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The Right Institution for the Right Tool

I'm not going to masquerade as an expert on gun control, which I am not.

But here's what I do know, and this speaks to why I think it's silly that everyone is so fixated on whether the gunman in Florida was or was not a Muslim, and what role radical Islam, or even radical ideology in a more general sense, has to do with gun violence: it's hard to change people's beliefs, and much easier to make changes to institutions. This seems really clear to me because of my work in transportation: the tools we have, and the institutions that govern those tools' use, are both way more important than what we think or believe about something.

I guess what originally got me thinking about this was the fact that more Americans are killed each year by cars than by guns (though that number is merging, and guns may come out on top soon). For some on the right, this is a statistic that undermines the seriousness of the gun problem in this country, but it's really more a statistic that speaks to how bad the car problem is. So, in America, we have two tools that we haven't figured the institutions out for: cars and guns. Other countries have done very admirably with these.

Road deaths per 100,000 people.


 United States10.6


America had a better safety record than the Netherlands in the 1970s, because Dutch people were being killed left and right on roads that had been made more car-friendly and less bike-friendly. The Dutch woke up to their problem, and although American car safety has improved, Dutch safety has improved much faster. You are now many times more likely to be killed or injured on a bike in the United States, despite the fact that a paltry number of people actually ride bikes for any purpose in the United States (the percentage of commuters hovers around 1% in the U.S.; versus more than 30% of all trips in the Netherlands, and around 50-60% of trips taken in Dutch cities).

You can try to change this by handing out flyers for biking, and you can try to find all the people who radical beliefs or mental illness that might kill you. These are approaches that assume you can catch something about individual people and change it or block it. 

But that doesn't work. The better way to fix the problem is to fix the institutions that govern the tools we use. In the U.S., we can't figure out how to deal with cars, or with guns. And our denial about those problems means that we keep throwing everything else at the problem.

The debate over whether the gunman in Florida was a Muslim or not a Muslim is silly, for reasons that go beyond the terms of the debate itself. It seems clear to me that a lot of people's fixation on him being Muslim is about their reticence about Islam. It should go without saying that the vast majority of Muslim people are no more homophobic than your Aunt Judy, and that we're in no place as a culture to judge other religious or cultural identities about something that we just started figuring out ourselves. And just because a culture has homophobic institutions does not mean that it's okay for us to pre-judge all its members. I grew up Catholic, and I have not molested (knock on wood!) an altar boy or punched a chemistry student while in a tight black-and-white collar yet (I haven't even colluded with Nazis!). Rachel has not marched in a Palestinian field and pushed people aside to build a settlement. Obviously the gunman had some relationship to a radical, twisted version of Islam, however much that might not reflect the views of most Muslims, but lots of people have twisted, radical views related to all sorts of things. Even if we all agreed that the problem now was "radical Islam", the problem tomorrow will be something else. 
Even if the room had been full of other people with guns, no one could have taken him down without also creating a confusing bloodbath of friendly-fire and accidental recrimination. 

And while we're on the subject of strange cultural others, and whether this is something that has to do with the unique nature of the Dutch people versus some quality of their institutions, check this out: in the United States, we receive immigrants from countries that bike more than we do, and then convince people not to bike. In the Netherlands, people immigrate from places that do not bike, yet the biking rate of immigrants to the Netherlands is almost as high as that of natives-- making it one of the highest rates in the world

In the U.S. we do a similar thing with guns. We have made it so normal and intuitive for someone to get a tool of death and wreak havoc that it has become a normal, daily part of the culture for something horrific to happen. 

The Intercept wrote an interesting piece on how false positives in the FBI Terror Watch List can negatively impact people. Do we want to gradually police people's beliefs, trying to predict who is a criminal beforehand? Or should we just make it harder to carry out violence crimes in the instance that someone should decide to do so? This is the list we talk about using to govern who can and cannot have assault weapons. I've got a better plan: no one can have assault weapons. There you go! Instead of setting ourselves up to make complex, impossible decisions about who is or is not likely to someday be a criminal, we could just make it so that people who want to be criminal find it harder to commit crimes. Just like instead of trying to personally convince everyone that buses are way cool (TM) and that bikes are the way to go (copyright) we could build some bike lanes and get our land use and parking policies aligned, and get the bus routes to make sense.

Fix the tools, fix the institutions that revolve around the tools, and you fix the problem. You can't change human nature, but you can fit our institutions to that nature.



  1. The Cambridge, Massachusetts City Council election system is an institution that works. It delivers a city government that cares about bicycle paths and about transit, a government that generally acts like a good government should act. I like it so much better than our current Providence elections that I'd gladly help set up a second set of polls, which would elect a second Providence city government. Now, I happen to like Jorge Elorza far better than the late Buddy Cianci, but I still believe that the election system could be improved. It's the most important institution that needs to be changed.

    --Paul Klinkman
    Sorry that I have to be "Anonymous", but I certainly won't do "google account" for political reasons.

  2. We'd be better off if we had a number of bikeway innovations.

    The best way to cross a six lane highway on a bicycle is to ride into a bike escalator or bike elevator, be lifted up, cross the highway on a bridge and coast down the slope on the other side. No, I've never seen a bike escalator before, but I suspect that we could build one. Lines of bikes and riders could be hoisted up, one bike per step.

    With bike escalators we could then have bike skyways allowing bicyclists to make good time in downtown areas. Manhattan needs a ten block skyway seamlessly connecting the West Side bikeway with Central Park paths.

    Traffic lights should be smart enough to see both pedestrians and cyclists coming down the sidewalk. Then they could change just as the pedestrians got to the walkways.

    Pedestrians dressed in black are invisible in walkways at night. We need footlights to light up pedestrians in walkways from the waist down, so that cars can see them clearly. Again, all walkways should flash to warn cars that pedestrians are in the area. I've seen a flashing warning light system on a bikeway in Hadley, MA.

    --Paul Klinkman