In proposing sweeping gun regulations Wednesday, President Obama said there are limits to gun owners' constitutional rights when the health and safety of the public are threatened.
"I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms," Mr. Obama said. But he added, "along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We are responsible for each other."
The Supreme Court has ruled that the right to bear arms can't be violated by state or local governments, in decisions from a 2008 case involving the District of Columbia and in a 2010 Chicago case.
But the justices haven't spelled out what kinds of gun restrictions would violate the Second Amendment. Mr. Obama is testing that legal boundary, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
"He's trying to strike a balance between the Second Amendment and other rights that he finds in the Constitution, or the 'life, liberty and pursuit of happiness' that's found in the Declaration of Independence," Mr. Tobias said. "Whether he struck it appropriately, we'll see."
After a series of mass shootings in the United States in the past 15 years, Mr. Obama said he thinks the legal landscape has tilted too much in favor of the Second Amendment. A former law professor, Mr. Obama said other parts of the Bill of Rights, such as the right to worship freely and assemble peaceably, should be equally important.
"The right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wis.," Mr. Obama said. "The right to assemble peaceably, that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Ore., and moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. That most fundamental set of rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness — fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech, and high school students at Columbine, and elementary school students in Newtown, and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate, and all the families who've never imagined that they'd lose a loved one to a bullet — those rights are at stake. We're responsible."
Civil liberties advocates say the president's proposals could have unintended consequences. The White House proposal to put armed "resource officers" — essentially police — in schools, for example, has drawn scrutiny. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote to Vice President Joseph R. Biden last week to warn that minority students often end up receiving disproportionate punishment when law enforcement officers are posted in schools.
"Teachers and administrators should have the ability to teach and to retain primary control over the punishment of students," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office. "Despite the president's best intentions, funding more police officers in schools will turn sanctuaries for education into armed fortresses."
The ACLU said President Clinton dramatically increased funding for police in schools after the Columbine, Colo., massacre in 1999, and three school districts in the Hartford, Conn., area — just an hour from Newtown — participated in the program. The state ACLU conducted a review and found that in all three districts, there were harmful impacts on students.
"Very young students were being arrested at school, including numerous children in grade three and below," the ACLU said. "Among them, students of color were arrested at rates clearly disproportionate to their representation in the student population, and in some cases were even arrested for infractions when white peers were not."
Having more police in schools, and more arrests, put more students on the path to incarceration, the group said.
"Any proposals that would bring more police, school resource officers, or even the National Guard, as some current legislative proposals suggest, must be rejected," it said.
Even the push to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill has raised privacy concerns. For example, if a person is deemed after a background check to be too unstable to own a gun, civil liberties groups say, such information must not be shared for any other purpose. Mental health advocates say a national database that would track people who receive treatment for mental illness could stigmatize them and deter them from seeking help.
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Dave Boyer is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times. A native of Allentown, Pa., Boyer worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 2002 to 2011 and also has covered Congress for the Times. He is a graduate of Penn State University. Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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