Gabriel Giffords (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images) Former Rep. Gabriel Giffords (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s maddening about a major societal change is that it requires a series of big events to bring about the incremental change to advance a particular cause. We’re seeing that now with the current debate on guns. This came to mind after reading E.J. Dionne’s column today on the need for bipartisanship to bring sanity to the nation’s gun laws.

Dionne writes that we’ve endured numerous mass shootings only to see the genuine outrage and desire for change get crushed by the National Rifle Association.

After the shootings at a Colorado movie theater last summer, politicians were quickly intimidated into reciting bromides that drowned a real debate in blather. Nothing happened.

And nothing happened in January 2011 after the mass shooting at a town meeting in Tucson, where Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in the head. Six people were killed, and 13 others, including Giffords, were wounded.

My quibble is over Dionne’s characterization that nothing happened after the Tucson shooting. Did the tragic events two years ago have the same impact on the gun debate as Newtown has had? No. But the shooting of Giffords did succeed in tamping down the red-hot nature of our political discourse then.

Folks pointed a finger at Tea Party darling Sarah Palin for gun-toting rhetoric such as “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” And they highlighted her now infamous map of congressional races literally targeted by her political action committee. Giffords was one of those targets.

The calls to action to change gun laws fell by the wayside, but so, too, did a lot of the overheated rhetoric. Politicians and pundits, writers and commentators became more mindful of the words they chose. That’s not to say all discourse took on the air of an afternoon tea. But everyone was put on notice that words have consequences. As I wrote then, all it takes is for one person with a gun and a grudge or grievance to turn violent rhetoric into horrific reality.

Now, in the wake of Newtown, we have to overcome the resistance of the NRA to ensure that common-sense “gun violence prevention”  measures are taken. Dionne is hopeful. “Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, attention to the issue has not waned and pressure for action has not diminished,” he wrote. I share his hopefulness.

It took the murder of 20 school children ages 6 years old and 7 years old for the national discussion on guns to change. A big event that this time might bring about a big step forward in stemming gun violence.

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