a grotesque mismatch that the owners of vehicles that kill people as a byproduct of their use are forced to insure themselves, while owners of purposely-designed killing machines are not.

An insurance scheme would continue to facilitate the kinds of gun use that the NRA says it supports. A hunter who keeps a shotgun or bolt-action rifle locked up in his study would present only a modest risk and need pay only modestly to insure against it. A woman who wanted to keep a semi-automatic rifle with a large magazine and two powerful handguns unsecured in the house with her 20-year-old would probably face a prohibitively high bill, however.

Insurance companies’ risk assessments already seem to be playing a role in reducing road accidents. The costs of insuring the youngest – and most dangerous – drivers appear to be preventing them from taking up driving until they are older, and safer.

My proposal would not, of course, solve everything. Criminals would continue to pass around powerful, illegally-held, uninsured weapons. Ill-intentioned or unhinged people might still manage to steal or otherwise misappropriate the weapons needed for horrific massacres. But it would, I think, reduce the chances that, one day, it might be my children and their teachers facing an angry young man who has found weapons powerful and destructive enough to express his anger, rage and despair. As such, the curtailment of freedom involved seems to me a very modest price to pay.

17 comments:

  1. I seem to recall a story from a few years ago, when a woman was mudered in a trailer park in a sourthern state by an ex-husband or boyfriend who had acquired an assault rifle and a box of ammo, no questions asked, in Wal-Mart. Relatives of the victim decied to sue Wal-Mart for selling instruments of death freely across the counter and so causing, according to the petition, their relative's death.

    Now I know that we Yurpeans also regard Yanks as figures of fun over their apparent propensity to sue for entirely imagined wrong doings - the apocryphal case of the microwave which did not carry a warning sign "do not dry off your dog in this microwave" being an example - but does the absence of the Tort Reform sought by Republican politicians not offer a way forward?

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    1. Paul M,

      Thank you for your comment. I have thought about the litigation issue and, to be blunt, I'm not sure why it hasn't worked better. I think there are so many legal protections for the gun trade that it's pretty hard to argue the retailers are negligent in how they sell the guns. Nevertheless, there was, I think, a suit brought by some US city against a gun manufacturer over its role in its gun violence. I may do a little more research.

      But fundamentally the point, I think, is that a lot of public policy on both sides of the Atlantic would work better if those causing harm were forced to recognise its costs. That's the beauty of insurance.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  2. I've been waiting to read your thoughts on this and it was worth the wait. Balanced, reasonable, fits into a larger comprehensive context - bravo.

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    1. Vannevar,

      You are too kind. I just hope something can change on both sides of the Atlantic on attitudes on both these points.

      Happy new year when it comes,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. A thoughtful and nuanced column, with a great proposal. Insurance, though, assumes potential legal liability. Gun manufacturers are shielded from any legal liability for gun deaths through the 2005 "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act". I don't know if that covers gun dealers or gun owners, too, but if it does, there can be no incentive to obtain insurance. BTW, my family and I lived in Newtown, Conn. for nine years, until 2007.

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    1. Jeffrey,

      Thanks for your comment - especially since your personal connection with Newtown must make you feel these issues very keenly.

      I guess the idea of my plan would be to make insurance compulsory for gun-owners. I didn't, I must admit, know about the 2005 act. I guess my proposal, insofar as it would be rendered pointless by that act, would require that act's amendment. Possibly my idea isn't practical - but it strikes me as at least anomalous that a car-owner needs to have insurance and a gun-owner doesn't. It's part of the overall oddness of the US's legislation in this area.

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. Interesting post. My immediate worry is that the cost of the insurance wouldn't actually be effective in deterring the kind of gunowner who commits this kind of crime - so you have the restriction of liberty without the desired effect - but that's just a guess.

    On a related subject, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on compulsory liability insurance for cyclists. My thinking here is the exact opposite: cyclists repeatedly assert (correctly) that they almost never seriously hurt anyone else. As a result the insurance premium should be minimal. In fact, a policy could probably be paid for by a membership organisation or even an enlightened government for a few millions a year in a country the size of the UK. (This is how it works for fencing and I think other martial arts - the national organisation buys collective liability insurance).

    The point of this would be to add another weapon to the political armoury of cyclists. Claims about irresponsible cyclists could be answered by pointing out that they have universal liability insurance - unlike drivers.

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    1. Robin,

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      I addressed some of the issues about cycling and money in a previous post here - http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/04/general-theory-of-cycling-motorists-and.html I've heard it was once compulsory in Switzerland for cyclists to have insurance, but that the cost - around 10 Euros a year or something - was so low that the plan was eventually abandoned. It's certainly the case that some cycling groups - such as the London Cycle Campaign - offer free third-party liability insurance for cyclists. So lots of cyclists do have insurance.

