Most Americans want action, but the best Congress can do is pass measures that the gun lobby allows — those that address the shooter and cost gunmakers nothing — as if the gun doesn’t matter. When Congress has acted, its most impactful legislation — the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 — protected gun manufacturers and dealers from most lawsuits.
Congress must pass a National Firearms Safety Act as it did the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. That year, the number of automobiles had increased 23-fold and associated fatalities increased sixfold over the 50 years preceding.
Like the gun lobby now, the auto lobby then opposed any regulation that targeted its product. Auto interests carried the day until Ralph Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” refocused public attention from the driver the industry blamed to the automobile it portrayed as inconsequential to the carnage its product caused.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, as empowered by the 1966 act, set auto safety standards that helped reduce the annual highway death toll from 55,000 in 1972 to the 36,000 it was in 2019. Millions of lives have been spared, considering that Americans drove three times as many vehicle miles in 2019 as in 1972.
Gun rights are not unlimited. The Second Amendment refers to a “well regulated” militia. Even Second Amendment advocate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the Court’s Heller decision: “It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
Gun policy, like auto policy, must be comprehensive to be effective, targeting both the gun and those who would use it. Thus, measures like background checks and “red flag” laws directed at gun buyers must also set standards for smart, fingerprint, and “find my device” technology. Such innovations can block children and other unauthorized persons from employing firearms and help trace their location, as it does smart-protected cellphones. Police and security guards need not fear loss of their guns to others who would be unable to fire them, and criminals would not even try to seize a gun from a police officer or burglarize a home for guns that would not work in their hands.
In 1957, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson proposed creation of an auto safety division within the Cabinet to “promote research into improved designs for automobiles,” Nader wrote.
Sen. Johnson could have been speaking of guns when he said, as Nader quoted in “Unsafe at Any Speed”: “We cannot abolish the automobile, but neither can we ignore the problems that it brings. … There is a responsibility here which we must face.”
Weak federal regulation rife with gun-lobby-inspired loopholes like removal of funds for gun research and inconsistent state-by-state regulation do not effectively serve the national interest. Such a regulatory framework is instead easily circumvented by gun shows, traffickers and others. It is the creation of industry lobbyists intent on undermining effective gun policy that would affect industry bottom lines.
This national gun violence crisis is peculiarly American. Only a strong National Firearms Safety Administration that treats this epidemic like the public health crisis it is can stand up to the gun lobby like NHTSA did the auto lobby half a century ago.
How many millions more, including schoolchildren, must die in the next half-century because Congress abdicates its responsibility while mass murderers employ ghastly weapons that slaughter so horrifically that only DNA comparison can identify its victims?
Ron Wielkopolski is a retired magistrate judge who served on the bench for 33 years. He lives in Anchorage.
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