Primary schools, cinema halls, campuses and churches â€“ no place, it seems, is immune to Americaâ€™s epidemic of mass shootings. Yet none so far have prompted Washington to adopt even the most minor of new gun controls. If Fridayâ€™s unimaginably distressing classroom slaughter of 20 young children and six teachers does not jolt Washington to act, nothing will. Like Columbine before it, and so many other school shootings, the name Sandy Hook will be forever associated with a horror no society should tolerate. It should also be the starting point of an era of genuine gun control in the US.
The onus must begin with Barack Obama. Since the late 1990s, Democrats have shied away from gun control for fear of alienating the National Rifle Association, one of the countryâ€™s most powerful lobby groups. The brief flurry of laws enacted during the 1990s, including the ban on semi-automatic weapons, have mostly lapsed. As much as anyone, Mr Obama is responsible for failing to try to put anything in their place. On Saturday, he said that Sandy Hook should prompt â€œmeaningful actionâ€. The president said something similar after the cinema massacre in Aurora in July. However, his administration has failed to adopt even the lightest of Department of Justice recommendations to tighten up background checks.
Yet the carnage at Sandy Hook illustrates why gun control must go much further than merely tightening up on screening. Even had strict checks been in place, and even were other agencies required to feed names into the Federal Bureau of Investigationâ€™s database, Sandy Hook would still have happened. Nor would a ban on semi-automatic weapons have been enough. The killer, Adam Lanza, stole a range of guns from his mother, whom he first murdered. Although Lanza had a history of instability, his mother did not. No screening system could anticipate this. Nor would tighter background checks prevent â€œstraw buyersâ€ from purchasing on behalf of others.
If Mr Obama wants gun control to be meaningful, he must push to ban private ownership of whole classes of weapons. Advocates of the right to carry arms say that â€œguns donâ€™t kill people, people kill peopleâ€. Presumably the same applies to nuclear weapons. It is well past time to stand up to this nonsense. If Lanza had possessed only a knife, it is doubtful he would have gone near the school. For the sake of Americaâ€™s children, Mr Obama must act boldly and lead. Well meant though it is, pious talk about national healing is no substitute.