Whatever else you think about the Zimmerman verdict — and it has generated quite the lively national conversation — I think most of us can agree on one thing:

George Zimmerman is a Grade-A Goof. When you end up shooting an unarmed 17-year-old because you wouldn’t heed urgent advice from a police dispatcher to stay in your car, you’re, at the very least, a goof.

And therein lies our problem as a gun-carrying society.

If you read this column regularly, you know I’m involved in an ongoing group discussion of this very issue. We still don’t really have a name, but I tend to refer to it as the “Gun Rights vs. Responsibilities Group.”

It has been quite an interesting and illuminating exercise in civic engagement, but most of us will not consider it a success unless we get from “Rights vs. Responsibilities” to “Rights and Responsibilities.”

If we could devise a system that would do a better job of limiting access to guns by those who shouldn’t have them — i.e. kids, criminals, and the dangerously mentally ill — as long as that system didn’t infringe the constitutional right to own and bear arms, and if it could be done without creating a national gun registry data base, then those of us on both sides of the issue, I think, would be in favor.

That’s a tall order, but we’re making some progress. Both sides agree that kids, criminals and the dangerously mentally ill should not have guns and that efforts should be made to limit easy access to them.

But for me, the Zimmerman case adds another problem category: goofs.

Goofs with guns may be the greatest threat to public safety resulting from the recently passed concealed-carry legislation in Illinois. The problem is, goofs can’t really be screened, profiled, diagnosed or prevented from owning guns. We only recognize it after the fact, as in the sorry case of George Zimmerman, a goof with a gun at the wrong place at the wrong time (as far as Trayvon Martin and his loved ones are concerned).

I have enjoyed getting to know gun owners with strong feelings about the Second Amendment. They strike me as decent, sincere people. And I accept their contention that the majority of gun owners are law-abiding, responsible people.

Goofs with guns are the minority. We just don’t know how large a minority.

Most gun owners, I suspect, would acknowledge the “goofs with guns” syndrome (Those who don’t may very well be the goofs).

But if, realistically, we can’t be pro-active about goofs bearing arms, we can do something after the fact. Though Zimmerman wasn’t convicted, a lot of people would probably agree he should forfeit his right to carry a gun ever again. Rights with Responsibilites: when your lack of responsibility results in an unjustified fatality, you lose your rights as well. But, of course, there’s no realistic way to legislate that, so it won’t happen.

George Z. is probably already out there toting his firearm as if nothing happened, and you can bet the NRA leadership will fight to the death to preserve his right to do so — even though they, too, probably recognize he’s a goof who really can’t be trusted with a lethal weapon.

Gun rights advocates often argue: Why should we make it harder for law-abiding, responsible individuals to exercise their Constitutional right to keep and bear arms?

But here’s another way to look at it: Why should we make it easier for kids, criminals and the dangerously mentally ill — and I would now add goofs — to gain access to guns?

The July issue of Harper’s Index (a regular feature of Harper’s magazine) takes note of the fact that, since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in December, 14 laws have passed nationwide making it harder to access guns.

The number of laws passed nationwide making it easier to access guns? 37.

Gun advocates — and the Supreme Court — have, in effect and with almost uninterrupted success, been arguing for more rights without comparable responsibilities.

Our national mantra should be: The greater the rights, the greater the responsibilities. That, I’m reasonably sure, was the intent of the framers of the Constitution when they added the Second Amendment. They weren’t the kind of men who advocated rights without responsibilities.

The gun rights advocates in our working group have acknowledged the need for responsibility. That’s encouraging and exciting.

But you can’t impose responsibilities on gun rights advocates. That could only be done through legislation and our state and federal lawmakers have already proven they are completely incapable of doing so.

And even if they did, imposition doesn’t work without buy-in. Gun rights advocates need to voluntarily accept greater responsibility to go with the greater rights they now enjoy. That starts with NRA members pressuring their leadership to be more responsible in their positions, less absolute and inflexible.

Gun owners tend to be politically conservative, and conservatives are all about personal responsibility and accountability, as opposed to government telling us what to do.

So do it. We can’t force law-abiding gun owners to be more responsible. We can only ask them to be our allies in a national effort to make guns less accessible to people who shouldn’t have them — even if that means accepting more inconvenience in the process.

We’re asking what responsibilities you are willing to accept.

For the good of all. For the safety of all.


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