Monday December 17, 2012

In barely holding back sobs during his powerful address to the nation on Friday afternoon after the mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school, President Obama conveyed the feelings of a horrified nation.

Even for a public grown almost numb to such deadly outbursts by disaffected young men with guns, such as the Oregon mall shooting that killed two earlier this month, the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was an act of depraved evil that few in America will soon forget.

Reports indicated that a 20-year-old man first killed his mother and then drove to the elementary school where, using what is basically an M-16 combat rifle sold in a civilian model, slaughtered 20 young elementary school pupils, ages 6 and 7, plus their principal, four teachers and the school psychologist. Then he killed himself.

Hours later, speaking in the White House briefing room, President Obama called for "meaningful action" to prevent more such tragedies "regardless of the politics."

It used to be that Social Security was frequently referred to as the "third-rail" of American politics, referring to the electrified rail on a subway system. Touch it and your political career will die.

With ill-conceived but unpunished attempts over recent years by politicians such as President George W. Bush and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to privatize and deliver this venerable program into the skilled hands of the Stock Market, it is apparently a third rail no more.

No, today the third rail of American politics is gun control. These days, with very rare exceptions, almost no national politician of either party will dare take a stand for gun control for fear of the powerful organized opposition that can be drummed up by the National Rife Association.

Those politicians who have been silent about gun control include President Obama. Despite fears of those on the far right fringe, he has given no indication in his presidential career, first as a candidate for president and now for almost four years in office, that he would ever do anything to regulate guns. He even signed a law in 2009 that lifted a ban on firearms in national parks.

Even now, there's no doubt that Mr. Obama would rather deal with the country's still-troubled economy and finances, immigration reform, climate change, and national election reform than take on the complex and emotionally fraught issues around gun violence, including the easy availability of rapid-firing combat weapons, even by the severely mentally ill.

But presidents often find themselves dealing with the issues history confronts them with and not the ones they would prefer. After Newtown, can we yet again -- after a period of national mourning -- just shrug as a nation and say there's really nothing we can do?

The issues surrounding these recurring massacres transcend just firearms. How do we better serve the mentally ill -- and better identify those who are on the fast track to a deadly outburst? How do we better secure schools? Can we spend the money necessary to fully enforce existing laws? Can we reverse the trend of laying off police to balance state and local budgets and instead hire more to protect our schools and streets?

A real national conversation about these questions will not happen without a real national proposal to discuss and debate and evaluate. We hope President Obama soon proposes legislation to Congress, however preliminary and limited it might be, so a real national conversation focused on action can begin.

Our hearts go out to the victims' families and the entire community of Newtown, Conn.