A couple years ago, the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan had a banner above its entrance condemning police brutality. I thought of it when I saw the headline over the New York Times story about the Million Mom March: "Mothers Rally to Assail Gun Violence."

In both cases, the implication is that the protesters are bravely taking a stand against something that others happily tolerate. That belief is the only plausible explanation for the tiresome self-righteousness of people who go around denouncing evils that no one is defending.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that opponents of gun violence are not limited to Rosie O’Donnell’s earnest followers. Once we’ve agreed that gun violence is indeed a bad thing, the question becomes what to do about it.

For years the advocates of stricter gun control (which they now prefer to call "sensible gun laws") have pushed symbolic legislation that has little or nothing to do with reducing crime. It seems unlikely, for example, that banning "assault weapons" or "Saturday night specials"--both categories invented by the anti-gun lobby based on dubious criteria--has prevented a single drive-by shooting or murderous rampage.

Gun controllers continue to back such Mickey Mouse measures; witness President Clinton’s high-profile support for mandating the sale of trigger locks with new handguns. But they are increasingly highlighting a more ambitious demand: registration of handguns and licensing of handgun owners.

Anti-gun activists say this proposal, which was emphasized by the organizers of the Million Mom March, is obviously "sensible" because it’s analogous to the way we handle cars. But as the Independence Institute’s David Kopel observed last year in Reason magazine, they don’t take that comparison very seriously.

For one thing, you don’t need a driver’s license to possess or operate a car on private property. So anyone who wants to keep a handgun in the home for self-protection presumably would not have to get a license.

Then, too, a driver’s license is issued to anyone who is old enough and who passes a simple test. It entitles the licensee to operate a car on public roads anywhere in the nation.

Treating guns like cars therefore would mean that every state would have a "right-to-carry" law, which allows anyone who meets certain objective criteria to carry a concealed handgun. Following the logic of the driver’s license analogy, a concealed-carry permit issued by any state would be accepted by every other one.

Since the gun controllers have pilloried George W. Bush for signing a right-to-carry law in Texas, this is probably not what they have in mind. So they are either confused or disingenuous when they say guns should be treated like cars, which would actually require the liberalization of gun laws in many jurisdictions.

In any case, it’s not clear how registration and licensing could be expected to reduce gun violence. Criminals, who already possess guns illegally in places where law-abiding citizens are disarmed, such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., are not likely to cooperate with the system.

If every handgun could somehow be registered, that information might help police solve cases, just as information about a car’s owner sometimes does. But registration of cars hardly prevents people from using them to commit crimes.

The deterrent effect of registering guns is especially doubtful for the sort of attacks that spurred the Million Mom March, in which the shooter wants to be identified. If a homicidal maniac is planning to kill himself or get shot by police, the odds that he’ll be caught do not weigh heavily on his mind.

As with earlier gun control proposals, then, we are left wondering what the real goal is. Gun owners who see registration and licensing as a prelude to confiscation are not paranoid; they are simply trying to make sense out of an agenda that otherwise seems irrational.

The emotionalism on display at the Million Mom March only heightens the suspicions of Second Amendment supporters. A dead child is sad, to be sure, but a dead child is not an argument.

Nor does it help that the advocates of "sensible gun laws" see the Constitution as nothing more than an annoying obstacle. To the concerns of those who defend the right to keep and bear arms, their response is uncomprehending impatience: "Enough is enough."

Sound familiar? It’s the voice of a mother who has given up on persuasion.