December 14, 2012

The news from Newtown is indescribably awful, unbearable. The Associated Press puts the death toll at 27, including 20 children. I have kids, and I can’t describe how horrible I feel for the parents of those who are going through the worst nightmare any of us can fathom, or even for those parents who endured initial spasms of terror, only to discover to their indescribable relief that their own children had been spared. “Spared,” even though they, too, may end up deeply scarred.

After these massacres our public officials regularly vow that a “conversation” — whatever that means — has to take place about guns. After which they throw up their hands and lament that “political reality” dictates that no actual discussion about gun policy could possibly go anywhere. And nothing happens.

This time I want to believe things may be different. This seems like a level of horror that belongs to a whole different category, one that has the potential to shame our public officials into action, as long as we insist that there is no other moral alternative.

There was a hint of this in President Obama’s remarks today. Choking up with emotion, he said: “The majority of those who died today were children. Beautiful little kids between the ages of five and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them. Birthdays. Graduations. Weddings. Kids of their own.”

“As a country we have been through this too many times,” Obama added. “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Let’s believe he means it, while simultaneously insisting he prove it. Obama’s statement rose to the occasion emotionally, but the unique horror of today’s events demands that Obama and other public officials rise to the occasion politically.

You’re not supposed to say this on days like today, but political action is exactly what’s needed. The usual voices will try to shut down the debate by warning against “politicizing” the tragedy. But we should “politicize” it, if by that we mean undertaking a discussion about how our elected officials can act to stop this madness.

Gun violence is one area where something approaching a bipartisan consensus has formed among commentators and observers that reform is imperative, even as the only people who continue to refuse to act are those in a position to actually change things. This time, our public officials — the president included — simply must start an actual policy discussion about the appropriate response to the slaughter caused by the easy availability of guns. Not just a “conversation” about how screwed up our culture is or the usual argument over whether Evil and/or mental illness are the real culprits (as the gun rights advocates tell us) that require addressing. It’s easy access to guns that translates the darkest of human impulses, whatever their cause, into the massacre of innocent children.

I don’t really know what such a discussion should look like. As Josh Marshall points out, there are tremendous obstacles to solving this problem, from the cast of the Supreme Court to the enormous number of guns already in circulation. It is a complex problem with no easy solutions. God knows it’s easy for me to type out sentences demanding action without saying what that action should be.

But I don’t know where else to start. And look, ultimately it’s on us to make sure the general demand for action amid the horror of this moment leads to pressure for real, concrete solutions. After all, if today’s shooting is not enough to make that happen, nothing ever will.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.