The federal government began requiring automakers to standardize seat belts in 1968. And over the next two decades, most states passed laws requiring people to wear them. A federal mandate on airbags followed, in 1998, requiring all cars sold in the United States to have front-seat airbags.
Those laws helped usher in a cultural shift in the way people thought about cars—and, in turn, how they shopped for them.
“Motorists had generally been apathetic about safety devices until recent decades,” Roger White, a historian of road vehicles and technologies at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, told me last year for a story I wrote about the history of the airbag. “The impetus [for better safety] was not coming from motorists. A lot of people associated seat belts with reckless driving like stunt drivers.”
By the 1980s and 1990s, people increasingly saw safety technologies as a selling point. Companies like Volvo, and more recently Tesla, successfully marketed their vehicles to appeal to this new sensibility.
But for carmakers, beyond wanting to sell their cars to safety-minded consumers and beyond needing to follow government regulations, there was a third factor driving improved safety technologies: liability.
This is where the potential similarities between car culture and gun culture in the United States sharply diverge. Whereas car manufacturers are subject to major lawsuits for safety defects, gunmakers are largely protected from such legal action.
A law passed by Congress in 2005 gives gun manufacturers special immunity from many kinds of litigation. (The law, known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, has been a recent sticking point among Democratic presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton has said she wants to repeal it. Bernie Sanders, who voted in favor of the act as a member of Congress, now says lawmakers should “tighten it up,” The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.)
For people who are focused on improving gun-safety technology, that law represents a major obstacle to a larger cultural shift in favor of gun safety like the one the helped prompt automakers to manufacture safer cars.
“The gun industry is exempted from these lawsuits,” said Robert McNamara, the founder of TriggerSmart, a company that is building a system that uses radio frequencies to determine whether an authorized person is holding a gun. “And the gun industry is the only industry in America—I don't know of any other in the world—that has this kind of exemption.”
The broad immunity that gunmakers enjoy is unusual, even among a rare class of industries shielded from certain kinds of lawsuits. Here’s how The Washington Post explained it last year:
Few industries have federal liability immunity. Vaccine manufacturers have limited protection from lawsuits if their vaccine led to an injury. The federal government enacted this immunity to encourage companies to produce more vaccines without the fear of lawsuits, for their benefit to public health. Another example is federal protection for the airline industry from lawsuits arising from the September 11, 2001, attacks. But unlike the gun law, both cases established a compensation scheme for victims to recover money for damages.
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is one of the linchpins to improving gun safety. But the cultural aspect of the debate on guns is just as important. Gunmakers, understandably, focus on making products that consumers want to buy. And some American gun buyers have demonstrated everything from disinterest in improved safety to outright antagonism for it.