It's time, now that the pain of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., has dulled a bit, to offer an honest answer to the plea: "How are we going to make sure something like this can never happen again?"
We're not. But that doesn't excuse us from trying.
In the national conversation on guns, post-Newtown, the naysayers, in every case, offer the better arguments. The National Rifle Association wants armed guards in schools, but opponents point out that such guards did no good at Columbine High School and would further cement the idea of guns and violence as everyday features of life. I'd add that, to a couple of burly, murderous high school boys, an armed guard is a gun-storage unit: Punch guard in face as buddy kicks him in groin, take gun, commence massacre.
The pro-gun side has also called for an increased focus on mental illness, but what does that mean? Adam Lanza was reportedly diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which doesn't generally indicate violent tendencies. We're not going to start locking up the socially awkward, or even people with mental illness who've not yet proven dangerous. The same folks who hate guns would oppose such moves on civil liberties grounds, as would I.
Will we get the violence out of movies and television? No. The right of the vast majority who won't be swayed to mayhem to view what they wish, and of creators to express what they wish, trumps any theoretical gains from such a move. Ditto video games.
Will we get the guns away from citizens? No. We have 280 million guns in private hands in this nation. Our Constitution says people have the right to them. Even if we outlawed new weapons, we won't be going door to door to confiscate the old ones. Who would be willing to go to the homes of survivalists and gun enthusiasts to confiscate weapons? Hope their insurance is paid.
If you can show why every proposal to fix a problem won't work, the problem isn't about to be fixed. As a nation, we have many problems that simply can't be allowed to continue, that are going to continue: We cannot allow another generation of underprivileged kids to leave school without the skills they need. We cannot allow a generation of young people to fall victim to high rates of obesity and diabetes. We cannot allow the cost of health care to continue spiraling out of control.
But we're going to.
That doesn't mean we can't take on these travesties; it just means we don't have any fast-acting, slam-dunk solutions.
In fact, we have to fight against seemingly unsolvable problems for two reasons: A society that didn't would be corrupt at the core, and incremental progress can breed meaningful improvements. Malnourishment, race hatred, child mortality, smoking: We haven't eradicated them, but we've made a lot of slow progress.
So let's place reasonable restrictions on weapon ownership. Once you agree private citizens can't have nukes, the rest is just a negotiation on where to set the limit. Right now that limit is too loose.
Let's do more for people who are mentally ill, and more to protect society from those who could be dangerous. Let's shield our kids from violent imagery in movies and video games, not through laws, but through parenting. Let's wire alarms into schools and other vulnerable locations that, when triggered, let cops know there's serious trouble that must be responded to with speed and force.
But let's not pretend there are any laws that, enacted, would mean we've seen our last massacre or wept at our last candlelight vigil. At best we can take a few steps toward enabling our children or grandchildren to enjoy such a day.