I can’t remember a time when “gun rights” — the rights of people to buy, own, and carry pretty much any gun and in many cases any number of guns they want — did not dominate debates about gun policy. The phrase has been part of the political lexicon for what seems like decades.

President Obama turned that argument in an interesting direction, away from the Second Amendment and toward rights and themes at the core of other foundational documents, as he unveiled his package of gun proposals. The Declaration of Independence, the First Amendment, and the Gettysburg Address all made appearances in a speech that cast a new and different meaning on another familiar political phrase, the right to life. …

Obama did not leave out the part of the Declaration about Americans being “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us,” as he put it. But he added: “As we’ve also long recognized, as our founders recognized, that with rights come responsibilities. Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of, and by, and for the people.” That final phrase comes from Abraham Lincoln’s impassioned Gettysburg Address. …

“There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty,” he said. In fact that strain of thinking and rhetoric is already full-throated. How effectively Obama can defuse all the “don’t tread on me” bombast with the words of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln is unclear, but it can’t hurt to remind people that gun rights were not the only rights the founders had in mind way back when.