Why the Key to Curbing Gun Violence and Ending Mass Shootings Lies in Our Driving Laws
We already have the template for safer gun ownership — it’s time we put it into law.
When I was 16, I got my driver’s permit. At 16 and 4 months I walked into my first Driver’s Ed class at Conard High School. My teacher told our class that the reason we were there is because driving a car is like “carrying a loaded weapon.” I then had to watch a video about safe (and unsafe) driving, including images of violent car crashes — what went wrong when that “loaded weapon” went off.
Cars can be dangerous. Cars can kill. That’s why we had to learn to use them properly, he said. That’s why we had to learn the rules of the road. That’s why we had to take classroom and road instruction, practice alongside a licensed driver and then pass an eye test, a written test, and a practical exam. Every single one of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has at least one testing requirement in order to obtain a license before legally operating a vehicle, regardless of age.
So explain to me why when it comes to an actual loaded weapon there are no courses, no required reading, no horrifying video viewing, no skills training, no test to pass, no universally required instruction or gun license?
We have the template for safe gun use and ownership: It lies in our driving laws. This is policy that can and should be enforced nationally.
This isn’t a new proposition of mine, and I am certain I am not the only individual to think of this one-to-one comparison between driving and guns. But the events of the past week in Uvalde finally shattered me. When I feel broken, I write and I write with data.
Training and licensing, when it comes to firearms, is already a codified practice in America — for some. Military soldiers receive firearms training, as do police officers, peace officers, and security guards. In 2019, the U.S. Army instituted a “sweeping overhaul of how it will train Soldiers in using small arms — rifles, pistols and automatic rifles — a revamp that adds tougher standards and combat-like rigor to training and testing marksmanship.” A pistol, or handgun, is the most common firearm that gun owners of a single gun possess. Soldiers must learn to use them; civilians do not. Phase 1 of three Army marksmanship training includes: disassembly and assembly of your weapon, identification of parts, function check, magazine loading and unloading, ammunition types and care, loading and unloading your weapon, correcting malfunctions, front and rear sight adjustments, peer coaching, eight cycles of function and troubleshooting. In the Army National Guard, the first three weeks of training includes learning to assemble, disassemble, and care for an M16. (Proper firearm use is among the first skills in basic training!) At West Point, two of the four pillars of military training are rifle marksmanship and crew served weapons familiarization.
So WHY can a civilian walk into a gun show or a store and purchase a firearm without any proof — like a license — that they know how to safely operate and own it?
Personally, I never wish to own a gun. I do not want to be in a house with a gun. I do not like guns. Their mere presence unsettles me. But I respect that others wish to own them and that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment declares they have a right to do so. What they do not have a right to is lawless use and ownership.
The thing is: The American majority agrees with this. According to a 2021 Pew Research Study, 53% of all Americans favor stricter gun laws. Where we lose our way lies in what those gun laws should be.
The answer is staring us in the face. We don’t need to invent a system; we can transpose driving laws to gun laws.
Testing and Licensing
To operate and/or own a gun an individual should need a license and should have to qualify for that license:
1. When it comes to vehicles and driving, the eye exam determines whether your eyesight and peripheral vision meet the standards to safely operate a motor vehicle. If you need to wear glasses or contact lenses to pass the vision screening, you must wear them when you drive, and your license will show this restriction. Comparably, aspiring gun licensees should have to take an eye exam, measuring physical competency, and a psych exam to measure mental and emotional competency.
2. The written assessment confirms that drivers understand road signs, legal conduct on the road, and parking. Comparably, a written test for gun licensees should include identifying types of weapons and ammunition, gun laws in that state, plus cleaning and storage procedures.
3. The road test confirms one can competently operate an actual vehicle, that they can execute specific driving maneuvers safely. Licensees should have to demonstrate they know the parts of their weapon, how to assemble and disassemble it, how to clean it, as well as how to shoot a target.
In every state of the union, if you break a law on the road there are consequences — tickets with fines, points applied against your driving record and license, even suspension or total revocation. Likewise, we should enforce punishments for disobeying safe gun practices. If you have points against your gun license, you should not be able to purchase a weapon. If your license is suspended, you shouldn’t be permitted to buy or use a firearm for a specified period of time, etc. This would limit the ability to purchase, use, or own a firearm. This is where background checks come in. An individual’s record of gun use must be a factor in their ability to acquire a weapon. If you abuse your privilege, you lose it — just like driving.
Each of these components (eye exam, psych evaluation, background check, written test, practical assessment) test a different set of competencies and skills — all of which combined will lead to safer operation and safer communities. Not everyone will pass these tests, which raises the barrier to entry.
You may argue that someone with ill intent can still apply for a license, still learn how to use legal weapons, still kill people. True. You may argue that people will buy guns on the black market. True. This system won’t stop every single gun death, just as the system hasn’t prevented all automobile accidents. But research shows these limits can and will drastically reduce gun deaths and mass shootings.
