Cars, Guns, and American Fantasies



In the wake of a mass shooting, gun advocates throw around peculiar rhetorical questions. Like this one: more people die in car accidents than by gunshot, so why not ban cars?

This is a bizarre comparison. Guns are not cars. You can’t use a gun to get to work nor can you get your kids across town with a gun. A gun won’t get your groceries home or your grandmother to the doctor. If you fall on hard times, you can’t sleep in your gun, no matter how desperate you are.

That’s because cars and guns are different. The function of a gun is to harm. The function of a car is to get you from A to B. Cars fulfill a daily, basic need for travel while guns address hypothetical potential conflict situations. Despite this, cars are more heavily regulated than guns.

But even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day: there are similarities between guns and cars. Guns and cars play into an American fantasy of rugged individualism. And our love affair with both these things is taking us down a dangerous path.

Guns did not invent killing. But guns make it easy to kill. The easier it is to do something, the more likely it is to happen. Owning a gun won’t turn a peaceful person into a killer. But a gun can easily turn a batterer into a murderer. Or a murderer into a mass murderer.

Yet, as a society, we love guns. They conjure up images of the Old West, of open spaces and big skies, even as teenagers use them to slaughter each other, concealed-carry road ragers kill one another, and one man guns another down for texting in a Florida movie theater. We watch films where a gun turns a hesitant weakling into a wisecracking assassin, even as we know that a gun is more likely to be used against family members than to be used in self-defense. And we cling to thoughts of founding fathers urging us to arm ourselves against our own government, although those founders spoke of militias not of individual gun ownership.

We’re not making the changes that would reduce the proliferation of guns because we’re caught up in these fantasies.

As a society, we also love cars. Cars, like guns, play into individualist daydreams: the open road, vistas of mountain ranges and desert, the driver alone with his (or, more rarely, her) thoughts, going wherever the road takes him.

Cars did not invent pollution. But they make pollution remarkably easy. We invented cars, made them accessible, and then got rid of – or simply didn’t get around to developing – the technologies that reduce dependence on individual vehicle ownership and fossil fuels. Cars allow us to cover distances with little thought, but result in levels of pollution unthinkable in previous eras.

Many of the same people who agitate against gun reform condemn efforts to improve gas mileage and reduce the carbon footprint of our appliances, using the rhetoric of individual choice: our right to inefficient light bulbs, to poorly performing cars, to assault weapons. Our rights prohibit making the changes we need for our society to be safer, healthier, more balanced, and stable. Do we really want to accept a definition of rights that strangles us?

Our overdependence on cars and guns alike requires that we shift our thinking before our choices do us even greater collective harm.* Both require that we think about alternatives: less harmful modes of transportation and more predictable means of self-defense. We need to voluntarily give up certain options, not because the government or some other entity forces us to, but because we recognize that we are accountable to those around us as well as to ourselves.

It’s time to step out of our dreams of the Old West and into the world as it exists now. The idea that a gun turns its owner into a hero and a car turns a driver into an adventurer is a daydream and an adolescent one at that. It’s time to let go of our American fantasies; it’s time to grow up and face an American reality.



* The problems posed by guns and by cars require different kinds of action. I am simply trying to point out an overall mindset that needs to shift alongside substantial changes.

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