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Kent Greenfield Headshot

Pardon Me, But Your Liberties Are Stepping on My Freedoms

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Even though the tragedy in Aurora is still fresh on our hearts and minds, it is already clear that there is no political will to enact any significant change in the regulation of guns. Even a ban on assault rifles or high capacity magazines seems beyond Congress's ability.

We may go through the motions for a few more days of asking what regulations we need, but in the end we will be back where we started: living in a nation where the "liberties" of a tiny fringe of gun nuts outweigh the freedom of the rest of us to live in safer communities.

Let me hasten to say that I am not an absolutist -- either way -- on the gun question. I grew up hunting, and I still own a couple of guns (though I do not keep them in my house). I understand why some people bristle at the notion that no one should own a firearm.

On the other hand, I also understand that you do not need assault rifles, high capacity magazines, or armor-piercing bullets to hunt. Unless, of course, you're hunting people.

The reason we're in this situation of regulatory inaction is not the Second Amendment. Even after the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, you don't have a constitutional right to any kind of gun you want. So the reason we're here is politics.

It has always confused me why the fringe of the gun-owning public who objects to even the most reasonable gun regulation has such political power. One reason, perhaps, is that they have so successfully equated gun ownership with "liberty." Any restriction on that ownership, even if it is mild, reasonable, and better for society as a whole, is decried as a government encroachment on our constitutional freedoms or natural liberty. This is what Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, meant the other day when he said efforts to ban high-capacity magazines or to keep guns out of the hands of "demented" individuals would "restrict our freedoms."

So let's talk about what freedom means.

One version of freedom is you get to do whatever you want, and government is (or should be) powerless to stop you. This simplistic version of libertarianism drives the gun-nut-fringe belief that any reasonable gun restriction is a violation of some kind of natural right. It is also behind many objections to the Affordable Care Act -- the reason why the broccoli example was so powerful was because of the fear of government making us do something.

Note how truly outrageous this version of liberty truly is. These rights -- whether to buy assault rifles or to refuse to pay for health insurance -- are seen as so powerful that they win out even when their exercise hurts others. People can buy assault weapons even though it means that society is less safe. People can refuse to buy health insurance even though the costs of their illnesses will be borne by those who do.

Eventually, this version of liberty drives us toward the law of the jungle. It's fine if you don't want to buy health insurance, but don't expect anyone to come to your aid when you're in a car accident or need a kidney. If the prevalence of assault rifles makes you feel less safe, carry one yourself. (Luke O'Dell, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, said the way to have avoided the Aurora shootings is for others in the theater to be carrying weapons as well.)

But here in America, we long ago decided that freedom was more robust than this simpleminded "liberty" espoused by the libertarian fringe. Sometimes, freedom requires a democratic, collective decision and cannot depend on individualistic action alone. When Franklin Roosevelt articulated the "four freedoms" -- freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear -- he knew that some freedoms depended on keeping government in check (speech, worship) but that some (want, fear) depended on government stepping in to help out.

Think about what this means: freedom is not just a situation in which government is powerless; rather, freedom is something that society identifies as a goal and strives for together.

And if we want to live in a society that is free from fear, we cannot have guns so readily available that anyone with a Joker fantasy can gun down scores of innocents in a movie theatre.

So the question of which gun regulations should be put in place is not a question of how much liberty will be lost. It's a question of how much freedom will be gained.

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