Federal regulations shall set us free

This 1952 Hudson may look sleek, but it was far from safe.

The year I became old enough to drive, more than 50,000 Americans died on U.S. roads and highways. Since then, the U.S. population has increased by more than 50 percent, and the number of miles traveled per year on American roads has more than tripled.

Yet by 2016, the latest year for which I could find numbers, the annual total of traffic deaths had declined to 37,461. Roughly speaking, I was five times more likely to die in a car wreck in the late ‘60s than I am today.


David Crisp

Lots of good things happened, and a lot of those things were caused by government regulation. Manufacturers were required to install seatbelts, and states began passing laws requiring drivers and passengers to use them. Shoulder belts became mandatory, then air bags. Child safety seats turned into standard equipment for children.

Highway design standards were upgraded, and vehicle safety was improved in a myriad of large and small ways, from windshields to brakes. Mothers Against Drunk Driving began lobbying for both state and federal legislation that it says has saved more than 300,000 lives since 1980.

I had a lot more freedom when I was 16 to drive what I wanted, at the speed I wanted, on whatever roads happened to be there. By any objective measurement, I have lost freedom since then – but somehow I feel more free than ever.

That freedom is especially valuable to me today, with two grandchildren across the state in Missoula. I rest easier knowing that my chances of seeing them safely, and their chances of seeing me, are far better than when my parents had grandchildren.

I point this out just as a reminder that the current craze for cutting federal regulations has its downside. In fact, the federal Office of Management and Budget in a recent draft report estimates that federal regulations have saved America somewhere between $287 billion and $911 billion a year since 2006.

Obviously, there is a lot of fudge in those numbers. As the agency notes with considerable understatement, “Insufficient empirical information and data is a continuing challenge to agencies when assessing the likely effects of regulation.”

How, for example, do you calculate the cost of a traffic accident that never happened? Or a terrorist attack that was prevented through airport screening? Or a case of asthma that never occurred because clean air regulations prevented it?

Still, savings are substantial, since the OMB estimates the annual cost of regulations at between $78 billion and $115 billion. By any reasonable account, regulations in the aggregate are a bargain.

I’ve been wondering whether similar logic might somehow inform our debate about gun control. If reasonable regulations on gun ownership can save us both money and tragedy, then don’t those rules add to rather than subtract from Americans’ freedom?

The thought came to mind as high school students across the nation took a break from their studies to protest the turning of American high schools into shooting ranges. Some commenters on this site said their time would have been better spent sitting in the classroom.

As someone who spends a lot of time with kids in classrooms, I disagree. High school teaches no lesson more important than that American citizenship is not a free pass to wealth and independence. It requires diligence and discipline, and the courage to take a stand.

Protest must not only be tolerated in America; it must be celebrated. If there is any way to drive home that important lesson in just 17 minutes by sitting in a classroom, I haven’t found it.

That’s what some Second Amendment defenders don’t get. Both here and on the “Voices of Montana” radio show last week, I heard commenters say that Nazis prevailed in Germany by confiscating guns. But the story is more complicated.

According to Politifact, which consulted a German expert on Nazi gun policies, Hitler did take guns away from Jews and political enemies. But he also loosened gun regulations in important ways, and he did little to confiscate the guns that were already widely owned in Germany before he came to power.

Even if we had no Second Amendment at all, the Nazis would have violated the American Constitution in at least two ways. Taking guns from one ethnic or religious group would have violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal treatment under the law, and taking guns from political enemies would have violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

By 1934, it was clear that the Nazis were a gang of murderous thugs with no respect for law or life. Ordinary Germans had plenty of guns to resist if they had wanted to, but most sat in armed silence. It wasn’t gun control that killed the Jews; it was indifference, cowardice and outright hostility by the German people toward those who didn’t worship or look the way they did.

High schoolers across America got hands-on training last week in standing up against all three of those weaknesses. By calling for reasonable and constitutional regulations, they make us richer and more free.

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