Not since a loner with a grudge ran amok in the Scottish town of Dunblane in 1996 has a senseless act of violence caused as much distress as Friday's shooting in a Connecticut primary school.
The horror on the face of the normally restrained United States President Barack Obama as he offered his condolences to the families of the dead was mirrored in homes around the world. The shooting of 20 6 and 7-year-olds and seven adults by 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza was an incomprehensible act. Apart from his mother, there is no suggestion that Lanza knew his victims.
The killing spree, just the latest in a long line of such incidents, highlights again the lunacy of American gun laws. (It also highlights the risks New Zealand runs by continuing to permit ownership of military-style semi-automatic weapons that serve no useful purpose.)
More Americans die of gunshot wounds in the US every six months than have died in the past 25 years in terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An attachment to an outdated amendment to the US Constitution and a powerful gun lobby are putting Americans in peril.
Two-hundred years ago in a patchily policed frontier society uncertain of its place in the world, the right to bear arms – the second amendment – was a necessary evil. Citizens had a right to defend themselves and their hard-won freedoms.
Today, however, that right is a historical anomaly. Statistics show guns present a greater danger to their owners than those they are intended to protect them against. Not that the gun lobby would ever admit that. It has responded to the Connecticut shooting in the same way as it has responded to every other gun massacre – by attempting to deflect responsibility towards others.
The National Rifle Association has yet to comment, but the Gun Owners Association, which represents 300,000 gun enthusiasts, says the fault for the killings lies not with lax gun controls but with lawmakers who have banned guns from schools in Connecticut and most other states.
"Had a few of us been available with guns at the Newtown school, most of the victims might still be alive," wrote Gun Owners of America executive director Larry Pratt.
Mr Pratt is as ignorant as he is insensitive. Stationing gun-toting volunteers at every school would not only be impractical, it would increase the risk to students and teachers.
The gun lobby is no better able to vouch for the sanity of its members than it is able to vouch for their judgment. Lanza was taught to shoot by his mother, a gun enthusiast who was the legally registered owner of the handguns and semi-automatic rifle he used to conduct his killing spree.
Had it been more difficult for her to obtain weapons, not only might she still be alive, so might 20 young children and their teachers.
Several of the latter sacrificed their lives to give their charges a chance to escape. Their extraordinary bravery deserves to be commemorated with changes that tackle the root cause of the problem, not industry spin.
- The Dominion Post