The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
A commenter on a recent thread asked – seemingly from a pro-gun-control perspective – "Why can't guns be treated like cars, regulated and available, only to those who demonstrate competence and compliance with laws?" That is a perfect excuse for me to reprise my analysis of the guns-cars analogy.
Cars are basically regulated as follows (I rely below on California law, but to my knowledge the rules are similar throughout the country):
(1) No federal licensing or registration of car owners.
(2) Any person may use a car on his own private property without any license or registration. See, e.g., California Vehicle Code §§ 360, 12500 (driver's license required for driving on "highways," defined as places that are "publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel"); California Vehicle Code § 4000 (same as to registration).
(3) Any adult – and in most states, 16- and 17-year-olds, as well – may get a license to use a car in public places by passing a fairly simple test that virtually everyone can pass.
(4) You can lose your license for proved misuse of the car, but not for most other misconduct; and even if you lose your driver's license, you can usually regain it some time later.
(5) Your license from one state is good throughout the country.
This is pretty much how many gun rights advocates would like to see guns regulated, and is in fact pretty close to the dominant model in the over 40 states that now allow pretty much any law-abiding adult to get a license to carry a concealed weapon: No need to register or get a license to have a gun at home, and a simple, routine test through which any law-abiding citizen can get a state license to carry a gun in public. And even if we require a test for all possession of a gun, at home or in public – again, something that's not required for cars – that would still mean that pretty much any law-abiding adult (or 16- or 17-year-old) would be able to easily get a license to carry a gun. That would provide more functional gun rights in the remaining non-shall-issue states (including, for instance, New York) than is provided under current gun regulations.
Now I suspect that many gun control advocates would in reality prefer a much more onerous system of regulations for guns than for cars. Of course, one can certainly argue that guns should be regulated more heavily than cars; thoughtful gun control advocates do indeed do this. But then one should candidly admit that one is demanding specially burdensome regulation for guns – and not claim to be merely asking "why can't guns be treated like cars?"
Incidentally, I don't claim any great originality on these points: Others have made them before me, see, e.g., David Kopel's "Taking It to the Streets," Reason, Nov. 1999. But some things are worth repeating.