Will we finally have a national conversation about guns because of the the Newtown school shooting?

My prayers are with the families and friends of the victims of the school shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, near Danbury. The current count: 26 are dead, 18 of them children. Among the dead are the 20-year-old shooter, Adam Lanza, and his mother, who was connected to the school. Most of the attack was against the children in one class, and the principal’s office. Few details beyond this are available, but clearly this was related to the shooter and his mother; the children’s deaths a side effect.

Needless to say, much of the early reaction, judging from my friends’ tweets and Facebook posts, after sympathy for the victims, is anger at our political system for the lack of tougher gun control in this country. It’s a meme in the progressive world: that if it weren’t for the political right’s being owned by the NRA, we’d have European-style tight controls on private ownership of guns and gun violence would be radically lower.

There’s no denying that if guns are not around, gun violence is down. But if we are to have a meaningful discussion leading to meaningful progress, we need to acknowledge that the U.S. is a bit different. We are not a homogenous country, with as strong a sense of community as many others. And we historically have insisted on a level of personal freedom unheard of in most other countries. And there’s the Constitution — well the Second Amendment technically speaking. While some consider it outdated on this issue, and there are many interpretations of the wording, it is there and must be considered: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Teen violence and school violence including school homicides are way way down from 1980s/early 90s levels — by over two-thirds. But it does seem there are more of these crazy-person-with-multiple-guns incidents. Why that is, is a deep social question we need to talk about.

Though violence overall is down, these kinds of incidents do tremendous harm. The rupture experienced by the community and the shock and fear suffered nationwide are very real, even if they are fueled by the media.

We need to have a conversation in this country that is free from political gamesmanship and free from ideological rigidity. Clearly, the Second Amendment was speaking mostly in terms of citizens being part of a militia, possibly with the guns stored in common places; not of private citizens having gun collections. And equally clearly, this country has a long and deep tradition of gun sports and, even more importantly, an attitude towards personal freedom that says we only infringe on liberty when absolutely necessary.

Spiritual leaders can offer a distinct perspective, free from the political framing. To start, we can say, simply: This is not OK. We cannot dismiss incidents like this as a cost of freedom. The human suffering is not acceptable. “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in recent year,” as President Obama said today in his tearful statement. We must ask the hard social questions concerning how something like this could happen: Why does it seem there are more sociopathic people today? How do some of them reach a point of expressing it through violence before they are stopped? Are there ways guns could be regulated that would drastically reduce that likelihood while minimally infringing on others?

Perhaps this Democratic president and Republican House can together find actions that are appropriate and balanced. What do you think? Where is that balance? Are these kinds of incidents just part of the cost of being so free? Or is there something wrong that can be addressed? Let us finally have a national conversation about guns.

[A few details were corrected at 8 p.m. based on updated information from police.]

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