Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Why is Safety First for Drivers but not Gun Owners?

In no other country is driving and owning a car as quintessential to the culture and lifestyle as it is in the U.S. “Two cars in every garage,” promised the Republican campaign slogan in 1928. Willie Nelson “just can’t wait to get on the road again.” For some of us, our love affair with the automobile began with our first wheels—a red Corvette Matchbox car, perhaps, or a pink Barbie convertible.

studentdriverSo it’s no surprise that, for teenagers, turning 16-plus-three-months is noteworthy if for no other reason than they can get their driver’s license (in the state of Virginia, at least). And with two 16-year-olds in my household, I’ve become well-versed over the past year in the numerous steps that one must take in order for the Commonwealth to grant this privilege. It’s an arduous process—rightly so—and as a citizen I’m grateful to the government for having these measures in place to better protect all drivers and pedestrians.

First, all 10th-graders receive 36 hours of classroom driver education instruction as part of their required Health and Physical Education course. In addition, the classroom course includes a mandatory 90-minute parent/student session that covers parental responsibilities for the young driver, juvenile driving restrictions, and the dangers of driving while intoxicated and underage consumption of alcohol (think videos of grieving parents reminiscing about their child who died in a crash).

At about the same time, many students will attain age 15 and six months, the age at which they can apply for a learner’s permit. Along with providing original documents proving your identification and residency (including your social security number), you must pass a two-part knowledge exam and a vision screening. (Warning: Many kids need several tries to pass the knowledge exam. Studying and memorization is recommended.)

Next, provisional drivers are required to log 45 hours of actual driving time with an adult passenger, including 15 hours of driving at night. They are also required to take a Behind-the-Wheel course from a commercial driving school that consists of 14 in-car instruction periods—seven periods of driving and seven periods of observation (which count toward the 45 hours). One program, I Drive Smart, costs $499 for fourteen 50-minute sessions with another student that are taught by current and retired police officers. During the final session, the Behind-the-Wheel instructor administers the driving test and issues a temporary license to those who pass. (The actual driver’s license is sent to the local courthouse where, in a solemn ceremony, a judge hands the license to the parent, not the student.)

Not counting time spent doing homework required for the classroom portion at school and studying for the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) exam, that’s 82.5 hours of instruction and training.

As for owning a car in Virginia, the owner must register the vehicle in both the state and local jurisdictions, and registration must be renewed annually or bi-annually. The owner must carry liability insurance or pay a $500 uninsured motorist fee, and have annual safety inspections performed on the car and, in some areas, periodic emissions inspections. Localities also require owners to pay personal property taxes commensurate with the vehicle’s market value.

Based on the numbers alone, the comparison between car ownership and gun ownership is remarkably apt. There were about 254 million cars registered in the U.S. in 2012, and varying estimates of 270 to 310 million guns. In 2012, there were roughly 33,500 traffic fatalities and almost 32,000 people died from gun violence.

But there are some startling differences: Traffic fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled have been on a downward trend since 1963 due to safer cars, safer roads and drivers with better training and education. In some states there are fewer highway deaths now than there were in the 1940s. By contrast, between 2000 and 2013, the number of mass shootings and casualties resulting from those shootings rose dramatically, according to a study released in September by the FBI. (There have been 99 school shootings since Newtown.)

And then there’s the vast difference in requirements to own and operate a gun. No permit is required to purchase or possess a rifle, shotgun or handgun in Virginia. No registration is required either, except for machine guns. Gun sales at licensed gun dealers require a criminal background check, but private sales or sales at gun shows by private individuals do not require a background check, despite repeated efforts in the state legislature to change that law.

In short, the Commonwealth of Virginia has no information about whether gun owners have ever been to a shooting range, for example, or whether they know how to safely store a gun and ammo, how many guns they own, or whether they have committed a violent misdemeanor or have a history of domestic violence. Don Beyer, who was elected in November to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 8th District, has proposed a common-sense measure that would add the names of those convicted of violent misdemeanors to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the FBI’s database of people who are prohibited from buying guns.

One wonders how many mass shootings and other gun deaths could be prevented if prospective gun buyers were required to have just eight hours of training and education from police officers—one-tenth of that required for drivers; if they were required to register their guns each year (with a new background check performed each time); and if they were required to carry liability insurance, with insurance proceeds used to compensate victims of gun violence and their families. Some videos of grieving parents from Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech might not be a bad idea, either.

None of this would pose a significant burden on hunters or other recreational gun owners. As much as the DMV is loathed and derided, certainly almost no one decides against buying a car because the registration process is too onerous. It’s likewise ridiculous to think that a system that allows people to own and operate a gun without any safeguards in place to protect ordinary citizens and innocent children makes any sense.

Every year, legions of teenagers happily give up 82.5 hours of free time in exchange for the privilege of driving. It’s the price that our society has deemed appropriate and acceptable to advance the common good. Isn’t it time that we make the same trade-offs for guns as we do for cars?

What can you do? Contact your legislators and share your view. (Non-Virginia residents click here for state legislators and here for federal legislators.)

Sources: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Everytown for Gun Safety, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Rifle Association, Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Virginia State Police.


ACPS Calendar Committee Seeks Input…but hurry!
The process to develop the 2015-16 academic calendars is under way, and the Calendar Committee is seeking public input and comment through an online form. The form will be active through Sunday, October 19.  You can click on the ‘send us your feedback’ button at the bottom of the page to complete a brief survey.


October 21 Workshop for Parents on the IEP Process
A workshop on “Understanding the IEP Process” will be offered from 10-11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, October 21, in the Parent Resource Center, Room 134, at the T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard Campus. Presented by ACPS Parent Support Specialist Janet Reese, this workshop will give parents new to ACPS special education services a basic understanding of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. Space is very limited and registration is a must. Contact Janet Reese at 703-824-0129 to register.


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