The Giffords Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence concluded that “between 2009 and 2012 states with universal background-check requirements on handguns had 35% fewer gun deaths per person than states with looser regulations.”
Missouri previously had a permit-to-purchase gun law that the state abolished. “The repeal was associated with a 23% increase in gun homicide rates,” according to a study from the Centre for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This suggests that the permit-to-purchase law reduced that rate. Treating guns like cars works. What’s more, according to the Centre, 75% of Americans (and nearly 60% of gun-owners) support licensing laws.
Aside from licensing the individuals who operate and own guns, we must track where the guns are — just as we do with cars. If you own an automobile, the law requires you to register it. That’s been the case since 1901, in response to the exponential increase in presence of motor vehicles on the road. Gun presence today mimics this; there are more guns than people in the United States. The government must know who these weapons belongs to and the permanent address of the owner. The same must apply to guns and their owners. This can help stem the flow of firearms to the black market.
Just as car owners must maintain their vehicles (oil changes, tire rotation and replacement, etc.) and park them safely, it is also incumbent upon firearm owners to maintain and store their weapons safely. Research shows 380,000 guns a year are stolen from gun-owners; in 2016, licensed dealers lost 18,384 weapons. These are the weapons that often end up involved in crime. And, apparently, 54% of American gun owners don’t store them safely. Laws penalizing unsafe storage decrease gun deaths. For example, Massachusetts has a law that requires firearms be “‘secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device’ [or] the owner could face fines up to $20,000 and up to 15 years of imprisonment.” The result? In that state, 9% of suicides involve a gun compared to 39% nationwide.
These are just some numbers for overall gun violence because while mass shootings are absolute atrocities, deaths caused by firearms reaches far beyond those horrors. That said, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines must be banned for civilian ownership since the only purpose is maximum casualty. You don’t need that for hunting (why 38% of gun owners say they have a firearm). You don’t need that to protect yourself (why 67% of gun owners say they have a firearm) — or whatever other reasons people own guns. Again, there is a parallel in our road rules. The law restricts commercial vehicles (trucks, buses, etc.) to specific individuals with training and supplementary licensing. Your average Joe cannot just rent or buy an 18-wheeler and get behind the wheel; neither should he be able to access an assault rifle. Limit this to military personnel. The precedent stands.
The Final Straw
We need these laws. These laws will give us liberty — freedom to own weapons safely and, more importantly, freedom from fear. Because we are in constant crisis. In 2020, according to Pew, “45,222 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the CDC. That figure includes gun murders and gun suicides, along with three other, less common types of gun-related deaths tracked by the CDC: those that were unintentional, those that involved law enforcement and those whose circumstances could not be determined. The total excludes deaths in which gunshot injuries played a contributing, but not principal, role.” Of those 45,222 deaths, 43% were murders. Of the total number of murders in the U.S. in 2020, 79% involved a firearm.
And the problem is only worsening. The year 2020 (the most recent year for which we have complete data) was the worst on record in America. Pews states, “The 2020 total represented a 34% increase from the year before, a 49% increase over five years and a 75% increase over 10 years.” Guns are also the leading cause of death for children under 18.
We. Are. Dying.
Many will try to distract you and say that mental illness is to blame. Hate, mental illness, and weapons accessibility intersect when it comes to gun deaths and mass shootings. Absolutely. This is a public health crisis stemming from multiple sources. The is a fatal epidemic. With any fatal problem, you attack on all fronts. So yes, mental health is often a factor. Hate is often a factor. While representatives continue to dally on passing laws to create more access to mental health services and continue to institute and uphold racist policies and block educational initiatives to create a compassionate society, a psych evaluation as part of gun policy will screen for these two factors.
One problem is not a reason to ignore the other, it’s a reason to come up with integrative solutions.
Policymakers do not need to reinvent the wheel, nor can we allow them to settle for stopgap measures and bills that address only one piece of this problem. America needs comprehensive legislation that address all risks of using and owning a gun. The answer is staring us in the face. If we keep ignoring it, we will continue to watch our loved ones gunned down at the movies, at concerts, at grocery stores, at synagogues, at nail salons, at schools.… We will continue to dread that the phone will ring with that call. We will fear for our lives.
We cannot let the despair break our determination. We cannot let time pass and images of wailing parents fade. Call or write your representatives (find them here) and demand they enact this. Send them the link to this article for all I care.
We, the people, must attack the problem from multiple angles and our driving system provides the framework for exactly that.
Ruthie Fierberg is a freelance writer, editor, moderator, and on-camera host. Find ways to work with her and subscribe to her newsletter at ruthiefierberg.com. Listen to her free podcast Why We Theater, which fuses theatre and social justice. Follow Ruthie on Twitter (@RuthiesATrain) and Instagram (@ruthiefierceberg).