In America, is it more important that a 24-year-old be able to buy an AR-15 weapon and unlimited rounds of ammo -- or that a 6-year-old girl be able to go to the movies with her mom and return home safely?After the midnight-movie shootings in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 people, including 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, and injured dozens of others, the answer might seem obvious.But it's really as complicated as any balancing of rights that are competing for top priority.Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those unalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Independence, surely include a reasonable expectation of safety in public places.Those who read the Constitution's Second Amendment broadly will just as surely argue that liberty means freedom from undue government interference with gun-ownership rights.Most often, there's no conflict at all between law-abiding children and adults going about their business and law-abiding folks keeping firearms for self-protection, buying hunting rifles or safely shooting for sport.But the tension is graphically underscored each time a gunman terrorizes people who are, in fact, minding their own business.The most high-profile mass homicides are all-too-familiar: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson and now Aurora.But there are plenty more: In July, at least 17 people were hurt by a man shooting outside a bar in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; four youths were shot in Chicago, including two girls in a park; and three people were killed and two wounded at a soccer tournament near Wilmington, Del., according to a list compiled by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. (bit.ly/Mx9nQg)The list shows shootings with multiple victims this year at homes in Seattle and Waller, Texas; nightclubs in Houston and Jackson, Tenn.; schools in Oakland and Chardon, Ohio; and a South Florida funeral home.Plenty of information is available showing that, despite reported violence, gun assaults are going down, but also that gun-violence rates are lower in states with tighter restrictions on gun ownership. (wapo.st/LI3dKO)It's crucial to use the data rationally, not simply for posturing.It's distracting to ask whether stricter gun control could have prevented a well-armed lunatic with a well-executed attack plan from slaughtering people in a crowded movie theater.The harder, but more relevant, debate should be over how to reduce gun violence while protecting individual rights and how to determine what kinds of regulation might prevent other dangerous minds from getting easy access to weapons with which they want to cause harm.Constitutional rights aren't absolute. At limited times, reasonable restrictions on individual rights are legitimate and necessary to protect more-compelling collective interests of the general public.That's why lying under oath in court can be punished; use of peyote during a religious ceremony can be banned; and warrantless searches might be justified when someone's life is in danger.Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to require registration for anyone buying, selling or transferring 25 pounds of ammonium nitrate. Timothy McVeigh was convicted of using 4,000 pounds of the fertilizer to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.Sales weren't barred; the goal is to be alert to suspicious behavior.Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote about the First Amendment in 1919, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." (bit.ly/PLlvN0)Should the Second Amendment allow a man to freely buy weapons, ammunition, body armor or other products, some of which have little purpose other than to cause destruction and panic?To ask the question is not to answer it, though.To ask it is to recognize that protecting American rights and freedoms requires an ongoing debate about where one person's freedom ends and another's begins.