Sonoma County is being offered a front-row seat to a simmering national debate about guns. On Thursday, Rep. Mike Thompson will host what he promises will be an open discussion of guns and the kind of senseless violence that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn. last month.

We encourage readers to take part in this forum, to be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors chambers at 575 Administration Drive. In the process, we hope this region will show that it's possible to have a civil, rational discussion about what steps need to be taken to address gun violence. With the killings of these first-graders still fresh in our memories, no one should need convincing that something needs to be done.

Thompson, D-St. Helena, was recently named as chairman of a congressional task force on gun violence and is a fitting moderator for such a public brainstorming session. As a Vietnam War veteran, gun owner and hunter, he understands the concerns of gun rights advocates. But the Blue Dog Democrat also has made clear his opposition to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, staking out some reasonable middle ground where, it is our hope, sensible reforms will take root.

But before that can happen, let's clear out a few weeds.

First, despite the characterizations of a few letter writers, this is not part of an orchestrated attempt by government to confiscate guns or do away with the Second Amendment. Those who assert otherwise are either willfully misinformed or determined to obfuscate the issue in hopes this latest appeal for saner controls on military-style weaponry amid the aftermath of a massacre will, once again, go nowhere.

Second, the Second Amendment, as with the First, which provides vital protections for the freedoms of speech and the press, is not an absolute. Just as one is not allowed to cry "fire" in a crowded movie theater or libel someone in print, the nation has and should continue to accept reasonable limitations on the right to bear arms. A federal ban on sawed-off shotguns and prohibitions on the sale of assault weapons in many states, including California, are evidence of this.

Given that, given the evolving technology of firearms and the increased opportunities for gun purchases through the Internet, and given the recent killing sprees in Newtown, Aurora, Colo.; Portland, Ore., etc., a public discussion about the state of national gun control laws is more than a reasonable response. It's a moral obligation.

At the least, it is our hope that this, as well as similar discussions taking place in the nation's capital, will result in the renewal of a federal ban on military-style assault weapons. We agree with Thompson that such weapons "have no place on our streets or in our communities," and it's to our nation's shame that the previous assault weapons ban was allowed to expire in 2004.

But we trust lawmakers will look beyond this and consider other reasonable reforms to keep weapons out of the hands of individuals who intend widespread harm. These should include developing a universal background check system for gun-buyers, expanding mental health services and broadening checks that will prevent unstable individuals from accessing guns. All of these should be on the table Thursday as well.

Those readers who are unable to attend Thursday's forum are invited to send their thoughts and comments to us at letters@pressdemocrat.com.