Why Not Regulate Guns Like Cars?

A recent discussion I had prompted me to revisit this topic (which I last discussed on-blog five years ago). There are lots of interesting, plausible arguments in the gun control debates — and some that seem appealing but on close viewing prove to be just plain unsound.

One of the latter kind is "Why not regulate guns like cars?" The implicit argument here is "Why not require licenses, registration, tests, and so on for gun possession?" See, for instance, Chicago's Million Moms March on Mother's Day, PR Newswire, Apr. 27, 2000, quoting Million March organizer Donna Dees-Thomases as saying "We want Congress to create a meaningful gun policy in this country that treats guns like cars"; Partnership for Prevention's New Report to Congress Recommends Gun Owner Licensing and Gun Registration, U.S. Newswire, Mar. 24, 2000, quoting Handgun Control, Inc. president Michael Barnes as saying "For years now, we have been calling on Congress to treat guns like cars by a system of licensing and registration."

This argument is odd because cars are basically regulated as follows (I rely below on California law, but to my knowledge the rules are similar throughout the country):

(1) No federal licensing or registration.

(2) Any person may use a car on his own private property without any license or registration. See, e.g., California Vehicle Code §§ 360, 12500 (driver's license required for driving on "highways," defined as places that are "publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel"); California Vehicle Code § 4000 (same as to registration).

(3) Any adult may get a license to use a car in public places by passing a fairly simple test that virtually everyone can pass.

This is pretty much how many gun rights advocates would like to see guns regulated, and is in fact pretty close to the dominant model in the 40 states that now allow pretty much any law-abiding adult to get a license to carry a concealed weapon: No need to register or get a license to have a gun at home, and a simple, routine test through which any law-abiding citizen can get a state license to carry a gun in public.

Gun control advocates would in reality prefer a much more onerous system of regulations for guns than for cars. Of course, one can certainly argue that guns should be regulated more heavily than cars; thoughtful gun control advocates do indeed do this. But then one should candidly admit that one is demanding specially burdensome regulation for guns — and not claim to be "merely asking that guns be regulated like cars."

Incidentally, I don't claim any great originality on these points: Others have made them before me, see, e.g., David Kopel's Taking It to the Streets, Reason, Nov. 1999. But some things are worth repeating.