What a short history of drunk driving tells us about the future of gun laws

Here at the Compass of Power, we say, “Place is politics.” That is, much of what we see described as partisan or ideological battles are, deep down, clashes between the rival cultures of different parts of the United States. That is absolutely true when it comes to guns.

I don’t think I have to spend much time proving to you that people in different parts of the United States see guns differently. We’ve talked about this in previous episodes if you do want more of an explainer.

That said, pressure has been building nationwide to change laws regulating guns, primarily due to the increasing number of school shootings.

In this post, I’m taking a new angle. I’m going to demonstrate the importance of regional cultures by showing how the differences between places can be completely steamrolled by something of universal importance. We’re going to talk about overriding stark cultural differences, specifically, differences about having a few and getting behind the wheel, and who should be able to buy an AR-15.

So, sit back, buckle up and let me be your designated driver in our short tour through the history of drunk driving and the mothers who were against it.

When we had no beer at all

The best place and time to begin our tour is January 8th, 1918.

Of all places, Mississippi became the first state to vote in favor of banning alcohol, full stop. Over the next few years, every state but two votes in favor of a constitutional amendment to completely prohibit alcohol. Only the wise people of Connecticut and Rhode Island vote against this idea. This is Prohibition.

Now, Prohibition may be later remembered as a time of rum-running gangsters and the invention of NASCAR, but it did decrease alcohol use in America. This is when legal drinking in the United States went to essentially zero. It was if you were drinking, that was illegal.

This blanket, zero-booze policy was spurred in part by overdrinking. There was a very definite drinking problem in the United States prior to Prohibition. But the “drys” were also driven by an undercurrent of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic feeling during a huge immigration surge in the early 20th Century.

By 1929, the Great Depression shows up and changes everything. First of all, nobody’s had any legal booze for nine years. Also, we just lost our jobs. And there’s no more immigration because – why would you immigrate to a country where there’s no jobs and no booze?

By 1933, alcohol is back! We pass another constitutional amendment, which is not easy to do, and that allows libations to return just in time for World War II.

The war of all wars runs from 1941 to 1945 for the United States. As soon as it’s over, the baby boom kicks in. This is really important when we think about our relationship with alcohol.

In 1946, people are back home from the war. They start having kids. The middle class is doing great, and we have tons of children everywhere. And cocktails.

Vietnam, voting rights, and the legal drinking age

In 1955, we get involved in the conflict in Vietnam.

By 1964, we’ve reached the end of the baby boom. The first babies born in ‘46 are now 18, and subject to the draft. Also, they can’t vote. Voting age is 21.

1969 is the peak of the US presence in the Vietnam War. It’s an interesting year in a lot of ways, like landing on the moon. But among the historic moments is the introduction of the M-16 as a standard US military rifle. It is a variation of the ArmaLite AR 15, which we’re going to be hearing about later, and tens of thousands of American veterans become very, very familiar with it.

Despite all the war and revolution, the legal drinking age is 21 across most of the US.

If you looked at a map, you pretty much have to be 21 everywhere except for a noticeable clump of states in the middle. The prairie states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and also a handful of northern states – Wisconsin, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Maine – have drinking ages under 21.

In the South, that short under-21 list includes Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. It’s interesting to note that Mississippi was the first in on complete Prohibition and also was one of the few states to have a-lower-than-21 drinking age by 1969.

1971. We pass another amendment to the Constitution lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. You gotta figure, this has a lot to do with Vietnam and the draft, sending kids – or adults, somewhere between kid and adults in that 18, 19, 20 – off to a war. They can’t vote and they can’t drink at home, but they can definitely be shipped across the world to fight and die.

By 1973, we have left Vietnam.

By 1975, we’ve reached like a new low in the legal drinking age. What you’re seeing on the map now are few holdouts at 21. Most places let you go and have a beer at 18 or 19. But the West Coast — that’s Oregon, Washington, California – you still have to be 21.

Nevada, Utah, North Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Those are the places where you still have to be 21.

The rest of the country – including big states like Florida, Texas, and New York – has lowered the drinking age in alignment with voting rights.

But a dramatic shift is coming. So far, drinking’s gone from being completely illegal to illegal until you’re a little older, to “Well, there’s a war and we’ve changed when you can vote.” We’ve tried to align drinking, voting and going to war as some sort of complete adulthood.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD

But on May 3rd, 1980, Kari Lightner, a 13-year-old girl, is killed by an intoxicated driver in Fair Oaks, California. The driver had already been arrested for another DUI hit and run, and he left the girl’s body right there at the scene.

Four months later, Mothers Against Drunk Driving is founded by Candace “Candy” Lightner, Kari’s Mother.

MADD’s goal is to eliminate drunk driving, or as we would know it. “driving under the influence of alcohol,” DUI. Today the goal is still to end drunk driving. Their tagline today on their website is “No More Victims.”

