It's not often that I'll start off an editor's letter by writing about letters to the editor, but it's not often that we get the deluge of correspondence spawned by Ray Ring's cover package on firearms in the West, "Guns R Us." You'll see a selection of the missives in this issue; you can see more comments (and video interviews with a gun shop owner who's battling federal regulators) on our Web site, www.hcn.org
What's striking to me about the letters is not their fervor; it's the ignorance of general constitutional principles many of them exhibit. Particularly on the pro-gun side of the firearms debate, there seems to be little realization that rights enumerated in the Constitution are not absolute, that courts often balance one against another in making decisions. Perhaps the most succinct example of this misperception of legal reality came in an e-mail from someone calling himself "redneckrepairs": "It's all fun and games for John Mecklin unless someone mentions reasonable restrictions on the press, isn't it?"
As a matter of long-standing case law, in fact, the government can impose reasonable restrictions on First Amendment activities. So long as it's making a legitimate effort to protect general welfare, the government can restrict the time, place and manner in which speech is exercised. And as became clear during the investigation of the leaking of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to the press, the government's right to seek evidence of criminal activity does, in some cases, outweigh free press considerations. That government prerogative - upheld by the Supreme Court - can even put journalists in jail, if they refuse to betray their anonymous sources.
I offer this explanation to redneckrepairs (and other gun absolutists) not to foment further outrage, but to emphasize, again, the need for collaboration on the gun issue. There are compromises that can reduce gun-related crime while still allowing law-abiding Westerners to have the guns that are so closely tied to their heritage. But it's awfully tough to work in concert with people who won't face up to sky-is-blue reality.
Global warming is spinning off complex environmental choices that could divide those who want to save the Earth from a Venusian future. For example, in this issue's cover story, "A Climate Change Solution?", Valerie Brown looks at a promising demonstration project that could, if successful, clear the way for carbon dioxide to be stripped from electrical plant exhaust and pumped into underground lava flows, where the CO2 would combine with water and minerals leached from the lava to create calcium carbonate - that is, the equivalent of seashells.
Even during the testing phase, this potential good news in the fight to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels is producing discord within the environmental community. Some environmentalists fear carbon sequestration research will be a slow-moving distraction from an urgently needed move toward alternative, carbon-free energy sources. Some think sequestration will be falsely portrayed as the magic bullet that can slay climate change, actually spurring the construction of coal power plants. Others support sequestration, so long as it is part of a many-faceted program to stabilize Earth's climate.
Though I'm hopeful a massive expansion of solar energy research and development during the upcoming Clinton/Richardson administration will make the sun our primary energy source within my lifetime, I'm generally in the pro-sequestration camp. But I'm also willing to consider well-considered arguments to the contrary. So write me a letter. Maybe you know more than I do. Maybe we can get together on this.