When I was sixteen (the legal age for automobile driving in Massachusetts at that time), and after considerable driver training with the redoubtable Chief Walmer (a retired police chief who was the driving instructor of choice where I grew up), I:
- presented myself in person at the local DMV (the relevant government office);
- showed the government documents that proved not only my age but also my right to apply for a driver’s license (the rules then may have required full citizenship, but I really don’t remember);
- took both a written and an “on the road” driving test (the “killer” scenario was parallel parking at the curb on a hill — and these were stick shift days) as well as a vision test under the supervision of a DMV employee;
- was subject to a background check to ensure that I did not have a disqualifying criminal record;
- was required to submit a medical authorization to ensure that I did not have a disqualifying but not visible medical issue or one which would require me to have a limited license, e.g. a night vision problem that restricted my driving to daylight hours;
- was required to show proof (but I really don’t remember the details on this) of insurance on the car I would be driving (obviously, my parents’ car); and
- had by then spent a few hours with the nice DMV people who may well have noticed if I were unable to interact and behave in a more or less “normal” way.
Getting my automobile driver’s license meant a lot to me, and I (like all my friends of the time) was proud to have this evidence of my adulthood. And even though, from that day to this, we continue to cope with the bad behavior of legally licensed automobile drivers as well as the bad behavior of unlicensed drivers, there is no NRA-like unelected third branch of government scaring the shit out of the other three branches over eliminating all automobile driver licensing procedures because they don’t prevent all that bad behavior. Rather, we have a broad societal consensus that the licensing procedures, and the licence renewal procedures, provide some modest but valuable protection from hoards of untutored, unlicensed, nutty as fruitcake automobile drivers. And we accept that the fees involved in driver and vehicle licensing are used to support these regulatory and enforcement procedures.
Had I wanted to drive a truck (not a little pickup but a major truck) of some variety, for pleasure or business, I would have needed a different type of license — more training, more in-person testing, more background checks, more detailed medical authorizations, more, more and more. But I would have done all of this gladly if driving a tractor trailer were my chosen profession or even an important competitive sport in which I chose to participate. And even though, from that day to this, we continue to cope with the bad behavior of legally licensed tractor trailer drivers as well as the bad behavior of some few unlicensed drivers, there’s no well-funded lobby insisting that we eliminate all tractor trailer driver licensing procedures because they don’t prevent all that bad behavior. Rather, we believe that the licensing procedures, and the licence renewals procedures, provide some modest but valuable protections from hoards of untutored, unlicensed, nutty as fruitcake tractor trailer drivers. And we accept that the fees involved in tractor trailer driver and vehicle licensing are used to support these regulatory and enforcement procedures.
Most importantly, if I wanted to buy one of those huge military tanks with the very cool swiveling turrets through which you can launch G-d only knows what destruction, the simple answer would be no. I can’t buy one for private use, I can’t drive it through the gates of my development, I can’t drive it up the highway to Tampa — no, no, and no. And I certainly can’t buy the missiles for which that turret was designed at my local tank show or over the internet for delivery by FEDEX. Somehow, somewhere it was decided that certain vehicles are just not appropriate for private ownership, and somehow we live with this restriction without going nuts over our lost liberties.
But when it comes to allowed vehicles, we haven’t just focused on licensing their drivers. We’ve also spent the last sixty years making those vehicles safer, making the passengers in those vehicles safer, protecting the innocent from accidental errors make by those drivers and so on. Have seat belts and backup cameras and bleepers, greatly improved breaking systems and tires that don’t skid on wet pavement saved all of us from all possible vehicle accidents? Of course not! But there’s no groundswell of protest advocating that we eliminate all safety improvements in our cars and trucks just because they don’t prevent all accidents. Rather, we there’s a broad consensus that safety improvements to our vehicles provide some modest but valuable protections from vehicles skidding out of control, drivers and passengers crashing through their windshields, and drivers backing up over their own children playing in the driveway.
Having cried myself to sleep last night and awake this morning over the senseless loss of life in my country, it’s time to speak. If not now, when? We’re not killing each other because we are collateral damage in a civil war or living in territory being fought over by warlords. We are killing each other because we don’t have the guts to break the back of the NRA in order to do for weapons what we do for vehicles. I grew up target shooting and have the awards to show for it. I’m proud of those awards, and I have no desire to deprive hunters or sportsmen of their gun ownership or use. But it’s long past time for guns to become safer, for gun owners to be rigorously licensed, for gun sellers to be rigorously licensed, for some weapons and ammunition to be verboten, for gun ownership taxes to pay for the needed enforcement, etc.
Just because there are no perfect regulations, no way to guarantee 100% compliance, little chance of preventing the truly insane or evil from doing their worst, that can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing when it comes to regulating gun ownership, sales and safety further and more effectively in America. And even as we try to address the complex and interconnected issues of mental illness and violence in our society, it’s time to fast track the part of the puzzle that’s doable immediately.
[At the core of Judaism is the concept of Tikkun Olam, that we are commanded the repair the world, to make it a better place than we found it. This isn’t optional, something you do for extra credit, it’s central to what it means to be a Jew. And even though most of us aren’t able to improve the world in headline-grabbing ways, we are all able to leave this world a little better than we found it. And then there are the great teachings by Rabbi Hillel the Elder, one of which is “And if not now, when?”]