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What Guns Mean

President Obama’s forceful package of measures to curb gun violence and promote public safety is what this country needs. It also happens to be what this country wants — at least according to numerous polls that show a clear majority of Americans in favor of a ban on military-style assault weapons, limits on ammunition, universal background checks and tougher enforcement of existing gun laws. Obama has also, rightly, directed the Centers for Disease Control to study the causes of gun violence and to investigate how the proliferation of video games is contributing to a generation of Americans too willing to pull a trigger to settle disputes and express opinions.

As we have said before, promoting gun safety isn’t just a Second Amendment issue. It requires First Amendment compromises, as well.

But no sooner had the president finished affixing his left-handed scrawl on 23 executive orders than elected officials around the country vowed to defy them. Even a balanced federal approach that has definitive public backing is instantly dismissed by the few but very powerful voices in favor of unfettered gun rights and nothing else.

This isn’t just about owning guns. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 2008 Heller decision, affirmed the right of an individual to keep and bear arms for traditionally lawful purposes. You can have your handgun, as long as it’s legal. You can hunt with your buddies and go to target practice with your kids and tuck a gun under the mattress if you believe it will keep you safer. That fight is over. The high court has spoken.

What we need to understand is that the cold, hard steel is just a proxy symbol for a part of American culture that is deeply suspicious of government tyranny and incursions into individual choice. That response is ingrained in the American DNA, no doubt about it, and liberals hold on to it in their own way, by proclaiming that a woman has a right to control her own reproduction, for instance, or the right to marry whomever she chooses.

But examples abound in our history when Americans have surrendered certain individual rights in service of the public good. Some of us remember when you could easily get into a car without a seat belt or safety restraint; now that’s illegal and impossible. Cigarette smoking was ubiquitious not too long ago, until the public health consequences of first- and second-hand smoke drove a sea change in government policy and consumer behavior. You can still light up if you want. But the rights of the community to be free of dangerous smoke take precedence in public spaces, and we are all the better for it.

So, too, do we need a culture change when it comes to guns. “We have to examine ourselves,” the president said in announcing his gun safety package. He used that phrase at least once. Gun safety. Not gun control. This isn’t about controlling guns so much as ensuring safety. And that’s not simply a semantic turn for a more palatable public relations campaign. It is about the right to prevent an elementary school or a movie theater or a street corner from turning into a deadly military-like battleground.

Those of us who want to live in safety, who want to rely on trained law enforcement to protect us, who believe that government can keep weapons from those who shouldn’t use them — we have rights, too.

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