Gun Control: You Live Free, We Die

But this is one of those critical moments when both sides of a divisive national debate need to rein in the rhetoric long enough to acknowledge the obvious: Keeping guns out of the hands of the criminally intentioned and the mentally ill cannot be accomplished with a patchwork of inconsistent state laws. Only federal regulation, strictly enforced, can impose a uniform system of background checks and permitting practices that weed out the unstable. Only a federal mandate can create and adequately fund the kind of comprehensive database that will ensure that deranged and violent individuals do not have access to lethal firearms. (The National Instant Criminal Background Check System maintained by the FBI is now so stymied by the failure of most states to do full background checks on those who should be flagged that the General Accounting Office continues to report that even those on terror watch lists have been able to buy guns.)

The sensible middle needs to wrest the issue from the absolutists at either extreme. The problem cannot be resolved in a debate between the owner of Abe’s Awesome Armaments — who flies a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag at the entrance to his shop and blames the stalemate on liberal do-gooders who don’t know a hunting rifle from a handgun — and John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence, who rotates provocative antigun messages on a 252-foot billboard alongside the Mass. Pike and blames the body count on politicians who gorge themselves on National Rifle Association “blood money.”

The public is somewhere in between. There is no national consensus about reinstating the assault weapons ban that Congress let expire in 2004, nor about banning magazines that allow a shooter to fire 31 bullets in 15 seconds, as Jared Loughner allegedly did in Tucson. But there is agreement that the law should keep guns away from the deranged and the dangerous.

THE CONTENTIOUS ABORTION DEBATE of the past 38 years could actually prove instructive here. There will never be common ground between those who believe that abortion performed a week after conception constitutes murder and those who think a woman’s right to control her child-bearing decisions is absolute. But the nation has found a way since Roe v. Wade to discuss limits on the procedure while still protecting a woman’s constitutional right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In our ongoing discussions about parental consent, sex selection, fetal viability, and public funding we have been stumbling toward some workable middle ground.

We can do the same with guns.

Yes, there will always be an illegal market for guns, fueled by thefts or by negligent sales by gun dealers. But it is an abdication of responsibility to simply throw up our hands and settle for the mishmash of existing state gun laws. The issue has our attention now because on a sunny morning in Arizona, a disturbed man with a powerful gun critically injured a prominent white woman, and killed a little white girl, a white federal judge, a young white man engaged to be married, and three white retirees.

In Boston, most of the victims of relentless gun violence are young, black, and poor, concentrated in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan — neighborhoods that are as easily circumvented by indifferent white suburbanites as the state’s gun laws are by illegal gun traffickers.

It is a nice gesture that Governor Deval Patrick keeps refiling legislation to further toughen gun laws in Massachusetts, limiting an individual’s purchase of firearms to one per month. But the New Hampshire legislature is back in session, too, and right next door. Its first order of business was to repeal the ban on carrying guns in the State House.