The discussion about guns in America generally falls into two polar opposite positions: do not regulate guns at all, or ban large parts of the spectrum of guns and heavily regulate ownership of the rest.
The guaranteed defense of the status quo invokes FOX/rightwing culture war stuff like the “right to own weapons of war.”
But there is a third position, entirely outside of that spectrum, which every actual “free market“ conservative in America could embrace, and liberals could be down with as well.
That is to treat guns the same way we treat cars.
Back around the turn of the 20th century, cars were replacing horses in a really big way and three problems became evident.
The first was that there were a lot of people driving cars who really did not know how to drive, and they were hurting and killing themselves and other people.
Second was that people were stealing them and it was difficult to track them back to their owners, even when they were found.
And the third problem was that completely innocent breadwinners who were driving just fine would get hit by other drivers, typically accidentally, but regardless of the intention of the other driver they would end up dead or injured for life, wiping out the ability to support their families.
Over the course of a few decades, we figured out a simple solution to all three of these problems:
- Register cars so there is a provable chain of ownership;
- Require a license to drive that can only be obtained by proving proficiency as a driver and an understanding of the rules of the road;
- And demand liability insurance so if someone was injured or killed they or their family would not be financially wiped out.
So why not simply apply the same logic to guns?
When you buy a gun, it gets registered with the state. Every year that registration is renewed for a small fee that covers the expenses to the state of gun injuries, gun suicides, and gun homicides. If you lose or sell that gun, just like if your car gets stolen or sold, you immediately notify the state. Having or using a gun that is unregistered would be just as much an offense as trying to drive an unregistered car on the freeway without a license plate.
When you go to buy a car, they typically ask for your driver’s license. This is mostly to identify you, because no state requires you to have a driver’s license in order to buy a car, but every state in the union requires you to have a driver’s license to drive that car off the lot. Thus, no car dealer wants the responsibility or liability of letting an unlicensed and therefore presumably incompetent driver loose on the streets.
State DMV’s could easily expand their services to include a written gun safety knowledge test and a shooting range, so people who want to become gun owners can demonstrate that they understand the laws in the state, common-sense gun ownership practices, and have a level of proficiency that makes it far less likely they will accidentally kill themselves or others.
This could even be a revenue source for the states, and while a gun shop could sell you a gun without a shooter’s license, they would not let you leave the premises with it until you get your license.
But the insurance is the part conservatives should love the most. It would create a whole new marketplace for the insurance industry, which has done very, very well over the years with car insurance. And it is all about the so-called “free market.”
Car insurance companies nowadays pay very careful attention to many different aspects of your life when it comes to the price they will quote you for your policy. They buy information from online aggregators about your medical history, drug usage, drinking habits, previous run-ins with the law, and some are even using GPS information from your cellphone or smart car to determine how fast or erratically you drive.
If they were underwriting gun policies, it is a pretty safe bet they would be checking out backgrounds far more thoroughly than the FBI does right now.
It is hard to imagine, in fact, that any insurance company would have written a policy for the Newtown shooter or his mother, or for the guy who shot up Club Q in Colorado. Anybody building an arsenal, amassing ammunition, or with a history of violence would immediately come under scrutiny.
And, just as a car dealership would not let you drive a car off the lot without your driver’s license, they also would not let you do it until you had confirmed with them that your car liability insurance policy also covers your new car. Gun dealers would do the same, just to protect themselves from liability.
And none of this would require government to “take away people’s guns.“
If people ended up surrendering their guns to state buyback programs or otherwise disposing of them, it would be because they could not get insurance, or the insurance company considered them such a risk that the price was too high for them. It would be the “free market“ that took away their guns, not the “damn gummint.”
This would not, of course, eliminate the need for common-sense regulation of firearms manufacturing and sale, anymore than requiring those three things for cars means that you can drive down the street without headlights, seat-belts, or a muffler.
And, of course, there is nothing new or outrageous about this: we already have gun regulation. Just try to buy a fully automatic weapon or a sawed-off shotgun without a license from ATF. They are not banned: you just have to have registration and license.
If anything, bringing in private insurance companies like we do with cars would encourage a broader and stronger marketplace for safer guns. And, yes, there is such a thing. You can now buy guns that cannot be fired unless they recognize your fingerprint, for example. Others require you to wear a wristwatch or piece of jewelry that has a microchip in it that the gun senses, allowing it to be taken off safety and fired only in the presence of its legal owner.
Guns that can be easily converted to full-automatic-fire with things like a bump-stock would become harder and harder to insure, the same way sports-cars that can go 150 mph cause insurance companies to get a little nervous (and expensive).
But if somebody is that committed to owning a gun they, just like the guy who wants to own a Maserati, will just have to cough up the extra cash for the insurance policy. Just consider the real-life situation today.
If the Trump-loving Nazi who shot up Lewiston, Maine recently had used his car to “accidentally” drive into a crowd of people outside the bowling alley and killed a bunch of them, the families of every single victim could receive a substantial check from his auto insurance company. The company would not like it, but they would pay.
Because he killed those people with a gun instead of a car, however, none of his victims will see a penny. Their families will receive no help for the cost of burying their loved ones, and if people had been left injured, as they often are in these cases, there is no help for their medical expenses and rehabilitation.
While most automobile insurance policies generally have an exclusion allowing them to refuse to pay for “intentional acts” committed with a car, Congress could easily mandate gun insurance to include intentional acts of murder or mayhem.
It is unlikely America is going to solve its gun problem with a single, sweeping piece of legislation the way Australia did back in 1996 when they essentially outlawed all semiautomatic guns and launched a massive nationwide by that program.
That would probably be optimal, but given how widespread guns are in the United States, how the five Republicans on the US Supreme Court with their Citizens United decision legalized political bribery by groups like the NRA, and how deeply buried guns are in rightwing identity politics and the sense of manhood among insecure or poorly-endowed men, it is probably not going to happen.
Treating guns like cars, however, is something everybody can understand. We are familiar with it. We have all dealt with it.
Who can argue that it is crazy or wild to suggest that the “registration, license and insurance“ that every cop asks for at every traffic stop would not be reasonable when somebody is found with a gun?
And when they try to tell you “guns are in the Constitution, but cars are not,” just direct them to Article I, Section 8, paragraph 6 that specifically gives Congress the power to raise taxes and spend money for “roads.”
Our right to freely travel, including between states (a topic of discussion at the Constitutional Convention) is every bit as real (more so, really) as our right to bear arms and tracks back in Common Law to the era of the Magna Carta. In fact, it is in the “main” body of the Constitution, not just an amendment that was tacked on later.
If we are going to solve our gun crisis in America, we need a little creativity. Hopefully this idea, which I first floated in my book The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment, can provide a start.