It’s worth noting that MADD’s goal is not specifically to end all traffic deaths or prohibit using alcohol. What they want to eliminate is the act of driving under the influence. This movement was not about some of the things that come to top of mind as alternative approaches to reducing drunk driving in fatalities. They’re not going to allow taverns to move closer to neighborhoods where people live, so they don’t have to drive to the bar. It’s not about mass transit. And it’s not about banning alcohol or suing the beer makers.

MADD was about making it a crime to combine drinking alcohol with driving a car. And that campaign will change American life.

Let’s stop and recognize that MADD comes from a place of the deepest loss. It’s powered by mothers who lost their children. One of Candy Lighteners enduring quotes is,

“Death by drunk driving is the only socially acceptable form of homicide.”

And in the 1980s, many children were lost to drunk driving.

1982, there are more than 21,000 alcohol related traffic fatalities in a nation of 233 million people. (We’re going to keep an eye on the population because you’re going see some changes in those numbers).

1982, 53% of traffic fatalities are alcohol related. That is at least one of the drivers and or occupants has a blood alcohol concentration, BAC, of .08 or above.

Thirty-five percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes had a BAC of 0.08 or above. So,more than half of all traffic fatalities have alcohol involved somehow and more than a third of all drivers involved had a BAC of 0.08 or above.

1983, the next year a television movie comes out about Lightner and it garners a lot of publicity for MADD. Membership shoots up.

At this point we’re starting to see some states raise their drinking ages back to 21. New Mexico, Tennessee, and Illinois have all gone to 21, while a few of the states who used to have a legal drinking age of 18 have gone up to 19.

If you’re looking at a map, what used to be a big block of “gotta be old to drink” West Coast and then a little block of “gotta be 21 to drink” states right in the middle of the country around Illinois and Indiana – those blocks are growing.

1984, this is Reagan’s reelection year. Congress approves MADD’s greatest desire, its biggest legislative success. This is a federal law, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

It introduces a penalty – states lose Federal highway dollars if they do not raise the minimum legal age for drinking to 21. This goes to court.

The legal drinking age goes up to 21 and stays there

By 1987, the US Supreme Court upholds that law in South Dakota v Dole.

I’ve talked in a previous episode about when I was growing up, I grew up in north Idaho, right on the border of Washington, eastern Washington state. And I can remember the line of cars coming into Idaho from Washington during that period because there’s two universities there, one for each side of the border. But on one side of the border, you have to be 21 to drink other side, 18-19. That little period in the eighties shaped the area where I grew up for decades to come.

It’s a period of shaking out in the United States that is settled, by the South Dakota v. Dole case. And let’s note that South Dakota has consistently had a lower than 21 drinking age since we got into this era of Vietnam and changing the age of voting.

1988, 1 year after that US Supreme Court decision, every state and the District of Columbia have changed their laws. You have to be 21 to buy alcohol anywhere in the US except for Puerto Rico and Guam.

By 1991, we have 16,000 alcohol impaired fat traffic fatalities, down from 21,000 in ’82.

1997. By this point, every state has established a maximum blood alcohol content of .10.

By this point, the proportion of crash fatalities that are alcohol related has fallen from 53% in 1982 to 34% in 97.

The proportion of drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher involved in fatal crashes has decreased from 35% in ‘82 to 20% in 1997. It’s going stay at or near these levels for the next eight years, and kind of bump around through the late nineties and early two thousands.

The beginning of school shootings

Now, a new current is going to form.

1999 and the nation is rocked by Columbine High School massacre. 11 students and one teacher are killed. 21 people injured. Everyone is horrified.

2001. Two years later, the 9/11 attacks happened and the US enters another very long period of war. In this case, we’re going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And by the way, our standard issue military rifle is still based on the AR 15.

By 2005, all states have now lowered the maximum blood alcohol content from 0.1 to 0.08 where it stands for the most part today.

2007, 13,000 alcohol impaired driving fatalities. That’s down 40% from ’82.

2008, a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which we’ve been quoting from, looks at the prevalence of driving under the influence 1982 to 2005.

It credits the drop in DUI fatalities to tougher federal and state laws on drinking ages.

“These alcohol programs and laws served as a general deterrent to all those who drink and drive by sending a message that the states were getting tougher on impaired driving. And hence these efforts made people think twice about getting behind the wheel after they had been drinking.”

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Importantly, they are talking about legal penalties leading to social change. It also mentions three completely non-punitive reasons for the drop in DUI related crashes,

  • The decreasing proportion of the population aged 18-34 from (This is the aging of the baby boomers)
  • The increasing proportion of licensed female drivers. Female drivers are generally much less likely to drink and drive than males.
  • A small reduction in per capita alcohol consumption

The other trend we’re tracking now, the school shootings trend, continues. Twenty-seven people are shot at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

2012, December 14. Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Twenty children between six and seven years old are shot and killed. Another six adult staff.

