Should We Treat Guns More Like Cars?

Where Felons Get Their Guns (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If our goal is to reduce gun violence, we must re-conceptualize the discourse around guns and focus more on the risks and responsibilities that go along with gun-owning.

As of 2 October 2015,
The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act
is the subject of a White House petition.
Sign the petition by clicking here.

We seldom talk about the responsibilities that positively accompany owning a gun.  “Gun control,” the issue we argue about instead, quickly organizes itself around several fixed and immutable nodes, in which the same few phrases—”individual rights,” “2nd Amendment,” and “semi-automatic weapons”—invariably feature.  If people from opposing camps talk about the issue at all, conversation quickly becomes so dichotomized it stalls.  We need new ideas to get beyond the strategic and ideological stalemate.  We need to stop focusing on inanimate objects (guns) and start talking about people.

We can’t even come to the point of agreeing that gun violence is a problem.  People who have seen gun violence up close understandably want to rein in irresponsible use, but they too often fall into the trap of assuming that if gun ownership were limited, the problem of gun violence would go away.  On the other side of the issue are law-abiding and responsible gun-owners (who make up a majority), who bridle at proposals that essentially criminalize and stigmatize their activities.

The huge population of Americans who own and use guns responsibly is not the problem.  Gun violence results when guns are used irresponsibly: when a person is careless, criminal, crazy, or enraged.  A gun is a tool.  How guns are used in our society is a function of our culture as much as our laws.

While the Second Amendment makes it difficult to regulate gun ownership, we can hope to change how guns are used and treated in our culture.  As Clarence Page has pointed out on the McLaughlin Group, some countries with high rates of gun ownership have low rates of gun violence.  Becoming such a society should be our goal.

World map of countries, by number of guns per 100 residents (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Is there something to be gained from “normalizing” gun ownership, while at the same time expecting at least as much from a gun owner as from a person who owns a car?  The parallel is useful, because car ownership offers a positive instance of incorporating a potentially lethal instrument into our culture in a way that minimizes risk and maximizes safety.

Like guns, cars, though useful, can be dangers to their owners and to other people.  Which is why we, as a society, require that cars be registered, and that their drivers be educated and licensed.  Moreover, to ensure that those who wish to own and drive cars do so without cost to others, we require that owners buy auto insurance.  Auto insurance companies ply a flourishing trade, because they have discovered just how to assess all the various risks and costs associated with a particular individual owning a particular car.

No one questions our “right” to own an automobile.  There are millions and millions of vehicles and drivers on American streets.  Meanwhile, however, a structure has evolved around car-owning intended to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, we do it safely.

Get the insurance industry involved

Treating guns like cars, and insuring them, could have many benefits.  Some of the benefits would accrue to gun-owners; others to society collectively.  In particular, insurers could place an actuarial value on the specific hazards involved in the ownership of a specific gun.  Individuals wishing to buy semi-automatic weapons would be free to do so, but the insurance costs would provide an incentive to think twice and go easy.

Individual gun owners would have an incentive to see that guns insured in their name were not used in the commission of crime.  They would have a stronger incentive to report the loss or theft of a gun promptly.  Nearly half of all firearms used in the commission of felonies are lost, stolen, or borrowed.  Drawing a sharper line between criminal gun use and legal gun ownership would in itself encourage more personal responsibility.

A more market-oriented approach to reducing gun violence would open up a whole new field for the insurance industry, and might gain more support among lawmakers than does the state-heavy approach that most liberals tout now.  This approach might also foster an alliance between legal gun owners and other law-abiding citizens, an alliance that is essential if we hope to minimize gun violence in our time.

REMEMBER: As of 2 October 2015,
The Firearm Insurance Requirement Act
is the subject of a White House petition.
Sign the petition by clicking here.

Top Image: Where felons get their guns, from this source.
(If you know of a more recent version of this figure, please contact me.)

Bottom image: World map of countries by number of guns per capita, from this source.

Nicholas Kristoff, A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths, NYT, October 3, 2015.
House Bill Would Require Gun Owners to Have Liability Insurance, The Hill, May 29, 2015.
Nicholas Kristoff, Our Blind Spot About Guns, NYT, July 2014.
Gun Deaths Exceed in Motor Vehicle Deaths in Ten States, Huffington Post, May 2012.
Suburban Shops Main Source of Guns in Chicago Crimes, Chicago Tribune, August 2012.
Alvarez: Law Could Discourage “Straw Buyers” of Guns, Chicago Sun-Times, September 2012.

This article was featured on the #Gun Crisis: Philadelphia website.

8 responses

  1. Hi Susan,

    A great post as always.

    Have you read “Trayvon Martin and America’s Gun Laws,” Jill Lepore’s article in the New Yorker from April 23, 2012? There is a lot of information there.

    Despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, I am unconvinced that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. I would settle for control over automatic weapons and their ammunition. This will not happen because there is so much money involved. The gun and ammunition industry control the NRA as far as I can tell. They will not agree to anything that hurts sales.

    Republican lawmakers in Florida have legislated that physicians cannot discuss the risks of guns in the home with their patients. I do not think you will find any Republicans willing to agree that guns are dangerous.

    I am surprised you would concede an individual right to own automatic weapons. Citizens should not have a right to be an untrained army of one. I am also against untrained policemen. The professional police know the job is hard enough even with training.

    It seems unlikely that historical precedent, reason, and a concern for public safety will trump money and paranoia.

    Thanks, Margie

    Ed: The online version of Jill Lepore’s article is here: One Nation, Under the Gun

    • Margie,
      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and for taking the time to write in. As the nature of your comments suggests, there is a stalemate in the rights debate that we’re unlikely to break. We may believe something that is contrary to the Supreme Court’s rulings, and we may disapprove of the Second Amendment and dispute its meanings, but it is very difficult to make an Amendment to the Constitution go away. It can be done, but it is one of the most arduous political goals–one we probably couldn’t achieve in our lifetimes.

