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Newtown school shooting is awful and shocking, but not unimaginable

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Twenty school children were massacred today at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, along with the school’s principal and five other adults.

Unthinkable. Unimaginable. Unspeakable. These are the words we use when we talk about this horrific event. They are the wrong words.

Remember these mass shootings which have all occurred in U.S. schools in the last 15 years?

  • March 24, 1998: Westside Middle School. Four students and a teacher shot and killed.
  • April 20, 1999: Columbine High School. Twelve students and a teacher shot and killed.
  • April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech University. Thirty-two students shot and killed.

And then there are all the mass killings that happened in public settings other than schools. Consider these shootings which have occurred in just the last two years across America.

  • January 8, 2011: Tucson AZ. Six people killed in a shooting spree outside a grocery store.
  • July 20, 2012: Aurora CO. Twelve filmgoers shot and killed at a Batman movie premiere.

Just two days ago, a man armed with an AR-15 assault rifle opened fire on a crowd of shoppers at an Oregon mall, killing two people and wounding one other.

In light of so many grisly tragedies, what is “unimaginable” about the awful murders that happened today in Newtown? As base and reprehensible as these killings are, as shocking as this news is, the murder of innocent children at an elementary school was not only imaginable, but foreseeable.

Though we couldn’t know where or when it would happen, we cannot be surprised that a mass shooting occurred in an elementary school. The reason for the predictability is simple. The Brady Act, which was a good start, went into effect in 1994. Since then, in response to the shootings I listed above (and many others I didn’t), we have made no comprehensive improvements to our national laws and policies regarding gun control and mental health.

In the aftermath of each “unthinkable” tragedy, left-wingers climb onto their gun control soapboxes to rant for a few days, while right-wingers spout the same empty Second Amendment arguments they have barricaded themselves behind for decades.

No one has a definitive solution to America’s mass killing problem, and we can’t pretend the answers will be simple or easy to implement. But we should know this - we cannot avoid other “unimaginable” horrors unless we choose to do something different in response to this one.

Americans must move beyond the rhetoric, and we must explore and discuss the questions of substance that surround these mass shootings.
• What signs presented themselves about the killer’s mental state that we failed to see or address?
• What systems, laws, and cultural standards should be established to ensure we don’t miss those signs again?
• What steps can we take to further separate mentally ill people from weapons of “mass destruction?”
• When can we admit that the “militia” rationale behind our constitutional right to gun ownership is outdated? (Wouldn't we need a private air force and tactical nukes if we really wanted to protect ourselves from our government?)
• What kind of guns should citizens have a right to possess and which weapons are simply too dangerous and destructive for regular folks to have access to?

Other than heartbreak and sincere condolences, these are my initial thoughts about the crushing news from Newtown today. There are subject matter experts, pundits, and politicians who can offer more specifics and opinions if you want them.

The murder of more than two-dozen people, many of whom were kindergarteners, is traumatic and overwhelming, but I refuse to let it be called “unimaginable.” Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive to word choice, but we have seen killings like this before, and we will see them again.

We could have, and should have, imagined the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and our failure to do so does not exonerate us. The single aspect of this gruesome event that is truly unimaginable is the fact that, as a nation, we did almost nothing to prevent it.

You can follow Jeff McKown on Twitter @waythingsturn or check out his daily blog.

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