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Memorial for Gun Victims

Facts and Policies

Licensing and Registration

We license drivers before they get behind the wheel to make sure that they know how to drive safely and that they understand the rules of the road. We register cars to make sure that an identifiable person is responsible for every car on the road. But we allow people to buy guns without proving that they know how to use a gun intelligently, how to store it safely, or what legal restrictions apply to gun use, possession or distribution. We also allow gun owners to sell or give away their guns without any accountability, because we never check to see if a specific gun still belongs to its legal owner. Without meaningful oversight, people who should not have guns will continue to get them, and unscrupulous gun owners will continue to escape responsibility for their actions. 

Licensing gun owners and registering their guns are two of the most important parts of a responsible gun policy. Licensing and registration work together to increase the oversight and accountability of gun owners, and to reduce the likelihood of misuse. 


Licensing Registration
  • Required for any purchase
  • Detailed background check,
     including violent misdemeanors
  • Hands-on proficiency test
  • Hands-on safety test
  • Registration requirement
  • Theft-reporting requirement
  • Cost of program paid by gun owners
  • Required for all guns
  • Renewed annually, with fee
  • Failure to register leads to revocation of license
  • Registered owner must promptly report theft
  • Illegal to possess in public any gun not registered to possessor

What is licensing, and how does it work?

Too many people who should not have access to guns can buy them legally. Many others who cannot legally buy guns can get them easily through illegal channels. Licensing would help address both of these flaws in the current system.

Under a responsible licensing scheme, an applicant for a license must pass a thorough, extensive background check. Authorities must have enough time to ensure that the check is complete. The system would reject any potential buyer with a disqualifying history, which should include conviction for any violent misdemeanor or any gun-related crime.

In addition to the background check, the applicant must demonstrate an understanding of how to handle a gun safely and legally. Like a driver's test, this would include both a written test and a hands-on demonstration of safe handling and proficiency. The applicant must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of how to identify and operate the safety devices on a gun and how to load, unload and store a gun safely. The applicant must also know the law regarding gun and ammunition sales by private citizens and the permissible use of lethal force. The applicant must understand the risks associated with gun ownership in the home and must know how to reduce those risks. Finally, the applicant must show reasonable proficiency in shooting a gun.

After satisfying these requirements, the applicant would be eligible to get a license. Like a driver's license, this license would include identifying information, a current photograph, and a unique identification number. It could also contain an encoded image of the licensee's fingerprint. The license would also be linked to a list of guns registered to the licensee. 

Finally, a responsible licensing scheme would require that only people with valid licenses can buy guns. The seller, whether a licensed gun dealer or a private individual, would have to run the buyer's license number through a centralized system to ensure that the license remains valid. If the license is suspended or revoked for any reason, the sale will be denied. All gun sales should be subject to a reasonable waiting period.

What is registration and how does it work?

Registration creates accountability for gun owners, to protect against illegal sales and to promote responsible use and storage. Studies show that guns used in crimes tend to be relatively new guns that were legally sold within a few years of the crime. Because most of the guns in circulation are much older, this suggests that guns used in crimes tend to get to criminals through subsequent illegal sales rather than through theft. That means that some people who buy new guns resell them illegally. Without registration, we have no reliable way to spot these illegal sales or to identify the sellers. 

A responsible registration system would require gun owners to claim responsibility for each specific gun they buy or own. Every year, the gun owner would be required either to renew the registration for each gun or to explain why he should no longer be responsible for its whereabouts. If the gun owner sold the gun during the year, he must identify the buyer and demonstrate compliance with any record-keeping requirements. If the gun was stolen, he must produce a theft report. If the gun was destroyed, he must provide evidence of its destruction.

Finally, a responsible registration system would make it illegal to possess in public any gun not registered to the possessor. This provision will increase the ability of law enforcement to identify illegal possessors and to take unregistered guns out of circulation.

December 1999