Verner column: Collateral damage comes in many forms

  • Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 12:46 p.m.

How much carnage are we willing to accept as an inevitable component of some of the freedoms we enjoy?

The question is spurred, as you might guess, by the preventable deaths of young lives. Deaths that leave us searching for answers and wondering what we can or should do to prevent future occurrences. Deaths that raise questions about the balance between individual liberties and collective responsibilities.

However, these deaths have nothing to do with guns, although we’ll get to that later. I’m referring to the number of teen drivers killed in auto accidents each year. We can predict, with grim certainty, that 3,000 or so teens who are exuberantly alive today will be dead by this time next year as a result of auto accidents, the majority of them involving teen drivers who make a mistake behind the wheel.

This toll — part of the 30,000-plus Americans who die in auto accidents each year — is by any calculation a tragedy and an outrage. It’s also something we could change with one simple step: Raise the legal driving age to 18. Or better yet, let’s make it 19 (with exemptions for hardship cases) and save even more lives. Too extreme? How about programming the cars of neophyte drivers so they can’t exceed 40 mph? Unfettered personal mobility, after all, is not in the Bill of Rights.

Ready to call your state legislator or congressional representative and demand action?

Thought not. Fact is, while people say you can’t put a price on life — particularly young lives — we routinely commodify flesh and blood. We simply don’t want to pay the price — in tax dollars or inconvenience — that would make a difference. As parents, we shove the statistics aside, conform to cultural traditions and — to put it in its crassest terms — play Russian roulette with our children’s lives, or allow them to do so. We seek comfort in the probability of their survival while dreading late-evening phone calls if they’re on the road.

It’s not just on our highways where the body count induces a yawn. Take peanut butter, spinach or cantalopes. Each year, according to federal statistics, contaminated food kills about 3,000 Americans. (Another 100,000 are poisoned severely enough to require hospitalization but survive). You can blame an inadequate food safety system, and it does bear responsibility. The FDA has estimated it would take $3 billion a year to adequately protect the nation’s food supply, or roughly triple the amount now spent on food safety, according to Bloomberg News. Are you willing to pay those additional costs — or start growing more of your own food? Willing to give up the convenience of frozen pizzas, bagged salad greens or a dozen different brands of yogurt?

Or consider the death toll from swimming pools, another common killer. On average, the United States has roughly 3,500 accidental drownings annually. About 20 percent — or 700 — are children 14 or younger. Imagine if those 700 deaths occurred a dozen or so at a time, rather than incrementally. Does anybody really need a swimming pool in their backyard? They’re nice, and the exercise can certainly be beneficial. But they’re hardly a necessity.

There’s no moral equivalency between accidental deaths and the willful slaughter of innocents at the hands of a lunatic with a gun. But we’re not talking about morality or ethics. We talking about preventable deaths and injuries. We’re also talking about collective responsibility for the consequences of our individual freedoms.

The point is simply this: In the debate over gun violence and gun regulation, there’s a lot of denial on both sides. Opponents of restrictions on so-called assault rifles, magazine capacity and other proposals see things primarily in terms of individual liberty, minimizing the possibility of such measures to save even a handful of lives. Gun-control proponents, on the other hand, see the perceived threat to public safety as the overwhelming concern, minimizing any infringement on a right they may not particularly value.

Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. While I grew up in a house that held a small arsenal of shotguns, rifles and sidearms and was roaming the woods with such weaponry well before my teens, I don’t view gun rights as more sacrosanct than others enumerated in the Constitution. I’m not worried about “the government” confiscating legally owned guns anymore than I’m worried about it coming for the family automobiles that are annually registered, inspected, taxed and operated within a multitude of federal, state and local ordinances.

I’m well aware, too, that my daily commute to work poses a much greater risk to my wellbeing than, say, a random psychopath wielding an AR-15. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, one of many that we ignore as we go about our daily business, or send our offspring down the road. Acknowledging those risks and the collateral damage we endure in exchange for freedom and convenience won’t provide any easy answers, but it might make for a more honest debate.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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