At work, we have to do something called Smith System Driving classes. It’s like Defensive Driving, but really detailed. I learned recently that UPS uses the same program for their drivers. Apparently, since we drive vehicles owned by our employer, sometimes for very far distances to visit project sites, the cost-benefit analysis weighs out in favor of sending us through this really expensive driving class every three years.
I took it for the first time last September, and after making about 100 jokes about how engineers are rich and awkward, the instructor asked each of us to rate our driving ability. Two older admin specialists said they were above average drivers by reason of experience. I was next. I said, “I know of no rubric for analyzing how I stack up against other drivers. However, since I’m relatively young, I have quick reaction time, and my vision is fantastic, but I’m also often tired, which can reduce reaction time” (I showed equations for all of this. There was a marker board. Never give an engineer a marker.) I continued, “I’ve never been tested on my actual skills as a driver, only on my ability to follow basic laws, so I have no idea how my technique stacks up against my peers. I posit that we can probably consider driving ability to be defined by a normal distribution, and that the best odds are I’m within one standard deviation of the mean, so I would classify myself as average.”
The other engineer in the room concurred with my analysis and reasoning, and classified himself as average, too. I was, admittedly, being pedantic about it, as the preceding hour had basically been one long joke about engineers, so I decided to be as stereotypical of an engineer as I could about answering, but my point was solid. Most people are average drivers, if we consider “average” to be within one standard deviation of the mean, by whatever numerical standard we might use to quantify ability in this respect.
The instructor looked at my coworker and me, dumbfounded, and said, “I’ve been teaching this class for five years, and nobody has ever said they’re an average driver until you two.” That’s engineers for you, always the odd ones out. He made a good point, though. Most people consider themselves above average drivers. Ask 100 people how good they are at driving, and your experience is going to be similar to his. Everyone will tell you they’re a good driver, and they’ll also probably tell you that everyone else on the road is a blithering idiot, and most traffic problems are due to that fact.
For extra credit, do this at a military base, which has people from everywhere all living in close quarters, and see how many people you can get to tell you that people from everywhere but their hometown can’t drive. You’ll find a lot of people like that. Driving is a tradition in this country, and people have strong ideas on how it should be done. Most people are convinced they’re doing it right, and better than other people. This is statistically improbable, but nearly everybody in society believes it. Look at how many memes exist about bad drivers. Nobody sharing them thinks it could possibly be them, and they have absolutely no basis for that position.
I don’t want to talk about driving, though. When people talk about privately owned weapons of any type, they always talk about being a responsible owner. What does that even mean? “Responsible owner” is an arbitrary term like “good driver”. It means something completely different to each person, and we have no unified standard available to the average person for any of it. Consequently, everyone is a responsible owner by their own standard. In every aspect of life, we all cut certain corners, and we justify to ourselves why those corners were acceptable to cut. The problems come when those cut corners begin to affect other people, as is the case with cars and deadly projectiles. That’s when it becomes everyone else’s business.
I know someone who keeps their deer rifle in a safe with three locking mechanisms, and their ammo at their brother’s house. I know someone who keeps a loaded .375 in a boot on the top shelf of their closet. I know a lot of people between these two extremes. The one thing every one of them has in common is that they’ll all tell you what a responsible owner they are if you ask, even my friend with the loaded .357 balanced precariously in a boot. He has looked me right in the eye and told me that’s safe practice, and given me reasons why he thinks that. I don’t agree, of course, but at this time, there’s no way to disagree officially with things like this. By and large, it’s left to the judgment of the individual.
When I was 10 years old, I was in a crowded farmers’ market, selling produce my family grew, and I heard the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life about 20 feet from me. Everyone gasped and then started yelling and running. It was mayhem for a solid ten minutes until a farmer across the aisle from my family’s table figured out what happened. A 7-year-old had gotten her dad’s .45 out of the glove compartment of the truck, and fired it. Luckily, the round lodged in the engine block, and while I don’t think that truck was much good to anybody anymore, nobody was hurt. When my dad later talked with the farmer whose daughter was involved in the incident, he assured him that he’s a responsible owner, that this was a fluke, that the glove compartment had been locked, and his daughter had gotten ahold of the keys, which normally never happens. My dad, of course, was not pleased with this, and proposed a no weapons policy in the market from there forward since it could have ended horribly if she’d fired it into the crowd rather than into the engine. The board of directors unanimously denied his motion to amend the policies, most people choosing to believe this could happen to anybody. If you think about it, that tells a lot about what responsible ownership consists of to the average person. That’s not reassuring.
Years later, when I joined the Army, my Drill Sergeant asked us one day, about 4 weeks into basic training, “Who knows a lot about marksmanship, hunting, or anything related? Who’s been doing this all their lives?” A few people raised their hands, fully expecting to be made leaders of something rifle related, no doubt.
He said, “You idiots are going to have a much harder time learning the fundamentals than everybody who’s coming into this cold, because you’ve had a whole lifetime to develop terrible habits, and you’re probably going to make me sick when I look at your form on the range.” (He is a Drill Sergeant. Insults are part of the job.)
Look past his words, and you’ll see that he actually highlighted a major issue with private ownership of firearms in the US. People do unsafe things because it’s the way they’ve always done them, because that’s the way their dad taught them, and the way his dad taught him, and so on. We have no federally legal way to tell them to do otherwise, so they continue doing what they’re doing, and when horrible things happen, usually by accident, they tell themselves and the world that it was a fluke, that it could happen to anybody, and that nothing else could have been done to prevent it. This is false, harmful, and we can change it.
We have changed a lot about our laws to reflect new knowledge about safety practices in other areas. Children have to use carseats until a certain age now, and there are laws governing how that’s done in each state because we know now that they prevent death and injury in car accidents. Every landlord is now required to provide smoke detectors at certain places in every unit they lease because we know that they save lives in the event of a fire. We change building codes when areas start getting more hurricanes because hurricane anchors drastically reduce the number of rooves that fall on people’s heads. Laws like this work. People are dying less of things that used to kill almost everyone in that situation.
With that in mind, as a part of responsible firearm legislation, can we quantify what it means to be a responsible owner? Can we debunk some of the traditions that are resulting in accidents, and even weapons falling into the wrong hands? We desperately need the CDC to study the effects of firearms in society, on injuries, deaths, accidents, etc. We need an immediate repeal of the laws barring them from conducting this research. I would like to see legislation on what types of safes are required, how ammunition is stored, and where in the homes these things can be kept. I want to see studies on how accidents happen, and a detailed analysis on what could minimize that.
Mostly, can we be honest about the fact that most people need a class on this stuff? I don’t think anyone would argue that defensive driving classes are a bad idea. Like it or not, most of us are average drivers, and we benefit from that sort of thing. Why, then, is ownership of a device that launches high speed projectiles in a split second, often with deadly, injurious, or damaging results, considered more intuitive than driving? Most people are not responsible owners, just as most people are not above average drivers. Most people are average owners who would benefit from a class. It’s time we required one, just as most employers do for anyone who expects to drive their vehicles. The benefits outweigh the costs.