Indeed, the challenges in the United States are far greater than the challenges elsewhere. There are at present around half a billion privately owned guns in America — that’s billion with a B — and, as recent experiments in Connecticut, New York, and California have shown, Americans seem steadfastly opposed to registration — even when they are threatened with punishment for non-compliance. And that’s among the law-abiding. In a 1968 Fifth Amendment case, Haynes v. United States, the Supreme Court held 7-1 that convicted felons cannot not be punished for failing to register their illegally owned firearms on the grounds such punishment would constitute self-incrimination. What, one has to ask, is to be the purpose of a registry that is legally permitted to ensnare only the virtuous?
As political shorthand, advocates of federal licensing systems often compare their project to vehicle licensing. Substantively, this is a poor analogy. The primary risk associated with cars is the incompetence of their users, and not, as is the case with firearms, their use in suicides or crimes; car ownership is not an enumerated constitutional right, and, unlike with firearms, there is no history of oppressed Americans being systematically denied licenses as a means to keep them off the road; and, perhaps most important, as is the case with our present firearms-registration-and-licensing regime, vehicle registration and licensing is performed at the state, not the federal, level, and applies predominantly to those who drive in public. The problems surrounding firearms are unique and specific, and they require unique and specific responses. “Build me a database” simply won’t cut it.