02/01/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Gun Ownership: Our Right, and Thus Our Responsibility

When it comes to guns, gun violence, and gun control, we're discussing the wrong issues. Unfortunately, so is the administration.

Proposals to restrict access to assault weapons and certain firearm accessories may make sense, and may be somewhat popular, yet they have the potential to eat through a substantial amount of the administration's political capital without any guarantee of success.

More importantly, many of the headline initiatives, including restrictions on high-capacity magazines, assault-type weapons, and deadly ammunition, may in fact do little to curb gun violence, and would thus play into the NRA's narrative of excessive and ineffective governmental regulation.

Yet there is a politically winning theme in the gun control debate that has yet to be raised, and which has the potential to shift the focus of the debate entirely: responsibility.

Personal responsibility is the mantra of conservative politics, and advocating safe and responsible gun ownership is a major NRA talking point. It's also a theme that the American public should unquestionably support, and thus one through which relevant regulations should be offered.

Unfortunately, bans on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and certain types of ammunition do not fit neatly into this theme of greater personal responsibility (not to mention address the millions of guns and magazines already in circulation). And they're not that popular either.

What does fit into the concept of firearm responsibility, however, is a series of regulations that are less frequently addressed, and that require society and gun owners to, well, be responsible with their weapons.

Gun registration, mandatory background checks, and prohibitions on ownership by felons and the mentally ill all fall into this category; they are rules that prohibit those who might be less-than responsible from possessing firearms. And they are all incredibly popular. Other regulations, such as requiring trigger locks or requirements that guns be stored separate from their ammunition, also involve personal responsibility, but are difficult to enforce.

Yet there still exist plausible regulations that may help reduce gun violence and at the same time appeal to the majority of responsible, gun-owning adults in the country.

First, states (or perhaps even the federal government, though this would no doubt present a variety of challenges) could pass criminal statutes penalizing negligence related to the ownership and misuse of a firearm. Failure to report a stolen or missing gun, failure to properly keep a weapon away from children, failure to register or report the sale of a firearm -- all of these should carry criminal penalties, and violators should be appropriately prosecuted.

Second, gun owners could be required to purchase mandatory liability insurance that attaches to the individual firearm, something that is actually endorsed by the NRA itself. This would encourage owners to better secure their weapons and provide economic incentives to be responsible with the use (or misuse) of their firearms. Some states are already proposing these types of requirements.

Third, both under the rubric of personal responsibility and taking a page from the NRA's playbook, communities could increase security in public areas, but fund this security through a tax on guns and ammunition. If gun-related violence is an externality of increased societal gun ownership, than a tax spent on minimizing that risk is only appropriate.

At the end of the day, states will on their own pass those restrictions on firearms that their citizens support. Gun control is and should be an issue reserved for the states (except if and when interstate transfers of guns proves problematic), and states and cities should have the ability to democratically decide how they want to regulate firearms within their jurisdictions, above and beyond the Heller/McDonald baseline allowing for the possession of firearms in the home for purposes of self defense.

And above all, gun control advocates need to accept that no amount of gun control can properly prevent atrocities like Sandy Hook and Columbine, while opponents need to recognize that the prevalence of and accessibility to firearms does in fact correlate to an increase in gun-related violence and suicides. (That the NRA has sought to downplay or even hide this type of information is rightly telling.)

At the end of the day, both sides of the debate want to decrease gun violence. And while most Americans accept widespread gun ownership, they'd likely still prefer that their neighbors take reasonable steps to secure their firearms so that they don't end up in the wrong hands or are used to commit wrongful violence.

Gun control advocates have a winning hand they can play, so long as it focuses on matters of personal and societal responsibility, and not on restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens. Banning assault-style weapons plays into the NRA's (incorrect yet powerful) message that the government seeks to prohibit all gun ownership. Requiring gun owners to take personal and legal responsibility for their firearms, on the other hand, would therefore seem a more palatable and politically viable strategy to combat gun-related violence.