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SHIELDS: Why do firearms escape the scope of state licenses?

It probably had something to do with the countless hours involuntarily spent assembling, disassembling and cleaning my M-1 rifle, and in seeing up-close the damage semi-automatic weapons can inflict, but I have never thought of guns as anything other than brutally efficient tools for crippling and killing human beings.

Catcher's mitts, basketballs and skis are sporting goods. Guns are not sporting goods. Guns are instruments of death and destruction. This point of view could explain why in the nearly half century since leaving the Marine Corps, I have never picked up a firearm.

But the shootings in Arizona that left six people dead and another 14, including Rep. Gabby Giffords, clinging to life, raise questions that demand both our attention and our thoughts.

In Arizona, in order to cut toenails and fingernails, and to shampoo another person's hair for profit, you must first undergo a background check and obtain a license from the State Board of Cosmetology.

To operate as a massage therapist in Arizona, you must, by state law, have had a minimum of 500 hours of instruction from a school recognized by the secretary of the Department of Education.

Before you can legally qualify as a pest-control applicator, you must undergo and pass a state-mandated background check.

Arizona requires a state license to sell minnows or other live bait. The Arizona Board of Athletic Training will decide whether you are qualified to be an athletic trainer. If your life's ambition is to intern as a cremationist, you must win the approval of the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Hope to become an Aquatic Animal Processor, cleaning aquatic animals? Not until the Arizona Department of Agriculture approves and licenses your application.

It's entirely possible that all of this licensing and permits and paperwork are needed to protect the public health and safety of the good people of Arizona.

But please tell me why to buy a Glock 9 mm pistol, modified with a high-capacity magazine to fire 31 rounds, Jared Lee Loughner, an obviously troubled and alienated young man, had to undergo no background check at all.

Citizens are required to pass a test and background check in order to get a driver's license but not to purchase a weapon of literally mass individual destruction.

Please, somebody, tell me why -- and don't start reciting the Second Amendment. Just as the First Amendment with the guarantee of freedom of speech does not prohibit enforceable statutes outlawing perjury and libel, the Second Amendment keeps machine guns and grenade launchers out of private hands. All that is lacking is political courage, good sense and a genuine concern for public safety.

One brighter note from the Arizona tragedy was pointed out to me by my friend Alan Ginsburg. He noted that on Saturday a Catholic white federal judge, John Roll, a Republican, was killed while on his way from Mass to greet his friend, Gabby Giffords, a 40-year-old Democrat who is Jewish and who, as of this writing, is fighting her way back.

Her life was undoubtedly saved by Daniel Hernandez, 20, who is Mexican-American and a member of the Tucson Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender issues -- and who, upon hearing the first shots, ran toward the gunfire and Giffords, not away. The chief of trauma at Arizona University Medical Center, whose professionalism helped put Giffords in surgery just 38 minutes after she was hit, was Korean-American Dr. Peter Rhee, who faced worse as a combat surgeon in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then our nation was comforted by an African-American chief executive.

It is truly, if sadly, a uniquely American story.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.