      I like Jill Lepore, but I don’t find her arguments about the intended meaning of the 2nd Amendment particularly convincing. The country was founded in a guerilla war and this was something the Founders saw fit to provide for in perpetuity. Regardless of my own opinion, I see this as a part of our tradition that’s almost impossible to undo.

      Does this mean we can’t do anything to lessen crimes perpetrated with guns? The answer is no. But gun violence isn’t a single thing–it’s committed with all kinds of guns, and many kinds of perpetrators. What I embrace is any set of new ideas that holds hope of reducing sociopathic shooting sprees (of the kind occurring out West) and the types of street killings that are plaguing the poor neighborhoods of Chicago today. The ideas presented here are offered in the hope of changing a stale dynamic and identifying new allies and alliances that might prove capable of reducing gun crime.

    • I would agree with your analysis on the money and power in this issue. So much brainpower going into avoiding the statistical facts and thinking of ways to convince people that unregulated guns isn’t the problem. People DO take drugs; they DO develop psychological problems; they DO just do bad things. So why make guns accessible to all of them? How is it possible that this “right” could be so much more important than the many victims, when it predictably goes astray again and again?

  2. Miss Barsy, I find your comments most intelligent. Thank you for being a voice of actual reason instead of mere propaganda.

    The graph you present is most interesting; 81% of all illegal firearms obtained by criminals come from unlicensed and in the light of ordinary events, untraceable sources. I suppose ‘we’ could regulate flea markets and further restrict people in their daily lives. One may sell a car without a background check – more automobiles are used to perpetrate crimes than firearms on a given day.

    I find the comments made about ‘automatic’ weapons most enlightening. Miss Spoerl seems to be unaware that to buy an ‘automatic’ weapon requires a Federal (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [BATFE]) tax stamp in the amount of $200, a background check spanning several months (also by BATFE) and the price of the firearm – the cheapest I’ve seen recently being in the $20,000 range. Miss Spoerl also seems to be unaware no automatic weapons have been manufactured in the United States for non-military or police possession since 1984 or so.

    I wonder what ‘controls’ she would like to see in place?

    Miss Barsy, you are correct; blaming an inanimate object for human misbehavior is both futile and counterproductive. The possession of firearms in the hands of citizens stop far more crimes than prohibition ever has done. As you are no doubt aware, the theater in Colorado that was selected for the mass murder lately was selected on the basis that theater does not allow patrons to enter armed. Prohibiting guns kills innocent people.

    As a nation – spurred on by the oblivious Left – we have ‘tightened’ firearms sales and ownership greatly since the middle 1960s. That same period of time has demonstrated a massive growth in violent crimes – murder, rape, armed robbery, personal theft, home invasion robberies – in our nation. Except of course, for those areas least affected by firearms prohibition.

    I find it repellent anyone can with a straight face suggest we do more of the same. And a deep shame to logical thought and free thinking.

    • Mr Montgomery,
      Thank you for writing in. My husband had mentioned to me the same thing about automatic weapons.

      A few months back David Brooks and Gail Collins observed that the “gun issue” looks very different to people depending on where they live, partly because the manifestations of gun violence are different, but also because attitudes towards guns and gun-owning also differ greatly. As in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, we each apprehend a different part of the beast. We have to keep talking and putting together the parts of the puzzle in order to achieve the goal of a safer civil society, where people, whether urban, suburban, or rural, can go about their daily lives without fear that they or their families might be the victims of a gun-related crime.

      My own position is somewhere between yours and Margie Spoerl’s. Living as I do in Chicago, I am preoccupied with the sort of street violence that has left us with homicide statistics that exceed the nation’s total loss of life in Afganistan. I believe I am right in stating that gun-homicides have actually been declining nationally since the 1990s, yet in Chicago we are seeing an increase in drive-by homicides that are leaving innocent children and youth dead. And while national rates have been dropping in most categories (say, in the number of murders committed in which the victim is an intimate of the offender), the rate of murders committed by unknown offenders has been on the rise. Murders like these, which go unsolved, understandably intensify Americans’ desire to find a way to curb the flow of weapons that end up being used in violent crimes, and to improve the available techniques for tracking down perpetrators and bringing them to account for these awful crimes.

      I cannot agree, though, with your assertion that placing guns in the hands of citizens has done more to deter crime than gun control has ever done. Gun violence–which is contingent on a readiness to use a gun against a fellow citizen–whether to commit a crime, “level the playing field,” or “settle a score,” is deeply conditioned by culture. At the state level, the highest rates of gun violence are found in the South and the West, where attitudes about when it is appropriate to use a gun are still influenced by an archaic “culture of honor.” States that have some gun restrictions on the books have lower levels of gun violence than those that have none.

      Therefore, while I believe that it is politically and strategically fruitless to seek to restrict gun ownership (as provided for in the Second Amendment), I am at the same time deeply averse to the idea that any of us should set ourselves up as “a government of one,” as if our governments and our own system of laws are not adequate for the maintenance of public order. Instead, more trust in one another and in the rule of law should be the order of the day.

      Again, I appreciate your thoughtful and articulate comment. Thank you again for taking the time and trouble to write in.


    • Do you really think restricting ownership is the same thing as blaming the gun? One can fully blame society’s neglect, blame the person who did the crime, blame their mother, blame the school, etc., etc. and that does not mean that restricting ownership and sale of guns would not make it harder for these people to have a gun in their hand when they snap.
      I certainly don’t blame guns. People need to be responsible. At ALL levels.

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