There is no fully appropriate response to scenes of children crying outside a Connecticut elementary school on Friday after 20 of their schoolmates and six teachers, administrators, and other adults were gunned down. Words aren’t sufficient; nor are raw emotions. Somewhere in the constellations there may be words that could soothe the national sense of grief, quell the outrage, and make sense of lives that came to a violent end at the age of 5. But at this moment, they seem forever elusive.
There is simply no logical explanation for such an event, and, likewise, no single oversight that, if rectified, would have prevented it. The killer’s motives seem, at a time like this, unfathomable. But that doesn’t mean that everyone in American society, from the president on down, shouldn’t seize this tragedy to commit themselves to finding ways to stopping these types of mass killings. It’s too late for so many children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., but all Americans must think now of what can be done to protect the would-be victims of the future.
The names Newtown and Sandy Hook are now part of a grim and infamous list that includes Columbine, Aurora, and dozens of other once-obscure places forever etched in infamy. As the list grows, the need for a diligent, comprehensive, national response to the rash of mass shootings becomes more apparent. So too does the abdication of responsibility that occurs whenever reasonable initiatives get floated, only to pass quickly from view as the news dies down and attention shifts.
The presumed shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, whose mother was a kindergarten teacher at the school, was killed at the scene; the full story of the shootings is only beginning to unfold. One thing is clear, however: Whatever the particulars, this same basic drama — a heavily armed man gunning down innocent people at a school or shopping area — has occurred often enough to be a trend, and a warning. As the Globe's Juliette Kayyem noted, more people were killed by Lanza than have died in all the domestic terrorism incidents since 9/11. Imagine if all the money and energy devoted to preventing terrorism were applied to defeating this menacing pathology.
As with fighting terrorism, no one strategy will suffice to reduce the risks and thwart potential attacks. Clearly, there have been enough shootings to draw a common profile of would-be perpetrators, and to begin to identify them through an established set of warning signs. If they are sick, get them help. If they are deranged, get them off the streets. And whoever they are, make sure they can't legally obtain the weapons necessary to commit such an act.
Hauntingly, the Newtown killings came just two days after Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, whose state was the scene of two of the most ghastly incidents, said “the time is right” to consider new gun restrictions. “Do we all need assault weapons?” Hickenlooper asked. “When you look at what happened in Aurora [Colorado] . . . I think we need to have that discussion and say, ‘Where is this appropriate?’”
Alas, the United States did have a federal assault weapons ban — the only truly effective way to prevent killers from getting weapons that automatically spray bullets, because any state ban can be undercut by simply crossing a border. But that ban expired in 2004, and was ignored by the Bush administration. The Obama administration supports it, but hasn't made its renewal a priority. Watching Obama and Mitt Romney dance around the politically sensitive issue in their second debate was the low point of the last presidential campaign.
Obama, in a deeply emotional address to the nation after the Connecticut killings, pledged to "take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics." He should follow through. But the responsibility isn't that of elected leaders alone: The politics Obama referred to are those generated by the National Rifle Association, which has fought almost every conceivable gun-control measure as a violation of personal liberties. Too often, the gun lobby is fueled not by a desire to preserve traditional hunting, marksmanship, self-defense, or collecting, but rather by an ideologically driven vision of individualism; its objections seem to exist in a realm beyond any appeal to the common good or even common sense. And yet those objections play on the insecurities of rural America, and serve to block meaningful action.
It may yet turn out that a lack of sufficient gun laws wasn't a factor in the Newtown shootings. But in taking on the threat posed by disturbed, heavily armed individuals, this society needs far more comprehensive background checks, sharing of information between gun sellers and law-enforcement officials, and outright restrictions on the weapons designed to inflict massive numbers of deaths with just a moment of trigger pressure.
That was the horror that confronted 20 schoolchildren and their protectors on Friday. And every American should commit himself or herself to finding ways to make sure that others like them are never menaced again.