Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

Regulating guns like cars: Perspective on the gun debate after Sandy Hook

Now is the time for public officials to stand up to the NRA, and have a rational discussion over public safety and responsible gun laws.

Extending waiting periods and criminal background checks for private gun sales is a reform that is long overdue.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in mid-December prompted national soul-searching about what can be done to stop these mass shootings. Some have called for security changes in schools; some have called for a reduction in the violence in movies and video games; some have called for strengthening our mental-health system; and some have called for gun laws with teeth. Not surprisingly, the NRA has called for more guns in schools.

Most of these ideas could have an impact:

  • I was an author of a Minnesota law requiring lock-down drills to improve security in schools.
  • Although it is not something government can do, I believe it is important that each of us as individuals, as parents, or as peers, challenge the idea that watching violence, or “virtually” practicing the killing of others, is “entertainment.”
  • And we would see huge reductions in violent crime if we ensured that all people, including those most troubled by mental illness or chemical dependency, receive the care they need when they need it. To make this happen, we need more than rhetoric: We need to pass the proposed Minnesota Health Plan or an alternative that truly delivers comprehensive care for everyone.

Address gun laws

But in addition to these reforms, it is also time to take a comprehensive look at our gun laws. Practically anyone can purchase an arsenal of weaponry powerful enough to gun down dozens of victims in minutes. Even people who have committed violent acts and even those with serious mental illness are able to purchase assault weapons and large capacity ammunition clips.

The NRA’s allies argue that if Adam Lanza, the gunman in Newtown, knew that teachers and other adults were carrying guns in the school, he would have been scared away from entering the school and murdering children. But Mr. Lanza wasn’t afraid of getting killed; he apparently intended to die in his shooting rampage and he committed suicide.

Sen. John Marty
Sen. John Marty

The idea that numerous armed teachers in every school might reduce the carnage as they engage in gun battles with intruders is preposterous. More loaded guns in classrooms would result in accidental shootings, and perhaps even intentional ones, when an angry student uses a gun found in a teacher’s purse or desk drawer.

Article continues after advertisement

The NRA’s call for the federal government to spend several billion dollars a year to pay for one or more armed police officers at every school in the country would be one of the most expensive, ill-conceived solutions possible. The gunmen at Columbine or Sandy Hook or other schools often orchestrate their attacks carefully and could easily plan to kill at times or places in the school where the officer is not around. Besides, most of these killers have far greater firepower than the school police officers would have.

A conversation has begun

It is a hopeful sign that we are seeing the beginning of a national conversation about our gun laws. The gun lobby has so much political clout that few politicians have challenged it, and discussion of gun laws has been cut short. When Minnesota passed the concealed carry law several years ago, the pro-gun lobby defeated an amendment that would have denied gun permits to applicants who have a restraining order against them. In effect, the gun lobby persuaded legislators that even if an abuse victim obtains an order for protection, that’s not enough reason to deny the abuser the right to carry a gun!

Reinstating the federal assault weapons ban would be a step forward. But for a more comprehensive look at how we should regulate guns, let’s consider how we regulate cars. There are lawful uses for both guns and cars, but both are deadly when misused.

With cars, we require the operator to be trained and licensed. We register the vehicle, and re-register it when it is transferred to a new owner.

But for guns, there is no licensing, no training requirement, and no registration. This enables criminals to obtain guns from a private citizen with no background check, no waiting period — no means of enforcement at all.

We don’t have a gun-registration system because the gun lobby has used fear tactics to fight even modest regulation. They say, “First they’ll register your guns, then the next thing they’ll do is take ’em away.” Sure. Just like they did with cars …

Actually, the government does take away cars, but only from people using them illegally. In Minnesota, the courts can seize the cars of drug dealers and repeat DWI offenders. It is not a radical thought to question whether we should do the same for criminals with guns. What part of well-regulated militia don’t they understand?

Reasonable, overdue changes

Here are some reasonable changes that are long overdue:

  • Licensing gun owners and registering firearms.
  • Extending waiting periods and criminal background checks for private gun sales.
  • Putting a lifetime ban on gun ownership for people convicted of violent crimes.
  • Reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons and large ammunition clips.

These modest proposals do not punish responsible gun owners any more than vehicle registration punishes responsible car owners. But these proposals will help stop the arms race on our streets where deranged killers and gang members are more heavily armed than the police.

Despite public support for gun control, the gun lobby continues to fight common-sense reforms. It is well-organized and intimidating. Lawmakers raising this issue are accustomed to nasty phone calls. The NRA works to discredit these proposals, and those who offer them. I am a moderate on gun control, yet I have received “F-” ratings on the NRA report card, because I seek responsible gun laws.

Article continues after advertisement

Perhaps because most of the victims were young children, there has been a perceptible shift in momentum on the issue since the Sandy Hook school shootings. Now is the time for public officials to stand up to the NRA, and have a rational discussion over public safety and responsible gun laws.

John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is a state senator. He first published this article in his newsletter, “To the Point!” which is published by the Apple Pie Alliance


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.