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A common refrain this last Memorial Day was that “Freedom Isn’t Free”.  Men, and recently women, have sacrificed themselves in pursuit of America’s freedom, goals, and ambitions.  Either drafted or volunteered soldiers have sacrificed all in wars foreign and domestic to enable and enforce America’s global power.  This is made all the more tragic when they perish in wars that were fabricated (Spanish-American War), or lost (Vietnam War).  Over 1.3 million American soldiers have been killed in our wars since 1775.

This number is shockingly high, and yet comparable with a few other numbers. The federal military and state militaries have called Americans to fight and die for them for over twelve score years, mostly using guns.  The second amendment was written to prevent the kind of oppression we rejected in the 1780s.  Though clumsily constructed, the second amendment has generally been seen as wide permission to own firearms.  It has even been interpreted variable in time and different states to mean that people have wide latitude to carry those firearms in public places.  Places we would not imagine shooting someone would be a polite or appropriate activity, like the grocery store or church.  Conversely, the right to carry guns in public has been curtailed by states and private businesses throughout history.  R. Reagan supported wide gun control regulations in California as governor, and the “Wild West” used guns on the lawless frontier but strictly controlled their possession in towns.

Guns are dangerous, but they are also freeing.  The reason we give violent movies a PG-13 rating and sexual movies an NC-17 rating is that guns solve problems, but sex causes them.  Everyone enjoys the justice of seeing the bad guys get blown away. Many assault victims and burgled households wishes they had a gun after the fact.  The function of a gun is injury and even death.  Little wonder that the majority of killings by guns in America are suicides*.  They are convenient as well as powerful.

We only talk about gun control when a mass hooting happens, but the suicides, homicides and accidents are far more diffuse than that.  Since 1968, 1.3 million Americans have lost their lives to guns, the same number as those who died in all our wars since 1775.  I could not find a full history of death rates from 1775 onward.  But extrapolating from this rate, we can see that the right to bear arms has killed more Americans than fighting for our freedom.  Less spectacularly though, one ruined day after another, all over the nation**.

Another dangerous machine with the power to ruin and liberate lives is the automobile in traffic.  In a traffic network with an average speed the same as the 50/50 kill speed for walkers, and with many highways and freeways designed for twice that speed, it is understood and excused that people are going to die.  This is the cost of doing business in traffic.  I regularly commute in the early morning and late afternoon on a 4 lane highway at the design speed of a 4 lane road with sidewalks and a grassed median.   The design speed is about 50 MPH.  If I collide with anyone in a crosswalk or another car, someone is going to the hospital or the morgue.  Like the gun, this death toll does not make the national news.  It is not a campaign with battles, budgets and victories.  It , like the gun, is made of thousands of tragedies every year.  Unlike the gun, none of the killings in traffic are a victory for anyone, ever.  Since 1899, 3.6 million Americans have lost their lives in traffic.

The graph below shows that the rate of death in traffic and by guns is roughly equivalent, and the rate of military death is sporadic, and thankfully slower.  The left scale is the number of deaths annually, the right scale is the cumulative number of deaths over time.

Annual death tolls and accumulations from Wars, Traffic, and Guns

My high school civics teacher, Tom Pearce, put the Vietnam War in perspective when he reminded us that the number of Americans who die in traffic every year is greater than the number of young Americans who died in the entire 20 year conflict.  Vietnam, the national tragedy that were were still recovering from in the 1980s, was eclipsed by the more everyday tragedy of traffic.

* But Americans are nowhere near the top in suicides, even if we are near the top in homicides.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate
** Note that I am not against gun ownership or for gun control.  Some freedoms have costs, though.