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Here's Why the NRA's Favorite Gun Slogan is Complete Baloney

Most are fine with idea that before anyone is permitted to operate a car, she must be licensed by the government to do so—and the same should go for guns.

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The following is an excerpt from the new book "Guns Don't Kill People, People Kill People" And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control by Dennis A. Henigan (Beacon Press, 2016): 

"Guns Don't Kill People, People Kill People." This is, no doubt, one of the greatest advocacy slogans ever conceived. Its first sentence seems plainly false on its face; that is, until one reads the second sentence, which is plainly true and, at the same time, appears to confer truth on the first sentence. The first sentence captures our attention; the second persuades us with a proposition we cannot deny.

The slogan is, of course, intended to convey the idea that guns are simply inanimate objects that are not dangerous unless and until they come into contact with human beings. As pro-gun partisans have been known to say, “I’ve never seen a gun get up off a table and fire itself.” The slogan makes the point that guns are morally neutral. They are not dangerous in and of themselves. They become dangerous only in the hands of evil, or disturbed, or careless people. As one Idaho gun dealer put it, “Firearms are not guilty of crime; the individuals who possess the firearm are guilty of doing something with it.” Countless gun owners have observed that they have owned guns for years and none of their guns has ever been involved in a crime or other violent act. Best-selling author Tom Clancy has pointed out that “no firearm has ever killed anyone unless directed by a person who acted either from malice, madness or idiocy.” There is no gun problem. There is only a people problem. For the gun partisan, this means that the only laws that make sense are those directed at how people use guns, not at guns themselves. When Charlton Heston was the NRA’s president, he was asked by then Senator John Ashcroft during a congressional hearing, “What can be done, and specifically what can Congress do, to stem the tide of violent crime?” Heston’s answer: “Punish criminals, Senator.”

How does this thinking fit with how we treat other “inanimate objects” that tend to become dangerous only when they come into contact with human beings? Are we content simply to punish the person who misuses the product? Or are we interested also in placing barriers between the product and those most likely to misuse it?

Cars Don't Kill People, People Kill People

Cars do not often exceed the speed limit without a driver behind the wheel. Sitting in a driveway, a car seems pretty innocuous indeed. Does this mean that the sum total of our public policy response to reckless driving should be severe punishment of drivers who violate the law? Few would think so.

For example, most of us are quite comfortable with the idea that before anyone is permitted to operate an automobile, she must be licensed by the government to do so. Although the requirements vary from state to state, this generally means prospective drivers must be of a legal age to drive, have undergone driver training, have passed a written test, and have shown they can safely operate a car. When I was a teenager in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I had to endure a “behind-the-wheel” test (which included the dreaded parallel-parking requirement) with a very large and intimidating state trooper in the passenger seat. No one seriously argues that since cars are not dangerous unless driven by dangerous people, we don’t need to license drivers, only to punish dangerous driving. It makes sense to have a system in place to prevent potentially high-risk people from driving in the first place.

If you find this logic compelling, you will be mystified that for decades in this country convicted felons were legally prohibited from buying guns from gun dealers, yet there was no uniform system of background checks to ensure against such sales. Before the Brady Bill was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993, in thirty-two states it was possible for a convicted felon to walk into a gun store, fill out a federal form falsely claiming to have no the Brady Bill, arguing that background checks at gun stores make no sense because criminals don’t buy guns at gun stores; they either steal them or get them “on the street.” An NRA lawyer wrote that the Brady Bill was “simply not workable” because “criminals do not, to any appreciable degree, buy handguns from federally licensed firearms dealers.” This, of course, was always an example of muddled thinking: even if some criminals acquire guns through theft or “on the street,” it is hard to believe that other criminals don’t simply go into gun stores and lie on the federal form. After all, gun stores are where the guns are. There is a nice selection, there is a store clerk to offer help, and you even get a warranty against defects. A Justice Department survey of adult prison inmates, taken before the Brady Bill was enacted, asked those who had used a handgun in a crime where the gun had been acquired. The guns were as likely to have come from a gun store as from the “black market” and three times more likely to have come from a gun store as from theft.

