This op/ed originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on September 6, 2001
Gun shows are curious affairs. Along with licensed firearm dealers and an assortment of collectors with their interesting relics on display, there is typically a lone “Bumper Sticker Man.” He peddles a variety of witticisms ranging from political to comical to irreverent for the tailgaters among us.
The Bumper Sticker Man always has one automotive decoration that never fails to get my attention. It simply states “89 million gun owners did nothing wrong with their guns today.” More surprising than this blunt proclamation is the fact that his estimates may be low.
One would expect that with a well-armed society such as ours, there would be a great deal of accidental carnage from ill-skilled firearms owners. Indeed, that is the position held by gun control groups and select editorial boards. But the Bumper Sticker Man sees past the politics of fear and into the precautionary hearts of the average American gun owner.
There are roughly as many firearms in the United States as there are automobiles, with every other household owning one or more firearms. Those promoting more gun control laws see such widespread firearm ownership as a public threat, knowing that at least one of their next-door neighbors owns a firearm. But the Bumper Sticker Man has a different perspective on his neighbors — perhaps because he has taken the time to know his neighbors on more than a superficial level.
Despite the growing trend toward firearm ownership, the rates of accidental firearm injury and death have been falling steadily over the past 70 years, and at a faster than average rate in the last 10. Indeed, the National Safety Council ranks accidental firearm deaths so low they appear at the bottom of their carnage charts, on step above “poisoning by gases and vapors.”
This amazing state of affairs — high gun ownership rates and low accidental death and injury rates — seems to have escaped the attention of those otherwise wise and intelligent folks in the California Senate and Assembly.
Beneath their overused “protecting our children” banner, Assemblyman Shelley and Senator Scott are attempting to protect us from ourselves by requiring licensing of firearm owners and registration of their guns.
The question, which is not being asked, of these fine gentlemen is “what are you protecting us from?” The Bumper Sticker Man suggests that firearm owners are by and large a safe and sane group who without government oversight have regulated themselves into an admirably low ranking on the accident meter.
To bolster their arguments, Scott and Shelley insist that gun owners be treated no differently than automobile drivers, contending that a basic competency test should be required before be allowed to own a firearm. But if the record of trained and licensed automobile owners is any indicator, this process makes no difference in the deadly habits of the average motorist. Would it do the same for gun owners?
I can safely speak for all California gun owners when I say that we wish the licensing for firearms were exactly the same as for automobiles. In California, one can buy as many automobiles as their bank accounts allow without the need for a license of any sort, providing you are willing to keep all of those autos on your own property (gun owners face a number of unequal restrictions).
Likewise, any automobile owner can race their 2,000 pounds of steel into any part of the state, providing they first obtain a license. A proficiency license should bring firearm owners the right to carry their personal protection devices in public places as is currently permitted in 33 other more progressive states.
Once the comparisons are made and the statistics are digested, we come to several enlightening conclusions.
FIRST, the proposed laws are not about public safety, given that firearm owners consistently show themselves to already possess a mastery of safe gun handling and storage. Second, we see that select Sacramento denizens are not interested in treating gun owners equally with motorists, but instead want to demote gun owners to an outcast status.
But most interesting is that we learn the Bumper Sticker Man was right.
Guy Smith is president of the Coalition to Preserve our Rights, a Bay Area civil rights advocacy group.