Guns Are Different

It's safe to say that we've had more of a national discussion about guns in the last four days than we've had in the last 15 years. The particular measures to address gun violence that are now in the offing run from those that are well-intended but likely to be ineffectual (renewing the assault weapons ban, for instance) to some that could have a more meaningful effect even if they're difficult to implement (universal background checks, licensing, and training). But the most useful change that may come out of this moment in our history is a change in the way we look at guns.

By that I don't mean that Americans will suddenly stop fetishizing guns, or that everyone will agree they're nothing but trouble. But if we're lucky, perhaps we could come to an agreement on something simple. Yes, our constitution guarantees that people can own guns, much as many of us wish it didn't. But even in the context of that freedom, we should be able to agree that guns are different. The freedom to own guns is different from other freedoms, and guns are different from other products. A sane society should be able to acknowledge that difference and use it to guide the choices it makes.

If you say, "I want a gun," the rest of us can say, OK, you have that right. But guns pose a potentially lethal danger, so that means we need a special set of rules to deal with them. After all, we do this already. If you want a car, you can't just get one. First, you have to prove to your state that you are competent to drive it. Then you have to register it with the government, and you have to get insurance for it. We agree to this more restrictive set of rules for cars than for televisions or refrigerators because what you do with a car affects other people. Cars are dangerous. Used improperly, they can kill people.

Would it be so hard for gun owners to admit that guns are different? After all, their unique ability to kill is the whole attraction. Nobody buys guns because they make a pleasing noise. They buy them because they can kill. That's their entire purpose. Sometimes that purpose is used for good, sometimes for ill, but killing is what guns are for. Even if you think you'll only use your gun to scare off robbers, it's the gun's ability to kill that makes it possible for you to scare off a robber with it.

The most extreme gun owners seem to believe not only that their right to amass weaponry should be unlimited, but that they shouldn't even have to suffer the tiniest of inconveniences in the exercising of that right. If every time you wanted to buy a gun you had to go down to the local police station to register the gun you're buying, and even be photographed and fingerprinted if you haven't already, it could indeed be a bit of a hassle—it might even take a whole hour. But I think most responsible gun owners would find it perfectly tolerable to treat the exercising of their right to buy guns much like we treat the exercising of the right to buy a car. When you buy a gun, you've put the life of everyone in your community into your hands. The rest of us have to live with your possession of lethal force and the threat it could pose to us. Is it too much to ask for you to endure a bit of inconvenience? Because guns are different, and it's long past time we started treating them that way.

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