      As for the point about whether the cost would deter the kind of gun-owners who commit these crimes, I think it would, for the following reasons. Many of the recent mass shootings have involved people who have bought large quantities of powerful weapons in a short time. If each had to show appropriate insurance before purchasing such weapons, it would at the very least cause someone to have to assess the cost of letting that person have that weapon. That's a stage that isn't there at present.

      My basic guess is that my insurance proposal would make it very (possibly prohibitively) expensive to own the kind of high-powered weapons used in many of these mass shootings. It might, for example, have prevented Adam Lanza's mother from buying the weapons she did. It could certainly have prompted her to lock them up properly. Either of those would have prevented the terrible events at Sandy Hook.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. I do have third party insurance via my membership of British Cycling, which is £24 a year and includes lots of other benefits which are worthwhile. Insurance must only make up a small proportion of the membership cost.

      So yes, the premium is negligible, and I can only assume, as insurers are in the business of making money, that as far as current data goes this accurately reflects my risk to the insurance company of having to pay out on my behalf. However it is a skewed sample: it would be easy to hypothesise that those cyclists who have insurance are less likely to need it. There are lots of factors at work so this may or may not be true.

      I would encourage all cyclists to have 3rd party insurance. However, compulsion brings in a whole level of administration which is unjustified by the danger cyclists pose to others (see also licensing).

      And most importantly, to me, it acts as a barrier to simply hopping on a borrowed bike and finding out if cycling is something you want to do. There are so many benefits to the individual and society of cycling, and so many barriers to overcome in getting people to cycle, that another one is not welcome.

      Delete
  5. Insurance generally covers unintended acts. Motorists rarely intend to kill and so they do so by the tens of thousands. Mostly each other. Guns are different and so is the anti-gun effort. Mostly IT is aimed at political ends as described in http://kontradictions.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/why-not-renew-the-assault-weapons-ban-well-ill-tell-you/

    Frankly, I do not see how liability exposure or any of the proposed law would have prevented Sandy Hook any more than "click it or ticket" laws prevent cyclist and pedestrian deaths at the hands of motorists. The only real difference is it is a lot harder to conceal an SUV.

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    1. Steve A,

      Thank you for your comment. I'm not sure the difference in unintended consequences between guns and cars is as big as all that. At least in theory, civilian guns are there for hunting and self-defence, not to kill people. So it's misuse if they're used to kill people. Insurers still cover motorists who deliberately hit people (of whom there are quite a lot). I should think one could devise an insurance policy that would cover the risks of different weapons and how they're kept.

      Insurance would have a number of effects. If a person had to purchase insurance before buying a weapon, it would make explicit the costs associated with that risk. That would deter many purchases of the most dangerous weapons. Insurers would also clearly insist on better storage, which would make accidental discharge and theft of weapons much less common.

      I think insurers are playing a part in making roads safer by making the risks associated with different drivers explicit. I think compulsory insurance would sharply reduce the number of semi-automatics people were prepared to own. If Adam Lanza's mother had had to recognise the cost of owning her weapons, she might not have bought so many. She might also have kept them better locked up if that were an insurance condition. It's obviously unknowable - but I think it would make a difference.

      Happy new year!

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. Excellent and thought provoking as always Robert. Your point on shooting and insurance though is not quite right as it relates to the UK. While not a legal necessity, most shotgun owners and users like me are almost required to hold ample third party insurance if they want to shoot anywhere. My membership of the Countryside Alliance entitles me to £500,000 cover. I cannot think of anyone who shoots these days who isn't covered. Third Party is sufficient to protect others - though perhaps the cover should be even higher - and in the UK the legal requirement for drivers is only for third party cover. A change in the law in the UK would only cement what has become almost universal practice already.

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    1. Neil,

      Thank you so much for your comment - and it's very nice to hear from you.

      I confess I hadn't thought when writing what the British position was, so thank you for that information.

      I think that third-party insurance is quite adequate, both for guns and cars, to achieve what I want. It's third parties that suffer the effects of misuse of both cars and guns.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  7. gun insurance is stupid the only gun insurance you should carry is theft and loss protection

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    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you so much for your comment. Such a refreshing contrast with the closely-reasoned, well-argued comments that others chose to post.

      Invisible.

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  8. I stumbled on your blog post and thought it raised some good points. I suspect the 2005 law was inspired by the gun lobby realizing there was a danger of unwanted restrictions.

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    1. John,

      Thank you for your comment, although it's sad of course that people are interested again in this subject because of yet another mass killing.

      The 2005 law, I think, stemmed from the efforts of some cities to sue gun manufacturers for the costs of gun violence. It's not atypical of the way that US special interests manage to sidestep the consequences of their actions.

      Invisible.

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