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Editorial: Reduce carnage and protect gun rights

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, standing left clapping, and children who wrote the president about gun violence following last month's shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., signs executive orders to reduce gun violence in the South Court Auditorium at the White House. (Jan. 16, 2013) Credit: AP

A month after the heartbreaking massacre in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama unveiled an ambitious proposal yesterday that will frame the substantive debate the nation must have on stemming gun violence.

Such mass shootings are tragic, especially when precious children are killed, and their increasing frequency is disturbing. But the president was right to broaden the focus to include the less notorious shootings that occur daily. The public should accept his challenge to demand change. Only a public groundswell will make it happen.

There are no real surprises in the measures Obama called for Congress to enact, or in those he directed by executive order. Congress should ban assault weapons and ammunition clips with a capacity of more than 10 shells, which are the preferred weapons of mass murderers. The gunman in Aurora, Colo., shot 70 people, killing 12, in a matter of minutes. Civilians don't need that kind of firepower.

But the most critical reforms are those that would help shut down the avenues where guns move out of the legal market and into the hands of criminals and other dangerous people who cannot buy them legally.

One way to do that is by requiring background checks for everyone who tries to buy a gun. The checks are required for sales by licensed dealers. But four in 10 purchases are private transactions, like those at gun shows, where no background check is mandated. That's madness. Congress should close that gaping loophole.

Another is tougher punishment for corrupt licensed dealers and "straw buyers" -- people who legally purchase firearms and then pass them on to illegal buyers. Right now, those gun traffickers can only be prosecuted for misdemeanor paperwork violations. That's ludicrous. Gun trafficking is a serious crime. It demands serious penalties.

Obama didn't say much about the role of video games, movies and television in the nation's scourge of gun violence. Free speech rights make doing anything to curb violent programming problematic. But he did order the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence and the best ways to reduce it, something it has been prevented from doing for years based on a flawed reading of the law that bars using federal funds to "advocate or promote gun control." Obama is right to challenge that outrageous interpretation.

Unfortunately, his call for improved mental health services was vague. Too many disturbed people slip though cracks in the fragmented, underfunded system. It's an important piece of the problem that shouldn't get lost in the battle over guns.

And while that battle will surely be passionate, it ought to be honest. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to own guns, but the court also found that weapons possession can be regulated. Let's find the balance. The National Rifle Association's recent television advertisement arguing for armed guards in schools by noting Obama's daughters have such protection in their schools didn't help its cause or advance the discussion. This is the moment to do something about the epidemic of gun violence. We can protect gun rights without sacrificing our children to armed madmen.