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Editorial: Keep the gun debate down to a mild roar

Only a fact-based civil discourse can lead to

Only a fact-based civil discourse can lead to a policy that all sides can live with. It's time to move that process along. It's time to really start talking. Credit: Tribune Media Services / Nancy Ohanian

America's conversation on the disastrous result of our weak gun-control laws has officially started, and it's safe to say we're not connecting.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week conducted a hearing that featured prominent voices in the debate -- including Gabriel Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who suffered serious injuries near Tucson in 2011 when a mass murderer put a bullet in her head. Her message was sensible but simple: "We must do something. It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you."

Also testifying was Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who never seems to have met a gun regulation he likes. Still, this could have been the time for LaPierre to strike a more conciliatory tone -- to concede, perhaps, that tougher background checks for gun buyers wouldn't really be such a bad idea. The NRA's mantra after all, is "guns don't kill people, people kill people." So who could object to a closer look at the people who buy guns?

The NRA, as it turns out.

The background check, LaPierre said, usually winds up as "a universal federal nightmare" -- "a travesty that's imposed on law-abiding people."

Meanwhile, almost four decades after Richard Nixon gave the practice a bad name, it emerges that the NRA keeps on its website an enemies list of "national organizations with anti-gun policies." They range from the American Medical Association to the YWCA of the USA, and celebs from Alec Baldwin to Catherine Zeta-Jones.

With atmospherics like this, of course, all hope for rational discourse dies. It's all aboard for the crazy train.

To counter this gravitational pull, here are a few key points to keep in mind as the national conversation plods on in a dogged search of consensus.

Point No. 1: Why not make intensified background checks the law of the land for those who want to buy a gun? What could be controversial about this? Americans are asked personal questions when they apply for a driver's license, fill out a tax form, ask for a credit card or take a job. The trade-off for such annoyances on a gun application is that angry, certified psychotics and criminals who want the ability to carry a weapon will probably be weeded out -- and why shouldn't they be? How are anyone's rights diminished by this?

Point No. 2: Why not restrict assault weapons, outlaw large ammo clips, and proscribe other superlethal artillery that's on the shelves of sporting goods stores everywhere? This is one very direct way to help keep weapons of extreme destruction away from dangerous people. Would this stop every assault-weapons crime or every campus massacre? Of course not -- no more than strong capital-murder laws stop all capital murders, or strict drug laws stop across-the-board trafficking in all dangerous drugs. But it would sure help -- and in a major way.

Point No. 3: The gun lobby says the Second Amendment gives owners the right to pack heat of whatever kind they choose whenever they want to carry it. Why do liberals, who support ultra-strict adherence to other bedrock rights suddenly take a walk when it comes to this one?

Isn't this outrageous hypocrisy? It's not.

While Americans have a right to bear arms, the terms of that right are for the Supreme Court to decide. In its 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, the court said, for the very first time, that owners have a right to keep guns in their homes. So score one for the owners. But the court also made clear that government has the authority to decide what weapons they can own. Garden variety handguns might be in. Tactical nuclear weapons might be out. Contrary to the outrage of the gun lobby, many of these crucial questions remain to be litigated.

Only a fact-based civil discourse can lead to a policy that all sides can live with. It's time to move that process along. It's time to really start talking.