By Dan Haley
There's the flagpole on Main Street in Newtown with the white frame building and the stone church just behind it. Weave around that building and begin climbing Castle Hill Road and, after a couple of lovely miles of woods and vistas, you'll come to the gracious home our extended family has been able to vacation in three times over the past few years.
If you went the opposite way from the flag pole, out on Church Hill Road, you'd soon come near to Sandy Hook Elementary where 20 first-graders were slain on Friday. On Saturday night, as the cable TV networks continued their sensitive coverage of this horror, we were looking at the backdrop of the local inn where we always stopped for the week's best meal.
We're no locals, but there was an eerie familiarity that made the hideous news from this iconic New England town more immediate than Aurora, Colo. or Virginia Tech University, or Oak Creek, Wis., or even the slaughter at nearby NIU. Beyond the familiarity, this frightening mass execution is more immediate because these were young children. We all know young kids. We've cradled our share. And held young hands. Walked them to schoolyards and faced separation from children still working on transferring that sense of ultimate safety from a dad to an unfamiliar teacher.
And this day in this town, there was to be no handing back of 20 children to the embrace of parents. There were reunions of kids and parents who have been scarred in ways not yet clear. There would be the mourning for six devoted teachers and school leaders. There would be curiosity and anger at one dead woman who armed a young son. There would be confusion and rage and, maybe slowly, just the start of sympathy for the youth with the ammunition and the automatic weapons and a mind so disturbed he could kill innocents as fast as the bullets might fly.
As a new week begins, Christmas week, we start the conversation framed in a plain-spoken way by President Obama about what as Americans we most value. Is it an absolute right to own any gun, of any destructive sort? Or is that protected right to bear arms measured against fair-minded, common-sense limits on types of weapons that only annihilate, on ammunition magazines that pack dozens of bullets and can be delivered so quickly that one 7-year-old boy's body can absorb 11 of them?
There are other matters to discuss. A national system of background checks that really works. An openness to finally talk about mental illness without the stigma and the isolation.
And now, far from the idyllic New England countryside, I'd ask if we are able to extend the talk of common-sense gun regulation to the West Side of Chicago. While the increasing number of white, male mass-shooters go to mosques and elementary schools and movie theaters, there is the perpetual horror of black-on-black carnage which unfolds most nights and every weekend in our city. Here, too, we need some outrage and some emotion. And here, clearly, the answers are even more complex than in Newtown. It is not a fringe and isolated shooter who has snapped that kills in Austin and Garfield Park. Assault weapons are not the chosen method of murder in Humboldt Park.
While we are inured to the daily rampage in our cities, the pain is as real, the dissolution caused in families and neighborhoods is as devastating.
Guns will not be banned in America. So be it. But can people of good will and common sense find the common ground that gives us a start toward making both Newtown and West Garfield safer places for 6-year-olds and for 16-year olds?