The Newtown, Conn., killing of 26 people, including 20 children, is an absolutely horrifying evil that should not only deeply sadden the nation, but lead us as well to ask what we can do to lessen the chances of such tragedies continuing to happen.
One solution that is not a solution is some of the trite, attention-grabbing political nonsense about gun control.
Some new state steps on background checks and addressing specific firearm features might be worth trying. But gun control is a mostly fallacious approach, especially when emphasis is placed on so-called assault weapons, and should come in way behind real ways to avoid atrocities. Chief among them is committing the dangerously disturbed to institutions where they can get the help they so desperately need while the public is rendered far safer.
You begin to grasp the futility of most weapons-curbing plans when you learn that we already have an estimated 300 million guns scattered across the land in something like half of all homes. Short of the impossible, unconstitutional act of confiscating them and banning the sale of any new ones on top of stopping all smuggling, you're not going to keep them out of the hands of evildoers, crooks and madmen.
After all, it did not help that Connecticut had some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. And Norway's demanding national gun laws did not stop a murderer there from using a gun and a bomb to kill 77 people in July of 2011.
Certain members of Congress and others are nevertheless already huffing and puffing about reinstituting an assault-weapon ban that went away in 2004 after having achieved something on the order of nothing during its 10 years in existence.
Do it -- I don't see much harm -- but don't pretend assault rifles are any more dangerous than your average hunting rifle or rank very high among the guns criminals most love to use, namely handguns that can be easily tucked in pockets out of sight.
Like hunting rifles, assault rifles are mostly semiautomatic, which is to say, you pull the trigger each time you want to shoot instead of keeping the trigger depressed with a near-machine-gun effect of continual firing, as in automatic firearms.
The scariest thing about these assaults weapons is the way they look. Outlaw them, and manufacturers won't make weapons that look that way anymore. That's about all that will change, and what intelligent politicians might want to do instead is address lethal features they don't like in any firearms. I am all for smaller bullet-containing magazines, meaning more time has to be consumed reloading.
Fully automatic guns are already illegal unless you go through an exhaustive FBI check and are licensed by the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives, but if legislators want to go further, do it. And even though I doubt it will make much of a difference, I vote for expanding background checks on gun purchases -- with the exception of inoperable antiques -- at any venue.
But let's get to something that will in fact make a difference: institutionalizing those in dire need of it. We should do this in the context of more sensitive, caring attention to mental illness and with assiduous attention to civil rights. I am not saying when people are a little different from you and me, lock 'em up.
I am saying there is evidence that more readiness for scientifically justifiable civil commitments translates into fewer violent incidents.
Something else that would help would be cutting back on the gratuitous glorification of violence in video games, movies and TV, and to do this without infringing on basic liberties. It's possible through the public shunning them, just as it is possible in so many other ways to use the occasion of this traumatic episode to rededicate ourselves to what Abraham Lincoln once called "the better angels of our nature," both morally and intellectually.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)