Sunday December 30, 2012

WASHINGTON, MA.

As the shock wave of horror from the Newtown school shootings begins to recede, it leaves behind in its wake an all-too-familiar landscape: a deeply divided America, in this case between supporters of gun rights and advocates for gun control.

Gun rights supporters view gun control proposals as encroaching on their Constitutional right under the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms, as Big Brother threatening to take away their guns. Those advocating gun control measures see the extension of gun rights spiraling out of control, with legislation introduced in some states to allow people to carry guns in places such as schools and colleges, the very scenes of recent carnage.

After a week of silence following the shootings, the National Rifle Association proposed posting armed guards at every school. It also restated its adamant opposition to any new gun control measures, even before President Obama made any proposals, as he said he would do in January.

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When news of the shootings broke, I was watching TV coverage in a hotel room in the Denver area, just a few miles from Columbine High School. On the way to the airport to fly back to Connecticut, I drove through Aurora, site of the "Batman" movie massacre last summer.


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While in the air I couldn’t help wondering whether these place names -- Columbine, Aurora and now Newtown -- will in the future merely evoke tragic memories, or will we take "meaningful action," in the president’s words, about gun violence? To build political consensus for such action, we need to change the polarized conversation about guns, to talk not about gun rights or gun control, but "gun sense."

No Constitutional right is more deeply enshrined in America than that of free speech, guaranteed in the First Amendment. Yet we all agree, as the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous opinion almost a century ago, that no one has a right to yell fire in a crowded theater when in fact there is none. It just makes sense.

So we all need to ask ourselves: does it make sense to allow the sale and ownership of military-style automatic weapons and extended-capacity cartridge magazines? Does it make sense to turn our schools into armed camps and encourage firearms in classrooms? Should it be so easy for a mentally disturbed person to unleash a barrage of bullets in a school or a movie theater? Most gun owners and non-owners alike can agree that this makes no sense at all.

In a Dec. 23 editorial on gun violence, The Eagle urged that "Moms of the U.S. unite, and demand gun control." We all feel that when it comes to their kids, moms usually make a lot of sense. And there is a precedent for the power of moms, the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving, formed in 1980 by a mother whose 13-year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Since then MADD has increased public opposition to drunken driving, and encouraged passage of tougher laws against violators.

And yet Lanza’s mother was a gun enthusiast who kept high-powered weapons in her home, despite being well aware that her son was disturbed. Did this make sense? What was she thinking? We’ll never know, of course, because she was the first victim of his murderous rampage.

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Most gun owners are sensible people, and take great care in the handling of their firearms, whether for hunting or shooting sports. We need them to speak up, to disown the extreme positions of the NRA and meet non-owners on the common ground of gun sense. We saw in the debate on the issue of raising taxes on the very wealthiest that when the billionaire Warren Buffett spoke out, and said that it made no sense to tax him at a lower rate than his secretary, it changed the conversation.

The Second Amendment is no less subject to common sense than the First. Will some gun owners have the courage to step forward publicly and make sense about guns? We need to hear from you.

Steve Nelson is an occasional Eagle contributor.