The debate on gun control lately has been going like this: Liberals propose various restrictions on allowable firearms, acceptable owners and approved ammunition. Conservatives exclaim, "Second Amendment!" And the debate, at least in the mind of the latter group, is over.
The Second Amendment, they believe, is not just one important provision of our basic government document. It's the first and last word on the subject of firearms.
Viewing the proposals offered since the Sandy Hook massacre, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., concludes the supporters intend "to completely GUT our Second Amendment rights." The Utah Sheriffs' Association warned President Barack Obama, "No federal official will be permitted to descend upon our constituents and take from them what the Bill of Rights -- in particular Amendment II -- has given them."
The logic is simple: The Second Amendment protects the rights of gun owners. Gun control laws violate those rights. Therefore, any such measure is unconstitutional.
But that's not quite how constitutional liberties work. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech -- but the government may require permits for a political protest, outlaw child pornography, forbid incitement to violence, allow libel suits and more.
The First Amendment does not protect your right to tell an airport security screener you're fond of bombs. Yet some Second Amendment champions see no limit to the scope of their favorite freedom.
It's odd that they regard it as so vulnerable to abuse. For a long time, this provision was treated as an irrelevant antique. Until 2008, the Supreme Court had never interpreted it to protect an individual right to own or use guns for self-defense. Now that the "right to keep and bear arms" has gained full recognition, however, its admirers treat it as perpetually in peril.
Many of the old fears, though, are no longer warranted. Limits on "assault weapons" will lead to bans on handguns? No way. Registration of guns will end in house-to-house confiscation? Not in a million years. The Supreme Court has established firm limits on how far gun control can go -- and it's not terribly far.
But there's another side to it. The Second Amendment does not preclude general regulation of firearms. And it doesn't disqualify some of the favorite ideas of gun control advocates.