Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

In the United States the rules for car ownership are stricter and much more strongly enforced than are the rules of gun ownership. Does America care more about vehicle emissions than guns?

If you buy a car, the car must be inspected. That inspection is to check safety systems including lights, brakes, tires, seat belts and air bags. And the car must nowadays be inspected for exhaust emissions. In some states exhaust emission rules are so strict that vehicles have to be specially adapted to be titled, and in every state exhaust emissions have to be checked every two years.

Owners are required to bring their cars to a designated inspection station, pay a fee (in the Washington DC area the fee is US$35) and have the car tested. If a car fails, the owner has a limited time to get whatever is wrong fixed.

If the problem cannot be repaired the vehicle is no longer allowed to be used. The cost of repairs is generally at the owner’s expense, although certain parts of the vehicle emission system are protected by a Federally-mandated warranty (typically the first 80,000 miles traveled)​ that is the responsibility of the original car manufacturer.

In addition to having their cars inspected and emissions tested, car owners also have to renew their car’s number plate, normally​ every year (except in the case of antique cars, where states have different rules). The number plate fee is hefty, sometimes more than US$100, and is usually based on the type of vehicle and its weight.

If a car owner fails to comply with the rules, he won’t be allowed to operate his or her vehicle. If the car is used without proper authorization, the vehicle can be impounded and the owner fined or possibly stripped of the right to operate a motor vehicle.

In short, vehicles are regularly checked to make sure they comply with safety and emission standards. There are fees, and sanctions for not meeting standards.

Now consider the gun regulations.

Guns are legally sold in the United States in two ways: either through a licensed dealer, called a Federal Firearms Dealer, or in a private sale. Gun dealers are licensed under the Gun Control Act of 1968.

A candlelight vigil is held at Las Vegas city hall following the mass shooting during a country-music concert in September. Photo: AFP / Robyn Beck

Since 1993, legal gun buyers who get their guns from a Federal Firearms Dealer (typically a gun shop or sports store) are subject to the Brady Act before any sale is completed. The Brady Act requires a background check on the buyer.

The buyer either must be a US citizen, an American resident alien (Green Card holder) or an authorized foreign official or visitor. The buyer can have no criminal conviction that ended in a jail term of more than one year, no domestic violence charges (even if not resulting in a jail term), and must not be mentally ill.

Today, the FBI carries out these background checks using the National Criminal Background Check system. Typically the system provides almost instant review, although the FBI has up to three days to give an answer.

There is no fee for the background check, and the system does not apply at all to private sales of weapons (although some states regulate private sales).

Unlike cars, the background check for guns is a one-time affair. Once you own a gun you are cleared to use it legally, and indefinitely.

There is no recheck and gun owners’ backgrounds are not looked at after the initial purchase. If you commit a crime, are involved in domestic violence or lose your sanity after an approved gun purchase, you are still allowed to own a gun under current Federal law.

Because the FBI validation system is automated, re-checks can be performed in near real-time. It is not at all ​difficult to implement an automated re-check program

Similarly, if you write incendiary rants on social media, engage in antisocial behavior, or modify your weapon, changing it from a “legal” weapon to one that is not permitted – for example modifying an assault rifle so it can fire more rapidly or even fully automatically – no one checks any of that.

There are many problems with the current law. For example, “wanna-be” terrorists who proclaim themselves members of ISIS or other terror organizations should be subject to scrutiny and tracked under Federal gun laws, but that is not the case. Modification of the Brady Act so that these terrorists can be legally banned from buying or keeping guns would have prevented acts of terrorism and many deaths in the United States.

One measure that would go a long way to making the system effective is automatic re-checks of existing gun owners. If any of them fail a re-check under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention standard it would be reasonable that they surrender their handguns to Federal authority. Because the FBI validation system is automated, re-checks can be performed in near real-time. It is not at all ​difficult to implement an automated re-check program.

The FBI’s Instant Criminal Background Check system was advocated by the National Rifle Association​ to make gun purchases easier. Upgrading the system to be able to do re​-​checks is in everyone’s interest.

Our existing gun laws are far less effective than car ownership rules and regulations, so the answer to the question posed above is that it seems we care more about regulating cars than guns. We can do better and make ​important and effective improvements to existing laws and regulations.

Stephen Bryen

Dr Stephen Bryen has 50 years of leadership in government and industry. He has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the president of Delta Tech Inc, as the president of Finmeccanica North America, and as a commissioner of the US China Security Review Commission. Dr. Bryen is a senior fellow at the Yorktown...

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