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devil duck

Guns and terrorism

So there was a bill in Congress a week or two ago to say "if you're on the terrorist watch list, you can't buy guns or explosives." Naturally, it was roundly defeated on a nearly-perfect party-line vote: Democrats voted for it, on grounds that if we can't trust you to board a commercial airliner, how can we trust you to carry a military assault weapon into a shopping mall, and Republicans voted against it, on grounds that Guns R The American Way, and if we don't kill this thing, the NRA will support our primary challengers the next time we run for re-election.

Except that the Republicans actually have a legitimate point. If you consider gun ownership and possession a fundamental individual right (as they do, although the courts have supported this only since 2008), the government shouldn't take that right away from you without due process of law, just as it shouldn't prevent you from voting, or imprison you, or kill you, without due process of law. (Never mind that Republicans seem to be all in favor of preventing people from voting, and imprisoning people, and killing people, without due process of law as long as those people are Those People.) In a momentary fling with the truth, prominent Republican Presidential candidates have pointed out that the terrorist watch list includes lots of people who shouldn't be there -- they have similar names to suspected terrorists, or something like that -- and once you're on the terrorist watch list, it's remarkably difficult to get off it.

So why can this error-riddled, non-legal list be used to keep people off commercial airliners? Because the right to ride a commercial airliner isn't mentioned in the Bill of Rights. But in practice, for many Americans, it's more important and useful to be able to ride an airliner than to carry a gun, and more important to be able to drive a car than either. (Ideally, the list should be made a lot more accurate, perhaps raising it to the level of "legal due process", before it's used to deprive anybody of any rights. But that's not happening.)

So what are the differences between gun ownership/possession and car ownership/driving? Both devices kill many thousands of people a year, mostly either their owners or innocent bystanders, almost never "bad guys". Guns kill far more people per capita in the U.S. than in any other developed nation; I think the same is true of cars, but don't have actual numbers at hand. Both devices are frequently used by "bad guys" in the commission of a crime. In order to drive a car, you need a license, which requires passing both a written and a practical exam, and doing it again every few years to renew your license; much of that is true for guns (although see this article about how strict it is). You can lose your driver's license, either temporarily or permanently, by repeated misuse (driving drunk, reckless driving, etc.) and I think the same is true of guns (again, strictness presumably varies from state to state). I don't think car buyers are subject to routine checks against their driving records (although they probably should be -- why would you buy a car if you don't plan to drive it?).

The biggest difference is that car owners are required to carry liability insurance, whose cost is determined by the market based on your behavior and record; a similar requirement would be entirely appropriate for gun owners. A free-market conservative might even support that, as a minimally-intrusive way of encouraging gun-owners to at least keep their guns locked up and unloaded, to not carry them in public unnecessarily, etc. -- not because it's illegal, but because the insurance company will raise my rates. Republican lawmakers won't support it any time in the next ten years, because it might discourage somebody somewhere from buying a gun at all, and that would cut into gun-industry profits and NRA blah blah. And they can say in their defense "but the right to drive a car isn't in the Bill of Rights."


Some other interesting differences:

1) With cars, we license both the device and the user: every car "in use" in the U.S. is supposed to have a visible license plate identifying it in case of misuse and linking it to its owner, and it needs to be inspected every year or two to make sure it's still safe to operate. The suggestion of registering every gun in use, with (say) ballistic fingerprints that more-or-less identify the individual gun and link it to its owner are viewed as Orwellian oppression. The notion of anyone other than the owner or manufacturer "inspecting" a gun, ditto. And it's perfectly legal to own, buy and sell guns with no government agency even knowing that it has happened.

2) Cars get smarter and safer every year, whether through government mandate, insurance company pressure, or owners' desire to not kill either themselves, their loved ones, or strangers. There is "smart gun" technology available that would dramatically reduce the number of accidental gun deaths, but it's not widely used: there are no government mandates or insurance company pressure, and apparently a significant fraction of gun owners consider themselves and their families immune to gun accidents as they wouldn't to car accidents.

3) It is universally illegal to drive a car while drunk or "impaired" by drugs. From a few minutes' web-surfing, it appears that if you're licensed to carry a gun, the license doesn't apply while you're drunk or impaired, or in places like bars where there's a lot of drinking... but if your state doesn't require a license to carry a gun in the first place, there's no problem with carrying it while drunk. And carrying a gun doesn't imply consent to an alcohol test, as driving a car does.

4) Car companies are liable for safety defects in the cars they manufacture. It's hard to hold a gun company liable for anything, either because a gun killing somebody is doing exactly what it was sold to do, or because gun companies have successfully lobbied for immunity for liability.

5) And of course, cars have lots of legitimate uses other than killing people. In urban areas, where a majority of Americans live, the only reason to carry a gun is to kill other human beings. Theoretically, the reason people buy them is for self-defense against bad guys, but in practice, most gun deaths are suicides, followed by accidents, then homicides, then self-defense.

Edited at 2015-12-15 11:57 am (UTC)
I saw recently the statistic that 8 children and teens die each day from guns in this second amendment nation. These are either completely innocent victims of accident or violence or actors of violence or suicide with brains known to be incompletely matured thus prone to impulsive behaviors that wouldn't happen in another few years. But if we couldn't beat the gun merchants after Sandy Hook, what on earth will it take. Children deserve a chance at life.