The apparent contrast in national priorities is disheartening.
Photo: Jacinta lluch valero/Flickr
For the past half-dozen months, I've owned and operated a tiny quadcopter that I built from parts sourced online. It's only 110 millimeters wide, weighs about one pound, has a very small camera, and is more likely to be blown into a tree by a mild breeze than injure anyone.
And as of next week, I will need to register my dinky little drone with the federal government. Otherwise, I could potentially face civil and criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and three years in prison.
Meanwhile, if I decided to relocate to the nearby state of New Hampshire, I'd be able to purchase and own an assault rifle with a high-capacity magazine—no registration or license required.
That's because I live in the United States, a country that will soon have a national registry for toy helicopters, but not for deadly machines used to commit horrifying mass-murder on a near-daily basis.
If you've been conscious at some point over the past decade, you're probably aware of the latter. Currently the US has had more mass-shootings than calendar days this year: 353 by the Mass Shooting Tracker's count. Despite having the highest body count per capita among developed countries, the issue of gun control remains politically deadlocked. Many politicians now suggest this is simply the way things are—just another bloodstained texture of contemporary American life.
But somehow, when it comes to other things—like terrorism or the still-mostly-hypothetical danger posed by hobbyist drones—well, that's a whole other story!
The FAA's new registration system, announced Monday, will require anyone with a drone heavier than half a pound to enter their name, home addresses and email address into a form on the agency's website. Registration is free for the first 30 days when it opens on December 21, and $5 afterward. After that, any unregistered operator risks civil penalties of up to $27,500 plus criminal fines of up to $250,000 and/or as many as three years in prison.
The gist is that there is simply more political appetite for regulating remote-control helicopters than regulating weapons that are routinely used to murder large numbers of people
The FAA says the goal is to encourage responsibility among drone operators, which by itself is not such a bad idea. While all the hobbyists I've flown with and spoken to are responsible people who know not to do stupid things (like chasing passenger aircraft or hovering near emergency responders) there will inevitably be some idiots out there once an estimated 400,000 to 1 million people unwrap their shiny new drones this holiday season.
The bigger problem is that the requirements make no sense next to the actual, relative danger posed by hobbyist drones. Talk on Capitol Hill about near-collisions with planes has been fed by sensational media stories and based on vastly exaggerated and misinterpreted data from the FAA. Registering my name, address and credit card information with a government database that's practically guaranteed to be hacked OPM-style at some point also just seems like a bad trade-off for permission to fly a 1-pound toy helicopter.
Moreover, just how absolutely batshit is this in a country that still has no mandatory federal registry for guns? Only four US states currently have formal registration requirements for handgun owners. Only 12 states require a license or permit to own a handgun.
Of course, there are very good reasons to doubt that any registration system can foil a determined criminal. But one would think if there was any rational basis for such as system, it would be applied to something that kills, on average, 36 people per day—not toy helicopters that might someday accidentally collide with a plane (which in many cases is much less likely than a plane colliding with a bird).
When gun enthusiasts (correctly) say the vast majority of gun owners are responsible, they still get the benefit of the doubt. Drone owners—who, remember, aren't operating machines that are regularly used to kill people in large numbers—do not. In fact, the FAA isn't even giving the public a chance to comment on the drone registration system, saying that the benefit of allowing feedback "is outweighed by the significant increase in risk that the public will face with the immediate proliferation of new small unmanned aircraft that will be introduced into the [national air space] in the weeks ahead."
There are various factors at play in this disparity. The FAA can regulate things that exist in public airspace, whereas an agency that might have authority over guns, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, wouldn't have the same legal argument to unilaterally implement a national gun registry. But the gist is that there is simply more political appetite for regulating remote-control helicopters than regulating weapons that are routinely used to murder large numbers of people.
This is not to say all drone or gun regulation is inherently good or bad. Both obviously pose public safety issues that we'll need to contend with, and the fine details matter. But many more people would probably be cool with registering their consumer flying machines if we could knock that gun thing out of the park first.