Is it possible that if we started focusing more attention on fulfilling our responsibilities, we wouldn't have to fight so desperately for our rights? It's a thought that's been nibbling at the edges of my brain for a while, but lately it feels as if the concept is actively chomping at my cerebral cortex.
In the wake of the killings in Newtown, Conn., one cry resounding across the nation has been that Americans have a right to guns. Gun ownership is a liberty we are undeniably granted, but what about the responsibilities that go with it? Gun owners have the responsibility to secure weapons and ammunition so they are practically impossible to access by anyone who might use them improperly. That includes kids, crazy Uncle Pete and even burglars.
Gun owners have the responsibility to never sell or give their guns to anyone iffy. To be trained in weapons safety. To never handle pistols and rifles while intoxicated or angry. And yes, to comply with reasonable licensing guidelines.
We have 30,000 gun deaths in this nation each year. Many could be averted if people were more responsible with their weapons. If gun owners fulfilled the responsibilities that go along with that ownership, and thus cut down on the senseless deaths, I don't believe they'd have to fight as hard to preserve their right to own guns.
But the elevation of rights over responsibilities goes far beyond this one topic.
We believe our children have the right to superb teachers and schools. That's at the core of the move toward new teacher performance evaluation systems convulsing New York and many other states.
But don't I also have a responsibility to see that my child arrives at school rested, obedient and properly attired? Aren't I duty-bound to make sure she turned off the TV, the iPad, the cellphone and the computer, did her homework and read for 30 minutes? And aren't I obligated to ensure my kid knows that if she talks back to the teacher or creates any ruckus, I'll make her life completely unbearable (personally, I threaten to glue her hair together while she sleeps).
If we did all this reliably, we'd be amazed to see how effective the teachers suddenly were, and how great the schools instantly became.
Over the past 50 years we've moved toward the idea that health care is a right. That idea frightens me, because health care is actually a set of goods and services. If you declare others have a right to those goods and services, pretty soon you'll be seizing them from the producers, or at least paying less than they'd willingly take for them, in order to fulfill other people's "rights." But for the purpose of this argument, let's say I have the right to health care. What, then, are my responsibilities?
I have the responsibility to keep my weight within a few belt holes of the "the normal range." I have the responsibility to quit smoking (I'm trying, but so far, I've succeeded only in getting the ashtray out of the shower). I have the responsibility to exercise, and go for regular checkups. Currently, I wait until 11 or 12 things are wrong before I see the doctor, to make visits time-efficient.
If we all took care of our bodies in a responsible fashion, the question of how to provide us all the affordable health care that is our right would be a lot easier to answer, because it would be a lot more affordable.
The Supreme Court says we have the right to abortions. Along with that right, don't we have the responsibility to go to great lengths to prevent unwanted pregnancies? Our own pregnancies, via our behavior, our kids', via our teaching, and our society's, via our attitudes?
Our rights are worth battling for. But sometimes it seems that if we all took care of our responsibilities, our rights would take care of themselves.Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.