The debate over gun control goes on ad infinitum, ad naseum without ever touching on what may be the most important issue: the responsibility of gun owners to exercise proper control over their weapons.

In the case of those awful murders of kindergartners and first-graders and their teachers in Newtown, Conn., the whole terrible event might never have occurred had the shooter’s mother stored her weapons in a gun safe to which her obviously mentally ill son had no access.

Even if we may not all agree as to whether the Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to buy weapons of any caliber and operating characteristics (a concession that I for one am not prepared to make), we should all find common ground in the idea that those who own guns must be expected to act as responsible stewards of their weapons.

In far too many cases, gun owners leave their weapons lying around in places where children and others have access to them. When I was a boy, one of our neighbors kept several loaded pistols around his house; and his children, on two occasions, shot each other while playing with their father’s lethal toys. A daughter was shot in the cheek; her younger brother died of a sibling-inflicted gunshot wound.

Many of the weapons that are used in crimes have been stolen from owners who bought them legally but failed to keep them on their persons or to store them in secure locations. Occasionally one even hears that a weapon stolen from a police car has been used in a crime.

Such cavalier treatment of lethal weapons is a far cry from what I experienced as a soldier in the peacetime U.S. Army during the late 1950s. The whole time that I was in the service, I never saw anyone other than a Military Policeman carrying a sidearm on his person except during maneuvers. Rifles were kept under lock and key and ammunition was not distributed to individual soldiers except when we were on the rifle range.

Keeping a personal firearm on base was strictly verboten.

After a firing range session, our officers and NCOs systematically cleared all of our rifles by running a cleaning tool through the barrels, and they collected all of the ammunition so that no one could carry a loaded rifle back to the barracks. We would spend an hour or so cleaning our rifles, and then they were locked in stocks so that no individual had immediate access to his M-1. Platoon leaders and sergeants who failed to follow these procedures were subject to courts-martial.

Military personnel, who employ weapons as the tools of their trade, are certainly cognizant of the dangers that unsecured weapons pose. I was impressed with their devotion to safety.

Perhaps if civilian gun owners, like soldiers, were to face sanctions if they allow their weapons to fall into untrustworthy hands, we might see fewer heart-wrenching events such as the one at Newtown.

• Doug Patterson lives in Yakima.