Far too many of America's vital public issues are allowed to become ridiculously polarized and devolve into a debate dominated by loud voices from the fringes who distort issues, pose false choices and vilify anyone with opposing views.
We know from vast experience that such discussions are antithetical to reasoned public policy.
It could be fairly argued that, over the years, the nation's debate over gun policies qualifies as a poster child for this dynamic.
Extreme anti-gun advocates have argued that no one should own guns and, further, that the Second Amendment doesn't guarantee an individual right to do so. Some extreme gun-rights advocates claim that not only can they own guns, but that a Heckler & Koch MP5 is a dandy little device for personal protection.
But it appears there is a window of opportunity in Washington for some reasonable debate on the issue. Unfortunately, this window was opened by horrific events.
The shocking shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a town hall meeting in a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center, a mass assault in a Colorado theater and shootings at Oakland's Oikos University have caused Americans to consider whether we need stronger gun policies.
But the grotesque shooting of school children in Newtown, Conn., was the event that prompts a search for legislative answers.
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, is a leader in that effort. Thompson, who is the chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, told this newspaper's editorial board Thursday that he believes Congress will take important actions within the year. We hope he is right.
We are happy Thompson is leading the effort. He is a respected legislator, but perhaps more importantly he is a Vietnam vet, an avid hunter and shooter, a gun owner and a staunch believer in the Second Amendment.
"I will never give up my guns and I will never ask law-abiding individuals without a history of dangerous mental illness to give up theirs," Thompson wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Thompson also cited the Supreme Court's 2008 decision affirming the individual right to bear arms. But he correctly points out that conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in that opinion that there is no constitutional problem with forbidding firearms in certain places or their ownership by certain individuals.
In short, Thompson has credibility as an honest broker in this debate.
He is pushing a 15-point plan he hopes to get through Congress. Experience tells us that some of it is a stretch, but there are realistic proposals that should pass. For example, we believe his task force's proposals for universal background checks and stronger prosecution of gun offenses ought to be no-brainers. We also agree with proposals to limit the size of ammunition clips, measures that would insist upon responsible gun ownership and serious attempts to reform our mental health system.
Of course, no single bill -- or group of bills, for that matter -- will prevent all gun violence, but we can do more than we have done, and Thompson's efforts are a good place to begin.