Years ago, when I was much younger and dumber, I sometimes drove after drinking too much, occasionally even with a beer in hand. A state policeman once stopped me leaving the small town of Joseph, Ore., and asked me to count backward, touch my toes and walk a line. Fortunately, he knew me, so he just suggested gently that I get in the passenger seat and let my wife drive home.
There was also the time after a full and fabulous day at the ski run when, sipping that last beer as we headed for home on the back roads, I hit a patch of ice and slipped into the barrow pit. Again, fortunately, the only damage was to my ego, and all my law-breaking and stupid behavior took place at low speeds on quiet roads.
Then along came Mothers Against Drunk Driving with its memorable acronym, MADD. Mothers across the country stood up and screamed at the press, at lawmakers, and at law-enforcement agencies to do something about the rash of young deaths on our roads caused by drunk drivers. I remember a dance sponsored by a group I was a part of—we organized a team of sober drivers to get people home—and the body-shop owner telling me with great pleasure that there were fewer horrendous accidents to clean up.
I remember hearing about the stiff laws in Scandinavian countries; a driver there who got one ticket for driving under the influence lost his license forever. Here in America, we also stopped feeling tolerant toward drunk drivers; MADD’s campaign worked.
I’ve been thinking about this as we stew over gun laws and deaths—mostly young deaths—caused by guns and the people who misuse them. It seems to me that there are clear parallels. First, we are not going to get rid of guns any more than we were going to get rid of cars or alcohol. Second, there are laws already on the books. Third, there are cars with speeds too fast for safety, just as there are guns too powerful for civil society. Fourth, registration and insurance are already in the picture. Finally, no reasonable person thinks that gun deaths can be eliminated entirely, but just as with drunk drivers, everyone thinks we can do better.
The parallels might give us a starting point. First, we could start enforcing existing laws. Second, let’s be reasonable: Can we agree that private individuals should not own or use rocket-grenade launchers, any more than workday commuters should drive racecars on the highway? Let’s work our way back down the line, and agree that there is a place for “public gun racks,” confined places where sportsmen and women can fire weapons that are too dangerous to shoot out in the open. Such guns would have to be registered and kept there.
As for constraining the users of guns: Yes, it would be good to ferret out the mentally unstable. Theoretically, we could make everyone get a license, just as we do with the owners of cars. But that’s too radical for some. I understand that people who have concealed-weapons permits, the folks who have jumped through legal hoops and are licensed, tend to be the safest gun owners and users around, as safe as most law-enforcement officers. But it seems to me that the mentally unstable guy with a gun trick up his sleeve (and yes, this is mostly a male problem) might have trouble passing a competency test. We seem to do pretty well with cars and drivers’ licenses—taking tests, registering when we buy and sell. Why not do the same with guns?
We might even create safe places for people to store their guns if there is a fear of instability in the family, suicide threats or threats of violence—safe places that anyone could use without explaining why. Is that too hard?
One thing is clear: What we have now is not working.
Tragically, most gun deaths come at the hands of people the victims know. The most-unfortunate ones are children who find a loaded gun at home and play their way to death. Maybe parents or responsible guardians deserve jail time when such things happen. Maybe guns would be watched more carefully, given such a law.
It seems to me that this kind of close watching by friends, family and community is especially necessary. After all, that’s just what MADD made us all do––and amazingly enough, it worked to change dangerous behavior that had once been considered normal by everyone.
Richard Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.