The next day Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is founded by Shannon Watson, Indianapolis, Indiana. It starts as a Facebook group page. I think it’s called 1 million Moms for Gun Control.

By the end of 2013, it has 130,000 members and chapters in all 50 states. The group specifically cites Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, as a model.

It’s different from another organization founded by the mother of a Sandy Hook victim called the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. But we’re starting to see this truly grassroots organizing form in response to the intolerable loss of children.

2013, Every Town for Gun Safety is formed when Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns Merges with Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense.

DUI fatalities are cut in half, school shootings keep ticking upward

2016. Now we have 10,500 alcohol impaired driving fatalities, which is down 50% from 1982.

The national population increased by nearly a hundred million people in that time. The population of the United States has gone up by like 40% in this time period. So we’re not talking about a per capita reduction in DUI fatalities. We’re not talking about how many crashes per a hundred thousand people.

The raw number of DUI fatalities has been cut in half, even while the population’s booming.

However, in the 2016-17 school year 42 students and staff were violently killed on campus, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

2019. An estimated 885,000 Americans are arrested for DUI

2021. We withdraw American troops from Afghanistan.

2022. Uvalde Texas. An 18-year-old opens fire at his former elementary school killing 21 people, 19 students and two teachers, and wounding 17 others.

The parents of the murdered children testify before Congress.

Congress passes the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major federal gun legislation in 30 years.

That brings us to 2023, the present day.

What happened this year?

A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds that DUI is now the No. 2 factor in fatal traffic accidents, behind speeding.

The Covenant School shooting occurs in Nashville, Tennessee. Three students, three adults killed.

The Washington Post reports that there have been 380 school shootings since Columbine.

Washington, along with some other states, passes bans on what’s being called “assault weapons.” That is, the weapons modeled after the AR-15, which made its debut in the military as the M-16, if you’ll remember, all the way back in 1969.

And we saw this lede the Washington Post just last week:

In firearm-friendly Texas, two Republicans on a House committee helped advance a bill to raise the minimum age to buy AR-15-style weapons. In Tennessee, a Republican governor known for championing looser gun laws has called a special legislative session to consider tighter ones “to strengthen the safety” of the state. In North Carolina, the GOP-dominated legislature dropped a proposal to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

In several capitols across red America, gun-control advocates say they are seeing faint — if, sometimes, fleeting — fissures in what has long been staunch Republican opposition to any whiff of firearms restriction.

The Washington Post

How did we get here? I would say reference to the history I just laid out, this is not a sudden shift about a historic turn, decades in the making. It’s powered by grieving mothers and grieving fathers, and people outraged by the loss of children. Every single shooting adds to the ranks. And elected leaders just have not been able to stop or even slow down school shootings.

I have personally had conversations with folks who own AR-15-based guns, and question whether specifically banning this sort of barrel or that kind of stock or this feature on a gun has any relevance to stopping insane people from attacking children.

I understand that there may not be a direct correlation, but at this point, the grieving, the mourning, the mothers – they have taken a side. People have formed up. They have picked their focus area. And their demands are becoming harder and harder for any politician to resist.

Also note, this year Washington also considered a proposal to follow Utah’s lead and lower the legal blood alcohol content limit from 0.08 to 0.05. Opponents of that idea said it would essentially mean you cannot have a single drink and still drive, which I think mad is probably fine with.

We never know in the present whether we’re done living out the campaigns of the past.

Let’s wrap this up.

I hope this timeline has demonstrated two truths. First, there are differences in the cultures of the United States. Those cultures include thoughts about what we drink, where we drink, and how we feel about drinking and driving. They include how many guns we have, the types of guns we have, what we use them for, and how we feel about them.

Second, the political force that build over the loss of children is far more powerful than those cultural differences.

People who have lost loved ones for what seems like an unreasonable or unjust reason will take action in any democracy, especially when the people who have been lost are children and women are allowed to vote. We should remember that it’s only been a hundred years since mothers have been able to vote in the United States.

The history of Mothers Against Drunk Driving includes making big changes in American society, including changing our federal laws and our state laws. That history gives us some clues about what to expect when it comes to stopping school shootings.

MADD chose a focus area. It was specifically dedicated to making it totally illegal to both drink and drive, and the group has never given up on the issue.

I would venture to say that many of the parents and activists alarmed by school shootings have already picked their focus area and that is restricting access to guns. Furthermore, I would argue that the political tide has already shifted. We are at an inflection point similar to 1983, when DUI deaths were very high and the unmet political demand for change was also very high.

Following that peak came federal laws, which were challenged and upheld by the US Supreme Court. That led to a rewrite of all state laws, which also subsequently withstood challenges. The ultimate result was a dramatic drop in DUI fatalities. Lives saved.

And we got an entire industry of lawyers who defend hundreds of thousands of people every year whose lives are changed when they are charged with violating those very powerful laws.

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