Guest View: Response to Newtown defines nation
America faces a defining moment.
Twenty innocent children slaughtered. Six brave educators killed trying to save them. The immediate outcry has been unprecedented.
But will anything change? Will America finally cast aside the unhinged ideas of the National Rifle Association and begin to place utterly obvious regulations on guns that can, over time, make it harder for madmen like Adam Lanza to wreak mayhem?
And can prevent at least some of the 30,000 deaths every year that result from this nation's gun-mad culture?
Our laws aren't just do's and don'ts to keep order. They define our values. If we allow this moment to pass without insisting on common-sense restrictions on weapons designed for war, we will be saying that what happened in Newtown is an acceptable price to pay for the Second Amendment.
Unequivocally, it is not.
President Barack Obama has seized the moment. Vice President Joe Biden is leading a task force that will recommend policy changes in January. The new Congress may need time to consider some of them — in many ways, this serious discussion is just beginning - but there are three things that must be done right away:
Pass a comprehensive, permanent assault weapons ban.
The ban authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that expired in 2004 was ineffective, but that's because it was riddled with exemptions needed to win passage, as The New York Times detailed last week.
Many experts believe California's ban, perhaps the strictest in the nation, could be a model. Lanza's weapon, legally purchased by his mother in Connecticut, is not legal here.
Restrict ammunition purchases - require licenses and track sales, for example - and ban high-capacity magazines outright. Newtown, Tucson, Aurora and Oak Creek make it clear that high-capacity magazines have no place in civilian life. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat endorsed by the NRA, said last week: "I never had more than three rounds in my gun. I don't know any people who go hunting with assault rifles with 30 rounds in their guns."
Close the gun show loophole. Forty percent of guns are bought at gun shows, where buyers don't need background checks. States like California have closed the loophole within their borders, but it's easy to cross state lines to shop.
These are the simple matters. Congress will need time for the more complex ones - particularly improving access to mental health care.
And the country needs to grapple with the impact of violence in popular culture.
The Newtown tragedy hit us hard because of the visceral horror of classrooms full of first-graders systematically mowed down. But the daily drumbeat of gun violence is hardly less horrifying: On Wednesday, a 49-year-old woman was killed by a stray bullet in Oakland, the city's 124th homicide this year. Twenty-six of San Jose's 45 homicides in 2012 have been from gunfire.
Nothing will change unless law-abiding supporters of gun rights continue to raise their voices, as they have for the past week. That is the only hope of neutralizing a too-powerful gun lobby whose answer to this tragedy is more guns, everywhere.
Larry Alan Burns is the gun-owning, Fox News-watching judge who in November sentenced Jared Loughner — the man who killed six people while trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — to life in prison without parole.
Last week, he wrote an op-ed with this plea to the nation: "Ban the manufacture, importation, sale, transfer and possession of both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Don't let people who already have them keep them. Don't let ones that have already been manufactured stay on the market. I don't care whether it's called gun control or a gun ban. I'm for it."
The coming weeks will tell us a lot about our nation. Today, we have 5 percent of the world's population and 50 percent of its guns. That is insane.
It must change.