Before a grieving audience packing an auditorium, sitting in a cathedral-like hush, President Obama spoke perhaps the most important words of his presidency: "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."
"This is our first task — caring for our children," he said. "It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged." Are we, he asked, "truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?"
"If we're honest with ourselves," the president said, "the answer is no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change."
Obama is right, of course. We are not doing enough to protect our children, to give them the fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There have been and will be many conversations about what happened at Newtown, about why and wherefore and what should we do — or not do. There will be discussions about liberty, about values, about morals and the decline thereof, about our culture of violence, about social causes like TV and video games vs. individual responsibility. Some discussions will be rational, some may be productive, many will spin out of control to become more fodder for the modern media's "he said/she said" demonizer machine.
And they will all miss the point. Yes, we must talk about the dysfunctional state of our mental health care system — part of the problem with our overall health care system.
But it won't do to simply point out where we spend our money — $4.6 billion on guns and gear in 2009 (and that's before the "gundamentalist" hysteria campaign got started), and $2,000 per capita on child health care that same year. Nor will it do to point out that the United States is an outlier when it comes to gun killings — almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest and most populous nations combined.
Nor will it do to scoff at Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert's looney-tunes suggestion that the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal should have had an "M-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn't have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands and takes him out and takes his head off." Why should we scoff? Because, as Mother Jones reports, after analyzing 62 mass killings over the last 30 years, in not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun.
What will do is reclaiming the conversation. To do so, we have to look at how we talk about these events. As Jay Heinrichs, author of "Thank You For Arguing," points out, we must stop using euphemisms. "Tragedy" is a euphemism; it implies something sad but inevitable. What happened in Newtown was a massacre. A massacre of children. "Gundamentalists" (Heinrichs' term) will want to focus on code words like "liberty" and the "Second Amendment" and the stupid cliche, "Guns don't kill people." (Duh. People with guns - most obtained legally - kill people.)
It's a diversion. If we truly believe in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," we have to focus on the fundamental question President Obama asked: Are we doing enough to care for and protect our children?
As for the Second Amendment argument, I wonder how many gundamentalists have read it? It calls for a "well regulated militia" to protect the "security of a free state." What kind of security do we have if we allow easy access to guns when that access leads to the massacre of children?
Let's forget what the founders meant by "a militia." Let's agree that the words "well regulated" are part of the Second Amendment. We should regulate guns the way we regulate driving: mandatory safety and training courses, licensing, a national database (like we do for motor vehicles and even drivers), strict background checks and waiting periods, renewal tests, greater penalties for negligence, etc.
We can begin by demanding Congress debate, hold hearings and, yes, pass the bill Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California will introduce to ban assault weapons. President Clinton signed a similar bill into law in 1994. That it had an expiration date testifies to the weakness of our moral courage. It's time to remove assault weapons from the local Wal-Mart.
We can be upfront about our values and morals. Bushmaster, the company that manufactured the rifle used to massacre the children in Connecticut, has issued a "man card." It doesn't take much imagination to see the innuendo of the rifle's barrel. Really? Manhood masquerades as massacring little children?
We don't have to change overnight. We're not at the stage where we can beat our swords into ploughshares. But we can change enough that "liberty" doesn't mean the freedom to massacre little children.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.