Those first images of the survivors from Friday's rampage on an elementary school in Connecticut said it all. A line of terrified 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, some sobbing, some clutching a classmate's hand, rushed from a school where a gunman had shot and killed 20 children and six adults.
This is where the nation's gun problem stands at the close of 2012. It's not just high schools, or shopping malls, or workplaces. Now the targets are the most vulnerable among us, our children. The senselessness of random, illogical terror has visited in the classroom door in ways not seen before in this country.
It's time to talk solutions.
Let's hope there's no repeat of what usually happens after these tragedies. That is, once the initial shock and horror has settled, a trite, short-lived dialogue begins. Certain groups will call for gun control enhancements or a renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, and the gun lobby and gun owners will respond with the same old platitudes: Guns don't kill people; people kill people.
If it's just people that kill people, does that mean Americans are especially awful? How else can we explain why the U.S. has a homicide rate nearly seven times higher than other nations. Or that among the two dozen most populous, high-income nations in the world, 80 percent of firearms deaths happen in the United States.
Yes, mental illness and family breakdown are undoubtedly part of the problem. Perhaps, too, we can blame the violence rampant in movies and video games. But there is no denying that the ease of access to guns, incredibly powerful and dangerous guns, plays a major role in these tragedies.
Research has shown that shootings like the one in Connecticut are not simply random acts by psychotic individuals who one day finally snap.
"Contrary to popular belief that these are guys who go berserk, they tend to be well-planned executions. They plan what they are going to wear and what weapons to bring," James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University and an expert in mass shootings, told The Washington Post in July, following the murders in Aurora, Colo.
Early reports indicated the Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, was dressed in black and military fatigues and had three guns: two semi-automatic pistols, a Glock and a Sig Sauer, and a .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, an inexpensive civilian version of the M-16. Even if the shooter turns out to be mentally ill, he had the capacity to select high-powered, easy-to-use guns to maximize the damage he inflicted in that elementary classroom.
In emotional remarks Friday, President Obama referenced possible action on gun control. "We're going to have to come together to take meaningful action to prevent tragedies like this," he said. Congress and the president have hid behind tepid remarks like these before. Hopefully, 20 dead elementary school kids will compel them to act.
Until then, we, and the parents of the dead, will wonder if this tragedy could have been prevented had more sane laws been in place that made it harder for the shooter to get his hands on those weapons.