To Keep and Bear (Licensed) Arms

The Second Amendment guarantees the right to own a gun, but that doesn't mean lawmakers can't demand that owners be registered

By Jane Black

So it looks like police have caught the Beltway sniper. After three weeks of terror, Washington-area residents can contemplate returning to business as usual. School children can have recess outdoors. Parents can return to work without fear. Everything will go back to normal.

Maybe it shouldn't, though, at least not yet. In the wake of the sniper's killing spree, it would probably make sense for Congress and the states to finally tackle the subject they hate to touch: gun control. So far, the discussion has focused on creating a database of "ballistic fingerprints" that might have helped catch the sniper faster. (For opposing views on the ballistics-fingerprinting debate, see BW Online, 10/24/02, "A Lifesaver" and "A Waste of Time".)


  Why limit the discussion, though, to one form of protection -- or to a thug who traumatized the most visible corner of the nation? The sniper's toll was 10 murdered and three critically injured -- a small total in a country where guns kill 80 people every day. What about those weapons of mass destruction?

Eliminating gun violence entirely is impossible: It really is true, as gun lobbyists like to say: People, not guns, kill people. Even so, there's no harm in reexamining how the people who kill people get the guns they use to do it -- and, in the process, considering a couple of proposals that seem to make more sense as the death toll rises: Why not license gun owners and require them to register the weapons they buy?

Both are time-tested ideas, if you think about it: Try to drive a car without a license -- or to slide by a cop on the freeway without a license plate and car registration. Judging by the frequency of accidental shootings, not to mention occasional murderous outbursts by school students, it wouldn't hurt to have gun owners do the same thing drivers do -- reach a certain age first, then read a book and take a test to ensure that they understand, and can practice, basic safety before they get a license to tote their pieces.


  Cars have to be registered, then reregistered every two or three years, with the result that it takes only minutes to trace the history of a vehicle and the people who have owned it. If that's good enough for cars, why not for the nation's 250 million guns -- especially if it gives authorities a better shot at tracking down criminals and saving lives?

The drafters of such laws -- state statutes, most likely -- would obviously have to take care not to impinge on law-abiding citizens' constitutional right to bear arms. But it seems worth the trouble to help protect every innocent person's right to not get shot. Today, most Americans aren't even required to know the basics of gun safety before purchasing a weapon.

Moreover, periodic licensing could include a background check to ensure that a purchaser hasn't been convicted of a serious crime or is otherwise prohibited from owning a gun. (The 1994 Brady Bill, named after the press secretary who was shot during an attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, requires anyone purchasing a gun in a store to submit to a background check. But secondary gun sales -- the means by which the majority of criminals procure weapons -- have no such restrictions.)


  Does a background check sound unreasonable? Just try to renew your drivers' license in some states if you have infractions totaling more than 10 points or a string of drunk-driving arrests. You would be denied on the spot. That's what would have happened to the sniper if the U.S. had bulletproof licensing and registration: According to the latest news reports, suspect John Allen Muhammad had a restraining order against him and should have been prohibited from obtaining a weapon.

Similarly, registration would create a chain of accountability for guns. You can't sell your car without transferring the title. Why should the standard be less stringent for weapons that are every bit as dangerous as the two-ton projectile in your driveway?

With registration, the buyer of a second-hand gun would have to register it, just as buyers of second-hand cars do, in order to legally use it. A seller should also have a legal obligation to notify the registering agency of the transfer -- or risk being implicated should the weapon be used in a crime. Foolproof? No. Better than nothing? Absolutely.


  Witness the story of Robyn Anderson, a classmate of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two boys who murdered 13 and wounded 23 of their classmates at Colorado's Columbine High School before turning their guns on themselves. Anderson bought pistols and assault rifles for the two underage students from an unlicensed seller at a local gun show.

"I wish it had been more difficult," Anderson told the Colorado legislature in April, 2000. "I wouldn't have helped them buy the guns if I had faced a background check." She added that registration requirements would have discouraged her from transferring the guns to the students because the weapons would have been directly traceable to her.

International data proves that Anderson's reaction is normal. Some 31 countries, including all of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, require licensing of gun owners and registration of handguns. Every one of those countries has a lower rate of gun violence than the U.S. Gun murder rates in the U.S. are 10 times higher than in Canada, 17 times those in Australia, 35 times the rate in Germany, and 89 times that in England and Wales, where handguns are banned outright.


  "Licensing and registration is an attempt to stop guns from passing from law-abiding citizens to criminals and juveniles," says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research. "The combination can provide the kind of accountability among lawful owners that makes them less likely to transfer guns to unlawful people."

Nor are licensing and registration unconstitutional if done right. No federal court has ever struck down a gun-licensing law as a violation of the Second Amendment. That's because all constitutional rights -- to free speech or to bear arms -- are subject to modifications that render them "reasonable."

Licensing and registration laws on the books in six states and several U.S. cities, including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., remain unchallenged. Moreover, as a rule, the courts tend to come down on the side of gun restrictions. Witness the recent case, U.S. v. Emerson, where a man with a domestic-violence restraining order claimed that the law prohibiting him from possessing guns denied his constitutional right to bear arms. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his claim.


  It's ironic, then, that the National Rifle Assn. claims that licensing and registration are the first step toward government confiscation of guns. "Perhaps only one other word in the English language so boils [Americans'] blood as 'registration,' and that word is 'confiscation,'" the NRA declares in a fact sheet about licensing and registration. "Gun owners fiercely believe those words are ominously related."

For proof, the NRA points to the gradual restriction of guns in New York City. In 1967, the Big Apple passed an ordinance requiring a citizen to obtain a permit to own a rifle or shotgun -- a reasonable request, since the island of Manhattan has no hunting grounds.

Then, in 1991, the city banned the private possession of some semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. The police demanded that banned weapons be surrendered, rendered inoperable, or taken out of the city. This inflamed passions at the NRA, following its argument that record-keeping is the first step on the road to confiscation.


  Such fears have proven to be vastly overblown. In the case of New York City, surrendering the banned weapons was one of three options. And citizens in California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and several U.S. cities that require licensing and registration haven't lost their right to bear arms. They just know that it's now riskier to bear them irresponsibly.

Moreover, the public, including gun owners and NRA members, overwhelmingly supports gun-owner licensing and gun registration. According to a May, 2001, poll commissioned by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, 73% of gun owners and 66% of self-described NRA supporters favor requiring a license before someone can purchase a handgun. Some 72% of gun owners and 65% of NRA supporters favor registration of all new handguns.

Clearly, it makes sense for Congress and state legislatures to muster the courage to give the people what they want. The Beltway sniper may be off the Capital area's streets. But Washington lawmakers still have work to do.

Black is a reporter and columnist for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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