Sandy Hook and the Politics of Pain

Posted: Thu, 12/20/2012 - 6:38pm

I think it's fair to say we have all been crying for a week.

Watching the faces of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting scroll by, in silence, at the end of the PBS NewsHour on Monday night was excruciating.

I tried to escape by Christmas shopping. Cashiers asked me what the shooter's mother was thinking.

(Gwen interviewed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, who pledged to revive a law banning assault weapons [Photo: Newshour]).

I talked to normally smooth-talking lawmakers to ask what they would do. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who became mayor of San Francisco after her predecessor was killed in a City Hall shooting, seethed. Now the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she is pushing for a new ban on military-style assault weapons.

I interviewed Mark Warner, a senator from Virginia who has often boasted of the "A" rating he regularly receives from the National Rifle Association. But when his college-age daughters came home after the Newtown shootings and asked him what he was going to do about it, he realized he didn't have a good answer.

Then I sat down across from Education Secretary Arne Duncan Thursday morning, and I realized no one has good answers.

Duncan, a rangy former basketball player who grew up in Chicago and served as superintendent of that city's schools, is part of the task force President Obama has formed to come up with a federal response to gun violence.

He noticed when the president, in his public remarks mourning the Newtown massacre victims, made a point of talking about gun violence in other places as well -- on Chicago street corners, in Topeka, in an Alabama hospital.

The problem, he said, is so much bigger than whether Americans should have the right to bear arms. Which Americans? Which guns? Concealed or openly?

(Education Secretary Arne Duncan sat down for an interview with Gwen Ifill to discuss gun violence in schools  [Photo: Washington Week]).

For Duncan, the answers to these questions are deeply personal. He can actually name the people he knows who have been shot to death.

"Gun violence has haunted me my entire life" he told me, his voice shaking. "Growing up as part of my mother’s inner city tutoring program, I had a lot of mentors, good friends I grew up with, shot dead when I was growing up."

He called individuals by name, describing one young woman who was killed in her living room with the shots from an AK-47, and another young man who was killed at 2:30 in the afternoon on the bus headed home from school.

"So this is not a new problem," he said. "This is something that I’ve battled with and tried to understand from the time I was a little boy. And I think it’s time to do something about that."

But what? For all the force of emotion we have endured since the Sandy Hook shootings, a distinct strain of pessimism still runs through Washington. Yes, the massacre was horrific, but we have heard vows to act before. I remember the shock after former Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was attacked, and when students were sent fleeing for their lives at Virginia Tech.

Everyone agrees that this time things will be different. Things seldom are, for long.

Changing the world is complicated. Making new laws and achieving compromise requires nuance. Washington -- whether it be its media universe or its political one -- is not particularly good at the gray areas.

(A group of Newtown residents, including Linda Lubinsky (bottom left), talked to Newshour's Hari Sreenivasan [Photo: Newshour]).

But I can't forget the look in the eye of one of the Newtown residents who spoke to the NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan this week.

"We have seen this happen too many times," Linda Lubinsky said. "You can run down the list of the places. And haven't we learned from that? Did we really have to lose 20 more children and seven more adults? I mean, enough. Stop. Come on.”

"What else do we need? " she asked. "Are we going to continue to let an industry control killing? And that's not the town, the country that I want to live in."