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Let’s regulate guns the way we regulate cars

This was originally published in the June 27 issue of The Herald-Sun.

I love cars.  I grew up with them.  At age 16, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more. I’ve used cars for all sorts of occasions — work, leisure, fun. In all honesty, I find it difficult to imagine life without cars.

Sure, in an ideal world there should probably be fewer cars, less paved-over arable land, less waste of materials. Certainly much less fossil fuel use. But driving? It’s fun, it’s convenient, not to mention the only way to get to most places.

I used to be opposed to guns, much the same way some of my environmental friends are opposed to cars. And, yes, I still think an ideal world would probably require very few guns, people instead being able to resolve conflict peacefully. But we don’t yet live in such a world.

So I’m ready to stipulate: We need guns. And I’m not just talking about hunting or law enforcement or the military.  Good people need guns, at least some of them. The NRA is right: There are cases in which guns can help prevent slaughter and mayhem. We don’t yet know exactly what happened in Orlando, but it seems reasonable to suggest that the gruesome death toll might’ve been even higher had it not been for an off-duty cop forcing the madman to retreat into a bathroom — with a gun.

But here is the question to which I cannot find an answer: Why, as Americans, can we not be reasonable about guns? Support the right to carry by creating a system that makes sense, a system that keeps us safe? Why not treat guns the same way we treat cars?

Imagine what we would say about a crazed lunatic driving a tank through the streets of Manhattan. I doubt many people even on the fringe of our political discourse would rise to the defense of such an act. But it is the exact equivalent of carrying an AR-15 assault rifle.

Sure, in the early days, some citizens were opposed to regulating our freedom to drive — limiting size and function of cars, forcing drivers to get a license, or asking passengers to put on seat belts. But these common-sense interventions literally saved tens of thousands of lives. And they don’t curtail the fun or function of driving.  To the contrary, they make it better, safer, allowing more people to use and enjoy it.

Outlawing tanks on the streets of Manhattan, requiring people to take driving tests and obtain insurance — those are not assaults on our rights or freedoms to drive.  They are necessary preconditions in order for us to enjoy our rights and freedoms.

Unlike most western democracies, we don’t allow felons who’ve served their sentences to vote. But people on the terror-watch list can go buy assault rifles. Legally. It’s crazy.

And what about the NRA?  One organization — not a political party, not a mega corporation — can effectively crush any meaningful public debate about regulating guns. The vast majority of common-sense Americans can’t find the political muster and money to liberate us from this insane choke-hold and do for guns what we’ve so successfully done for cars?  Really?

The NRA leadership seems hell-bent on opposing any and all common-sense regulations. But this only works because we let them. Why don’t we expose them as the fringe minority they are? Push back on their fear-mongering game? Have the fortitude to stand up for all of the above — gun rights and freedom and safety.

All we need to do is regulate guns the same way we regulate cars. It’s not only possible. It’s been done. There are more households with guns in Switzerland than in the U.S. Gun violence?  Essentially not a problem. And what about Canada? Lots of guns, very little gun violence.

Here is my proposal: Military-style weapons have no place in American households or on American streets; every gun needs to be registered; every gun owner should meet basic criteria of a background check (not be on terrorist watch-list; not be a convicted violent offender, etc.) and get a license; use of guns requires basic training; periodically, guns need to be checked for safety, licenses need to be renewed.

We understand the need for all that when it comes to driving, because freedom comes with responsibility. Let’s grow up and do the same for guns.

Dirk Philipsen is an associate research professor at Duke University.


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