Guns and Responsibility

We owe ourselves, and especially the children and adults we have lost to gun violence, both reasonable debate and sensible action.
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Gun ownership is a Constitutional right, protected by the Second Amendment. It is a freedom that the roughly 20 percent of Americans who own guns cherish, and most other Americans believe it should remain one of our freedoms. No legislative proposal has been made -- or would be tolerated -- that would remove the right to "keep and bear arms." Despite some of the hyped rhetoric of recent days, none of the proposals under consideration to address gun violence would abolish or even severely restrict the right to purchase multiple types of firearms.

But, in society, freedom comes with responsibility. Free speech comes with the responsibility not to defame others or yell "fire" in a crowded theater. Freedom of religion comes with the responsibility to protect the "free exercise" of those who believe in a different deity. Freedom to buy goods and services comes with the responsibility to pay for them. Freedom to drive a car comes with the responsibility to operate it safely. Freedom to make, sell, own or use firearms comes with the responsibility to do so responsibly -- and to help others do so.

The debate we are having in America should not be about gun ownership. That is a protected freedom that (except possibly for future purchases of "assault rifles") is not being challenged. The debate should be about how to balance that right with responsibility -- not only for individuals but for the society that authorizes and supports personal ownership of firearms.

Pillorying the NRA should not be part of this debate. They have the Constitutional right to express their views. Many of their programs and services help people of all ages use firearms responsibly. They have not caused the mass murders that horrify us. It is fair to ask if they are acting responsibly in the debate about gun violence (and we will come to that), but irresponsible gun manufacture, sales and use is the core problem, not the NRA.

Since owning guns is a right, what are the corresponding responsibilities that we as individuals who make, sell, buy, or use firearms must accept? Some of these seem clear; there will be debate about others. First, no one should be able to purchase a gun who is neither mentally nor legally fit (due to age, mental condition or previous criminal record) to do so. Since some who are not fit will try to obtain firearms nonetheless, society -- including all those who make and sell guns -- has a responsibility to make sure they do not do so. This has implications for responsible behavior needed from parents to mental health professionals to law enforcement to gun makers and sellers.

Second, those who make and enforce laws respecting firearms must have objective and accurate information with which to do so. Since this requires scientific research, that research should be both permitted and supported. Gathering scientific data does not prevent anyone from owning a gun.

Third, gun owners have a responsibility to store and use their firearms safely, and to ensure that others (especially children and the mentally ill) do not have unauthorized access to the use of them. Those who make guns have a responsibility to help make that possible. The technology exists to do so.

Fourth, law enforcement and other safety personnel have a responsibility to protect the public against gun violence -- and to be protected against heavy weaponry in the performance of their duties. When they are prevented from doing their jobs or faced with overwhelming firepower, they cannot act responsibly and the public safety is threatened. This means that communities have the right and responsibility to take those actions they deem essential -- and that are Constitutional -- to protect children, adults, and public safety personnel from gun violence. Stationing law enforcement personnel in schools is one action they have every right to consider, though they should consider both the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.

Beyond at least these responsibilities, we need as a society to discuss the responsibility that needs to be taken by parents as they raise their children and by the media (whose Constitutional right to make electronic games and movies that show and, in some cases, glorify gun violence) to create an environment healthy for children and the broader society.

There is also a responsibility we all have -- and that applies to the debate itself about gun violence, gun rights, and gun control. We must act responsibly in that debate. When gun rights advocates, including the NRA, charge that banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines will lead down the slippery slope to confiscating all privately held guns in America, that is using fear to stoke hatred and avoid a reasonable conversation about gun responsibility. Sensible laws about guns will no more prevent gun ownership than sensible laws about the use of automobiles prevent driving. On the other side, when gun control advocates act as if the NRA is the enemy of America and that gun control itself will rid the nation of gun-related mass murder, that is also acting irresponsibly in the debate we need to have.

Like so many other questions in American politics today, this issue has become polarized. The way we talk about it -- as either "gun rights" or "gun control" -- tells us that. Instead of compromise, too many are looking for total victory. Moral courage among politicians, who either wish to climb on one side of the fence or duck the issue entirely, is lacking. That, too, is an evasion of responsibility. We owe ourselves, and especially the children and adults we have lost to gun violence, both reasonable debate and sensible action.

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