They're burying children in Connecticut. A score of families are saying goodbye to their 6 and 7-year-olds because a troubled loner got hold of a weapon designed for war. Another unstable killer; another hole in our nation's heart. But this time they're burying children.
That incomprehensible fact distinguishes Newtown from the all-too-familiar litany in what has become the year of the mass shooting (there have been seven in 2012 alone, fully one tenth of the total number over the last 30 years, according to a tally by the New Republic's Amy Sullivan). But from that awful darkness comes the glimmer of hope that we might cause trouble for a sea of arms and, by opposing, end this senseless violence. Because today people aren't just futilely saying, as they have over and over, "never again." Today they're saying that this changes everything. And it just might.
It is hard to read President Obama's speech at the Sandy Hook vigil and not see that he was speaking both as the nation's mourner in chief but also as an angry parent who, like the rest of us, looks at the list of slain children and ponders some form of, "There but for the grace of God…."
Caring for our children is our first job, the results of which are "how, as a society, we will be judged," the president said Sunday. "And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? … If we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no."
He went on to say: "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change." Then he put his presidency where his words are: "I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens—from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators—in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this."
That is the kind of call to action that, for example, was absent in Obama's superb speech following the attack upon Gabby Giffords and her staff and constituents. That talk focused more on the tone of our national discourse ("If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate—as it should—let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost") than the content.
Reading the president's remarks promising action after last week's shooting, I wonder if Newtown may become Obama's 9/11. I mean that in two ways.
First, the September 11 attacks created an opportunity to enact policies that wasn't there on September 10, 2001, from the Patriot Act to, ultimately, the invasion of Iraq. The shock of Newtown is forcing a re-evaluation of certain political truths about the invincibility of the gun lobby and the radioactive nature of gun control as a Democratic Party issue. After the 1994 congressional elections and the 2000 presidential election, Democrats concluded that trying to control guns was not a winning political issue.
Now even prominent defenders of gun rights in the party are acknowledging that a hard line on the issue is no longer tenable. See, for example, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin saying this week on MSNBC's Morning Joe that "everything should be on the table." And see Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, calling the shooting a "game changer" and supporting "stricter rules on the books."
What those pols will find is that, contra conventional wisdom, gun control should no longer be a verboten issue for Democrats. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent and National Journal's Ron Brownstein have noted, the changing demographics that propelled President Obama to a surprisingly comfortable re-election make the issue a political winner for Democrats. "Gun control is now overwhelmingly unpopular among the portions of the white electorate Obama is least likely to win anyway—and maintains solid majority support among the Americans most likely to actually vote for him," Brownstein wrote in July. Just as cultural issues like gay marriage have rapidly become politically potent for Democrats, Sargent notes, so too might gun control.