You have no right to read this.
The First Amendment gives me the right to write it but doesn't necessarily give you the right to read it. Or so I was once told by an attorney. While the right to free speech certainly implies a corresponding right to hear what is being spoken, he said, the First Amendment doesn't explicitly grant such a right. So theoretically, it could be argued that no such right exists.
The key word being "theoretically." As a practical matter, the freedom to read whatever we choose is such an intrinsic part of our national character as to make legal theory superfluous. People would rise in outrage if government ever attempted to proscribe what they read. Theory and reality are often two different things.
I bring up the First Amendment in order to discuss the Second. The Supreme Court is pondering what is expected to be a landmark ruling on that amendment, which, for the record, reads as follows: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
At issue is whether a District of Columbia law banning handgun ownership is constitutional. The key question is this: Does the Second Amendment confer an individual right to gun ownership, or does it refer only to the right of a state to raise a militia? I've always thought the latter, a view buttressed by many legal rulings, including the Supreme Court's, when it last weighed in on the subject, nearly 70 years ago.
But in a very real sense, and for reasons similar to those just mentioned, I also think that's beside the point. Whether a right to individual gun ownership can be found in the Second Amendment or not, the perception of that right is so deeply ingrained that legal theory is - here's that word again - superfluous. Do you really think, regardless of what the court rules, it would be possible to ban firearms on a national scale? I think any attempt to do so would lead to uprisings we can scarcely imagine.
What we have here, then, is another case of theory vs. reality.
It's a confrontation that did not have to happen.
The problem with this debate is that it has always been defined by its most extreme voices, its most uncompromising, ideologically pure voices.
But what if gun control advocates got over the idea that getting the right ruling from the right court would magically make guns disappear? And what if gun advocates got over the notion that every attempt at firearms regulation is a step toward totalitarianism? Where might this debate go then?
What if supporters of gun control could concede that hunting is, for some, an honored tradition? That some people feel it necessary to have a weapon in the home for protection? That some entirely rational folks simply like guns?
Could gun rights people then concede that you don't need an assault weapon to go deer hunting? And that manufacturers who flood poor, violence-prone neighborhoods with cheap handguns ought to be held accountable? And that guys who sell guns from the trunks of their cars are nobody's friend? And that background checks and gun safety classes for new gun owners make us all safer? And that gun registration isn't totalitarianism any more than a driver's license is? And, most of all, that all of us are tired of seeing children shoot children with guns they never should have had access to?
It's called compromise, and no, it would hardly mollify ideological purists. It would not make guns disappear, nor acknowledge an individual right to bazooka ownership. What it would do, though, is recognize that ideological purity has its limits. That's a good thing to remember.
When theory confronts reality, put your money on reality every time.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.