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Rights and responsibilities [Editorial]

Personal Weapon ControlFirearmsInterior PolicyCourts and the Judiciary

Among the most politically charged subjects in the American discussion is the status of guns in our society.

Those on the fringes of the discussion tend to attract the most attention, even as those with more middling views are ignored or lumped in with one or another of the more extreme groups.

A case in point is the 54th annual Bel Air Gun Show, which attracted about 1,200 paying attendees to the Reckord Armory building on Main Street in the county seat.

It's probably safe to say those folks fall on the side of the debate that advocates for gun ownership, but that's hardly an extreme position. Given the nature of the Bel Air show, it's probably also a safe bet that the folks who attended are, to a person, big advocates of gun safety. The reality is, most gun owners — and most people who advocate for the right to keep and bear personal firearms — are also strong proponents of firearms safety.

A gun, however, is a powerful weapon and in the wrong hands can do terrible and irreversible damage. Hence, the desire in some circles to have the government more strictly regulate gun ownership.

While the rhetoric coming from the extremes in the discussion tends to be rather stark, there's a strange reality that links law-abiding people on either side of the issue: a desire to be safe from irresponsible and criminal uses of firearms.

The sentiment is expressed in a rather over-simplified way on the pro gun side in the saying, "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns."

Realistically speaking, there is probably a lot of common ground in the general population on the subject of guns. No sane person, for example, would advocate giving away unlimited free guns and ammunition on a street corner in any community in the country. Also, there's the matter of weapon size. The Constitution's Second Amendment addresses the right to "keep and bear arms," but doesn't specifically mention firearms. A broader interpretation could extend the keeping and bearing of arms well beyond guns to include any weapon or potential weapon, from a kitchen knife to an anti-tank rocket launcher and beyond.

Clearly, kitchen knives are generally regarded as OK for the general public; anti-tank weapons, not so much. Somewhere in that range is a compromise position that would be acceptable to a lot of people; but nowhere is a position that is acceptable to everyone. It just isn't possible to please all the people.

There is also the matter of the awkwardly worded Second Amendment, which for generations has been interpreted to preserve the right of the general public to own firearms. To change that interpretation at this juncture in history would be a move with the potential to have drastic effects on other rights most people presume are protected by the Constitution. Historically, the Fourth Amendment protection against "unreasonable search and seizure" has been interpreted as preserving an individual's right to privacy. Nowhere in the Bill of Rights, however, is a specific right to privacy spelled out more clearly than in the Fourth Amendment; moreover, there is a line of legal reasoning that presumes because no "right to personal privacy" is enumerated in the Constitution, that no such right exists.

To start changing one constitutionally-protected right that has been recognized for generations is to open the door to challenges of others.

Conversely, another social reality is that all rights come with both responsibilities and certain limits. The classic limit on a right is the one attributed to the late Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Supreme Court chief justice, who is credited with spelling out the notion that shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not an example of what constitutes free speech.

Presumably, given that the responsibilities of gun ownership are great because the power associated with a firearm is potentially great, there are reasonable and constitutional limits to what the Second Amendment allows.

The discussion on what those limits are, however, is one that will never be resolved with a comment from a bumper sticker, nor is it a discussion that can be initiated by those who believe the other side is ill-informed, radical or possessed of a sinister motivation.

In other words, it's up to we, the people, to talk about it among ourselves, especially if we disagree.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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