Earth to Democratic Presidential Wannabes: Constitutionally, Guns Don't Equate to Cars

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Former Sen. Bill Bradley has called for registering all handguns and licensing gun owners just like we do cars and drivers.

Al Gore, Bradley's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has countered with a less comprehensive proposal to register new handgun purchases and license their buyers.

President Clinton also compared cars and guns during his State of the Union Address when he came out in favor of Gore's proposal.

The call for gun registration and licensing is neither new nor likely to become law. Sadly, in analogizing guns to cars, Bradley, Gore and the president show a profound ignorance of the respective status of firearms and cars in federal and state law.

Gun ownership is a constitutionally protected right. The Bill of Rights, the writings of the country's founders, the vast majority of academic writings, and the most recent federal court decision on the matter all support this view.

The right to own firearms is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In addition, firearm ownership is also protected in most state constitutions and in consistent applications of the Supreme Court's 14th Amendment rulings, which extend protections of federally recognized civil rights by allowing them to be enforced against state governments applications that would protect the ownership of firearms as well.

We do not license rights. Imagine the federal government demanding that churches be tested to ensure they teach religion properly, and that they be licensed and registered before they could be established.

What about requiring federal licensing and registration of those who use printing presses, computers, desk-top publishers, printers and video cameras.

Car ownership and driving, rather than being rights guaranteed by the government, are privileges granted by state governments. The federal government neither licenses drivers nor registers cars.

There are other stark differences between cars and guns. Proponents of gun registration and licensing claim that we should do so for the same reason that we register cars and license drivers: public safety.

However, we register cars not for public safety reasons, but because they use public roadways and registration provides a regular stream of tax revenue for road upkeep.

We do license drivers for public safety reasons, but vehicles used only on private property -- as many trucks are used on ranches throughout the West -- require neither registration of the vehicle nor licensing of the driver. Guns, it should be noted, are most often used on private property.

The idea behind licensing is that, before a license is issued, prospective owners would have to pass a test similar to that passed by prospective drivers ensuring that they understand how their firearms function and how to use them lawfully and safely.

But, gun owners do not as a rule use guns irresponsibly. In 1995, there were more than 230 million guns in the United States and 1,214 accidental gun deaths, compared to 194 million cars and light trucks and more than 43,000 deaths from motor vehicle accidents.

Most firearm deaths are the result of either suicide or homicide, not accidents. In these cases, those using the firearms know precisely how to use the guns -- indeed, they use them with deadly effectiveness. A course on how firearms function, the law and safe handling is beside the point.

Despite these fundamental differences between guns and cars, in one respect they are similar. As mentioned above, we do not license drivers or register cars nationally. Each state has different laws on car registration and qualifications for driving -- which is also the situation with gun purchase, ownership and use.

Indeed, guns are often much more stringently regulated than cars. For example, handgun ownership is illegal in Washington, D.C., and Morton Grove, Ill., and in other jurisdictions, like New York, gun licenses are very difficult to obtain.

Waiting periods for gun purchases, like the 14-day waiting period in California, are not uncommon. Many states hold gun owners criminally responsible if they do not store their firearms so that unauthorized users cannot gain access to them. All new gun purchases require federal approval of the purchase. And to sell guns legally, as a business, you must be licensed by the federal government. None of these things is true of car ownership.

Gun owners have compiled an impressive safety record and gun ownership is a right not a privilege, so rather than licensing gun owners and registering guns, it may be time to rescind federal and state laws that restrict citizens' right to own and carry guns.

This would be constitutionally sound and, since guns are used five times more often to prevent crimes than commit them, better for public safety.