12/26/2012 04:54 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

Even Fundamental Rights Are Subject to Certain Limitations


The unimaginable tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School will forever change who we are as Americans and what we stand for as a nation.

It was a tragedy that stole 26 innocent lives -- 20 of which, as hard as it is to imagine, were only 6- or 7-years-old. This horrific tragedy shocked the nation's collective conscience.

The gunman was a 20-year-old boy who, based on his actions and early reports, appears to have been mentally ill. He lived with his mother. A mother who owned, used and exposed her children to assault weapons. A mother who died from multiple gun shot wounds to the head, inflicted by her son, before he went on his killing spree.

We are now witnessing a national debate about why this happened. As this debate continues, advocates on all sides will argue the many causes that may have contributed to the unendurable losses at Newtown. The pervasive availability of assault weapons will rightfully lead the list of most who attempt to answer the question, "Why?" And these attempts to lay the blame on the accessibility of assault weapons, will be met with a deafening cry from those who understandably strive to protect our rights under the Second Amendment.

Gun advocates will argue, "Guns don't kill people -- people kill people." Gun control proponents will respond: "No. People with guns kill people." Many of each side's arguments have merit. Others will attempt to reframe or misdirect the focus of the debate. Still others will remain blinded by their ingrained prejudices, economic interests and/or deeply held beliefs. Emotions will run high and high-priced lobbyists, armed with political contributions, will run rampant. Ultimately, the battle to ban assault weapons will end at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hopefully, the Justices will agree that even our most fundamental rights, such as those found in the Second Amendment, have certain essential and inherent limitations -- limitations which are necessitated by certain equally important rights, such as the rights of a 6-year-old to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Rights that are undeniably infringed upon, at least to some extent, by allowing unfettered rights under the Second Amendment. While the Second Amendment is and should always remain a fundamental right, it is not, cannot and should not be seen as an absolute right without limitation. Just as our First Amendment rights are subject to certain limitations so, too, must our Second Amendment rights be understood to be similarly limited.

A ban on assault weapons is a reasonable, necessary and appropriate limitation on our rights under the Second Amendment. It is a limitation that will help to protect, at least to some degree, the lives of our children. Limiting access to assault weapons will not prevent similar atrocities. At best, it may lessen the impact of similar killing sprees by reducing the number of lives lost. That alone is sufficient to justify a ban on assault weapons. But we need to understand that this will not solve the problem. This complicated, multidimensional problem will require an inspired, multifaceted solution.

It will require inspired thinking and unprecedented action. It will require a reconsideration of our approach to mental illness.

Our national obsession with violence will also need to be considered. It will require a reexamination of the commercial exploitation of violence in music, television and film. It will also require that we reassess the potential impact of violent video games on our children. School security protocols and school policies on physical and cyber bullying will need to be addressed. The smoldering problems of gang violence and youth unemployment will also require inspired solutions. This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it's a good start. All of these issues arguably contribute to the problem of violence in America.

As we search for a solution, other considerations will inevitably emerge. How proposed changes may affect our rights under the First Amendment and how we expect to fund necessary changes, given the state of our economy, will prove to be the primary obstacles. Partisan politics and the grotesque influence of money in politics will provide additional hurdles. We will see some action out of Washington, but it won't be enough. Yet even that must not deter us.

We are far from powerless as a people. But in order for our voices to be heard we must get involved in the debate. We alone ultimately control and bear responsibility for our future.

Some have asked, why didn't Adam Lanza simply take his own life, rather than kill his mother and 26 innocent victims, only to then take his own life? It has been suggested that many of those involved in mass shootings externalize their pain. They blame others for their suffering. What can we learn from that?

The lesson is as simple as it is important. Don't blame others for your misfortune. Accept responsibility for your condition. And teach your children to do the same. This was a lesson that was apparently lost on Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Newtown shooter. And it is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the tragedy at Newtown.

If you don't want to live in a violent society, stop buying and exposing your children to guns. Stop buying your children violent video games. Stop allowing them to watch violent programing and listen to violent music. Stop allowing your children to bully other children and don't allow them to be the subject of bullying.

If you can't control your children -- seek help. Contact the health professionals at your children's schools. Speak to your child's pediatrician. Ask for help. Acknowledge the problem and do everything you can to address it.

And understand that your responsibility doesn't end there. If you don't agree with this nation's gun control laws, then demand that your elected representatives change them.

If your elected representatives are non-responsive to your needs, then vote them out of office. If you don't want lobbyists stealing your country then demand comprehensive, publicly funded, campaign finance reform.

In sum, accept responsibility for your condition and do something about it. Don't blame others. And, teach your children to do the same.

George J. Chanos is a former Attorney General of Nevada.

Crossposted at the Las Vegas Review Journal.