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What If We Treated Guns Like Cars? Then We Might Be Able to Enact Truly “Common-Sense” Gun Laws

Trevor Burrus

Another mass shooting has sparked a gun-control debate in
America, and gun-control advocates and gun-rights supporters are
talking past each other as usual.

And there’s one question that often comes up: What if we treated
guns like cars?

Cars, after all, kill around 40,000 people per year-about as many as guns-with 2016 being
the deadliest year on American roads since 2007. Yet, in general,
we regard auto fatalities as an inevitable consequence of allowing
private citizens to own and drive cars. As long as cars are going
to be in private hands, then there will be car accidents, including
large accidents with multiple fatalities. We expect and accept that
the number of auto fatalities increases as more people own cars,
and we expect and accept that sometimes cars would be misused with
tragic consequences.

We can do this because there is broad agreement about the value
of cars and therefore little fear that cars will be banned or
regulated to the point that normal people won’t have access to
commonly used vehicles. And, due to that broad agreement, it is
easier to pass regulations to make both cars and drivers safer.

Through the guns/cars
comparison, we can see how the gun debate is fundamentally a
culture debate.

In fact, many gun-rights advocates would be okay with regulating
guns like cars. There would be no federal registration or
licensing, state-granted licenses would be given to people over 16,
17, or 18 years old after passing a simple test, the license would
be good in all 50 states, and using a gun on private property
wouldn’t require a license. As others have pointed out, in many ways this
would be less onerous than current firearm regulations. Purchasing
a car requires no background check or waiting period, and cars can
be purchased by people who have been convicted of a felony, use
illegal drugs, have been dishonorably discharged from the military,
or are illegal aliens-all of whom are “prohibited persons” under
current federal gun laws.

So why don’t we have such purportedly “common-sense” regulations
for guns? Quite frankly because many gun-control advocates want to
go much further than “common-sense” restrictions. Gun-rights
supporters know that gun-controllers won’t stop after enacting,
say, “universal” background checks. While a significant number of
gun-control advocates ultimately prefer total prohibition, the
majority likely prefer limiting access to guns in a manner that
would be akin to limiting cars to licensed NASCAR drivers on
official NASCAR tracks.

Gun-control supporters don’t get the comparison between guns and
cars. People need cars, but no one needs a gun, they argue. Whereas
they see cars as integral to a modern, flourishing civilization,
guns are throwbacks to a primitive time when we settled disputes
via duels. Moreover, there’s admittedly a significant difference
between an intentional and an accidental killing. If you think a
gun is only a tool for destruction, then the comparison makes no

But gun-rights supporters understand the analogy. A gun, like a
car, is both an effective tool and a deadly instrument. The
qualities that make a car or a gun an effective tool are the same
qualities that make it a deadly instrument. A good car or a good
gun is reliable, easily controllable, and gets the job done. And
while there are some cars and guns that are more dangerous due to
shoddy construction or because they go particularly fast, no car or
gun is good “only for killing.” Yes people die from guns or cars,
sometimes in horrific ways, but that’s no reason to ban either

Through the guns/cars comparison, we can see how the gun debate
is fundamentally a culture debate. Guns divide us like so many
other things. Liberals and conservatives live in different places,
go to different restaurants, and watch
different shows. Conservatives
own guns more often and are more
likely to understand that, while a gun is a tool that can be
misused, it is also enjoyable to spend an afternoon at the shooting
range. For some liberals, an afternoon at the shooting range is
akin to watching dog-fighting or bear-baiting.

There is no analogous culture debate about cars. Liberals and
conservatives alike enjoy cars, understand their value, and
generally understand how they work. We all understand that a car’s
deadliness is inexorably tied to its usefulness. And there is broad
support for “common sense” regulations to make cars and drivers
safer because we don’t worry that safety regulations or licensing
requirements are part of a plan to ultimately ban or severely
restrict cars.

But if only half the country owned cars, and that ownership
roughly tracked political divisions, then we’d see similar Facebook
debates sparked by posts exclaiming “40,000 people did in car
accidents last year. When will we stop the madness?!?” Jeeps might
be described as “military-style” vehicles that are clearly only
meant for war, ignoring the fact that Jeeps are just normal cars.
Car owners would try to explain that one person’s misuse of a car
doesn’t justify banning whole classes of cars; that the only way to
stop auto fatalities entirely is to ban and confiscate cars, an
unreasonable goal in a country with hundreds of millions of cars
and a deeply entrenched car culture; and that the focus should be
on drivers rather than cars because stopping bad drivers is more
effective than banning bad drivers’ cars. Bad drivers, after all,
will just switch to different cars.

If gun-control advocates could better understand the gun/car
comparison, then perhaps more productive conversations can
happen-or at least less hateful. A more productive conversation
about guns-like a more productive conversation about cars-would
look to the conditions that help create fatalities rather than just
focusing on the object itself. The battle against drunk driving
didn’t focus on banning drunk drivers’ cars; it focused on the
conditions that create drunk driving-such as being over-served in
bars-and sought to raise awareness through a variety of
informational campaigns. Similarly, a productive conversation about
guns would also examine the conditions that foment gun violence,
especially a failed and immoral drug war,
rather than just focusing on guns. Instead, gun-control proposals
are often arbitrary, ineffective, based in ignorance about guns, and
seemingly part of a long-term effort to ban guns entirely-and it
drives gun-rights supporters crazy.

Trevor Burrus is a Research Fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.