In response to the horrific mass murder in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama insisted that all of us have an obligation to do what we can to prevent such acts of brutal violence from recurring.

He’s right. We do. The hard question is, what can we do, as individuals and collectively through our laws, to accomplish that incredibly important goal?

Superficial observers on the left might think the answer is obvious — ban all private ownership of firearms. If there were no guns in private hands, there could be no gun violence.

That is true as far as it goes, which is to say not very far.

Apart from the fact that such a ban would violate the Constitution, which the Supreme Court has ruled “protects an individual right to possess a firearm and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes,” there is no way our democratic society could successfully implement such a ban in the teeth of what would be certain to be widespread and deeply-felt opposition.

The Pew Research Center released a report last week indicating that, even after the slaughter in Newtown, public support for protecting the rights of gun owners remained very substantial, and higher than it had been for most of the 1990s and the 2000s.

There are said to be some 300 million guns in private hands in this country, today, and something like two-fifths of the population own firearms.

The overwhelming majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens, who use their weapons for hunting and recreation, or who keep them as collector’s items or for the sake of personal security.

Anyone who favors restricting gun rights must begin by recognizing that every such restriction limits the freedom of many persons, whose ownership and use of firearms is neither harmful to themselves nor to others, in order to prevent the terrible harms that a disturbed and evil few are likely to commit.

Nor is it obvious what restrictions would actually diminish the likelihood of mass killings and other criminal uses of firearms, which are the only legitimate reasons for seeking restrictions on gun ownership.

When Obama spoke last Wednesday to announce the formation of a commission to propose steps to prevent mass killings, he seemed at times to appreciate the difficulty of the problem. He observed that “this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions” and that to end gun violence would require changing our “culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.” He added, “Any actions we must take, must begin inside the home and inside our hearts.”

The balance of his speech, however, took a very different line. The president went on to call for the adoption of a standard, Democratic Party wish-list of firearms restrictions: a ban on assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines and new restrictions on the sale of firearms at gun shows.

After having proposed only measures he supports, he smugly suggested that ending gun violence will require “compromise” and offensively said that “most of all” it would “take courage.”

Apparently, Obama has still not discovered that compromise means accepting some things you don’t like in exchange for getting other things you do and that implying that people who disagree with you are cowards is not an effective way of winning them over to your point of view.

Instead of insulting people who do not think as he does, the president ought to have remembered the first part of his speech and taken care not to provoke into opposition their “deeply held passions.” To that end, he might, for example, have promised to support only those firearms restrictions that can be shown to be effective at reducing unlawful and accidental violence, promising periodic scholarly review of the actual consequences of any new law after it has been in force for a few years.

He might, for example, also have taken on the media. He might have asked whether the massive, national attention paid to these mass murders only encourages copycat slaughter. He might have asked whether each one of us who watched any of the tragedy-porn coverage did not thereby contribute to our culture’s sickness and thus indirectly encourage more such murders in the future.

He might have, but he did not.

If we are to make progress in ending gun violence, which should be the president’s goal, the virtue we will need is not courage but wisdom — wisdom to find policies that will actually work and to bring Americans together to support them.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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