One additional reason we know the NRA was wrong in saying criminals don’t buy from gun stores is that they are still trying to do it after the enactment of the Brady Bill. According to the Department of Justice, since Brady became law and through 2012, over two million legally prohibited gun buyers have been blocked from completing their purchases at licensed gun dealers, or denied gun permits, with felony conviction being the most common reason.  Not only do the Brady background checks block these prohibited gun purchases; they also establish that the prospective buyer violated federal law by lying on the federal form. If thousands of criminals still try to buy guns from stores in the face of a background-check system that provides evidence of their criminal culpability, can you imagine how many bought them from stores before such a system existed?

That guns are inanimate objects that require the intervention of people to inflict injury is, therefore, not a sound argument against public policies designed to screen those who seek to own and use guns. Thanks to the Brady Act, we at least have a system to screen gun buyers at gun stores. In all but a handful of states, however, gun buyers do not face the equivalent of a parallel-parking test; that is, there is no licensing requirement for gun ownership that would require training and testing to establish that those who want to handle guns know what they are doing. If we are to treat guns like cars, such licensing, with its training and testing mandates, should be part of a sound gun policy. Nothing in the notion that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” should counsel otherwise.

The NRA has a creative response to the guns/cars licensing analogy. “[A] license and registration,” it points out, “is not required to merely own a vehicle or operate it on private property, only to do so on public roads.” If all you do with your car is drive it on your own property, as opposed to a public thoroughfare, you need no license. (I presume they have in mind a rancher driving his pickup around the North Forty, not a suburbanite driving the family Volvo up and down the driveway.) Therefore, the argument goes, you should not need a license merely to own a gun but only to carry it, concealed, in a public place. (As explained above, the NRA position is, however, that the police should be required to give concealed-carry licenses to anyone who does not have a criminal record and can legally buy a gun.)

The problem with this argument is that the risk posed by the gun owner’s use of a gun on her property is far greater than the risk posed by the car owner’s use of a car on her property. How many auto-accidents occur on the property of the owner of the automobile? It is surely true that a virtually undetectable percentage of driver miles occurs within the confines of the owner’s real estate. On the other hand, a substantial part of the risk posed by guns is created by the use of guns in or around the home of the gun owner. Large numbers of unintentional shootings occur in the home. Indeed, one study, examining only shootings in which the gun involved was known to be kept in the home, showed that guns in the home were four times more likely to be involved in accidents than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense. Suicide, a significant but often underemphasized part of the gun violence problem, also occurs largely in the home. A landmark study by Arthur Kellermann and his colleagues, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide by nearly five times. Many of those suicides are committed by depressed adolescents with guns left accessible by adults. Indeed, firearms are the most common method of suicide in adolescents, accounting for 60 percent of suicide deaths among youth under the age of nineteen. The risk of unintentional shootings and adolescent suicide could be substantially reduced by safety training emphasizing the increased risk posed by guns in the home and the elements of safe handling and storage practices. Thus, the analogy between cars and guns strongly supports licensing gun owners. With respect to both products, persons should be licensed before they engage in the risk-producing activity with the product. With cars, that activity is driving on public streets. With guns, the activity is possession of the gun, whether in the home or on the person in a public place.

Not only is there broad consensus favoring government intervention to screen drivers of cars, that consensus extends to regulation directed to the cars themselves. The fact that an automobile is innocuous sitting in the owner’s driveway does not persuade us against government regulation to make the car safer when a driver is at the wheel. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) has long had the power to issue minimum safety standards for cars, to test cars for their crashworthiness, and to recall defective cars. Only the most extreme libertarians would argue that government has no proper role in the design of cars, even though traffic injuries and fatalities often are caused by some form of driver negligence, recklessness, or illegal behavior. Does any reasonable person argue that the government should not mandate seat belts, air bags, shatterproof windshields, and crash-resistant bumpers because “cars don’t kill people, people kill people”? No, because it is more likely that people will kill people with unsafe cars than with safe ones.

Excerpted from “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control by Dennis A. Henigan (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

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Dennis A. Henigan is director of legal and policy analysis at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and formerly vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.