On Sunday night, President Obama spoke at an interfaith service for the victims of the horrific elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Not surprisingly, it was a poignant and moving speech, hitting all the right notes.
But the sad, horrible, tragic fact is that none of what we are witnessing is surprising. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. After all, we know this cycle all too well. It's one of the defining features of modern America. We have a mass shooting. We're sickened as we see it unfold. Then we're saddened as we learn the particulars about the victims. Our politicians somberly express their condolences. Many of them will mention something about how we really have to do something about this. A few will mention the need to examine our gun laws, only to be immediately rebuked and told that this is hardly the time to get "political."
Our reactions to these tragedies are not a zero-sum equation. Feeling anger doesn't mean we can't also feel sadness and grief. And it's clear that millions of us are furious that 20 innocent children have been added to the lengthy roll call of victims of gun violence, and of our failure -- actually, our refusal -- to break this cycle.
On Friday, a few hours after the shooting, perhaps reacting to the public demand for action, the president gave a statement at the White House: "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
"Meaningful action" -- a wonderfully vague phrase that, in Washington parlance, usually means the exact opposite of what it would appear to mean. The pushback on that flaccid phrase was immediate as well. "Calling for 'meaningful action' is not enough," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership -- not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response."
And so on Sunday night, in Newtown, the president stepped up the rhetoric: "We can't tolerate this anymore. . . . In the coming weeks, I'll 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."
Well, the presidency holds many clearly delineated powers, but much of the presidency's powers lie in what the officeholder chooses to make of it. Let's hope he'll approach this threat -- one that killed almost 32,000 Americans last year alone -- with the same assertiveness.
In his speech, the president asked, "Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine."
Actually, we do have another choice -- the choice to do nothing and allow more innocent victims to be sacrificed. In fact, that's the choice the White House has made so far. As Charlie Savage reports in The New York Times, the administration shelved proposals its own Justice Department came up with to improve background checks in the wake of the shooting of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. As Savage points out, many of the measures could have been done by executive order, but "the proposals were largely filed away without action."
Clearly, the White House did make another choice. As the president himself boasted in an op-ed two months after the Giffords shooting, "my administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners -- it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges." In the same piece, he also called for "the beginning of a new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people."
But an authentic version of that discussion -- not the ersatz one we have after every mass shooting -- would include an honest examination of why so many Americans feel the need to own guns. President Obama's vow on Wednesday to send new gun policy proposals to Congress by January is an important step in the right direction.
America currently has nearly 300 million guns owned by civilians. And another 4 to 7 million hit the market each year. Here are some other sobering statistics: Nearly 100,000 Americans are wounded or killed by guns each year. Since Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot in 1968, more than a million Americans have been killed by guns. Children ages 5 to 14 are 13 times more likely to be killed by guns in American than in other industrialized nations. And of all children killed by guns in the 23 richest countries, 87 percent are American children.
This week, millions of Americans will be traveling to see their loved ones for the holidays. But for 30,000 of them, this will be their last holiday season. We know with a Nate-Silver-level of certainty that 30,000 Americans will not ring in 2014 because they'll be victims of gun violence.
The best way to honor the victims of Newtown is to take a clear-eyed look at everything that led to their slaughter. Especially the fatalistic conventional wisdom that says we'll never be able to prevent this from happening again. And again and again and again and . . .
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)