Commentary: Rights and responsibility go hand-in-hand

The Kansas City StarJanuary 11, 2013 

One of the frustrations for a newspaper opinion columnist is the inability to know, with any certainty, whether commentary on a controversial issue has found its intended mark.

That’s not true, however, if the subject is gun control.

Dare to suggest in print that greater regulations are needed to keep the most lethal kinds of rapid-fire, high-capacity weapons out of the hands of ex-felons, gangbangers and the mentally impaired and there’s no doubt you’ve touched a nerve.

I’ll be honest to say that I greatly enjoy the reaction such a column evokes.

The letters, phone calls and complaints to the editors do not qualify as argument. They tend more toward insult and ridicule.

In the most recent instance, the letter writer even criticized my photo that accompanies the column, which he said falsely depicts me as a man of wisdom.

Actually, I’m not fond of that picture myself. I would have preferred a mug shot of Harrison Ford or Sean Connery in its place, but the editors refused.

The truth is that while we may disagree on the matter at hand, those offended readers and I have something of importance in common. We share the right to speak our conflicting views in print.

That freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment: “ Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech…,” just as gun owners’ interests are protected by the Second Amendment: “ …the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Those are not just words. They are promises by our Constitution to the governed of this country. But rights, like promises, are not without conditions.

Freedom of speech does not permit false, malicious and damaging assertions by any person or institution against a blameless individual.

And the right of gun ownership does not preclude the right of Congress to enact regulations deemed in the interest of the public’s safety.

The requirements that motorists be licensed and not incapacitated by alcohol, or that truckers observe sensible limits to their time behind the wheel, are not unreasonable infringements on the right to drive. And to say that assault rifles present a special hazard, or that a more diligent screening of gun purchasers is necessary, does not violate the Second Amendment.

Ours is a society of laws, and of reason. But the law is a living instrument. It responds to societal change. With the increasing frequency of mass shootings, reason suggests that we’ve experienced change of an alarming sort.

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