Two anniversaries today, the first as painful as can be:

Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, 10 years ago (Dec. 14, 2012). Twenty first-graders and six staff (including the principal) gunned down by a lost soul with an assault weapon.

Twenty first-graders … let that image steep in your mind a while … because we need to remember it. On Memorial Day each May, we hold it to be our sacred duty as citizens not to forget those who gave their lives in war, defending our liberty. One of those liberties is enshrined in the Second Amendment: the right to keep and bear arms. It is likewise our sacred duty to remember those who gave their lives as a result of that largely unregulated liberty.

By a strong majority, Americans want something done about the almost daily occurrence of mass murder in this country using firearms. In Oak Park in 2014, over 92 percent of voters approved a non-binding referendum calling for a nationwide background check system, no loopholes, no exceptions, one system that everybody follows. Cook County voters, in the same election, approved a much broader non-binding referendum that included an assault weapon ban, with roughly 80 percent voting in favor (85 percent in River Forest).

We know we’re the majority, but our will is not a priority among Congressional Republicans.

After the massacre of the innocents at Sandy Hook, their parents traveled to Washington DC to make impassioned pleas to do something about this national nightmare. One father said they were going after the “low-hanging fruit” of national background checks. “I figured we’d at least get that,” he said. The Republicans voted it down.

You’ve got to be pretty hard-hearted to face the parents of murdered first-graders and say No.

Dec. 14 should be declared a national day of mourning — our second Memorial Day — for all the victims of this country’s shameful legacy of mass shootings.

A Candlelight Peace Vigil and Day of Remembrance will be held tonight at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., at 6 p.m., in partnership with hundreds of vigils nationwide (#HonorWithAction, #EndGunViolence). And please support House Bill 5855 (which includes an Illinois assault weapons ban) as it makes its way through the state legislature.

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The second anniversary is brighter — as bright as the moon: Dec. 14, 1972 was the last time a human being walked on the moon. The last man was Eugene Cernan, who grew up in nearby Bellwood and attended Proviso Township High School (now Proviso East). A graduate of Purdue University (also Neil Armstrong’s alma mater), he became a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, then entered the astronaut corps in 1963.

Cernan flew in space three times, twice to the moon (one of only three astronauts to do so). In 1966, he became the third American to walk in space.

With Apollo 10 in 1969, a few months before Apollo 11’s famed first landing, Cernan and Tom Stafford tested the lunar module (Snoopy) flying within nine miles of the moon’s surface, which must have been tantalizing. They performed everything except the final descent.

Then he was assigned to what turned out to be the final moon mission, Apollo 17, during which he spent 22 hours, over three days, walking (or driving the lunar rover) on the moon before leaving the last human footprint on its surface — 50 years ago today. Before climbing the ladder to depart, he had this to say:

“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to say what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

What was it like to have been to the moon — twice, no less, in three years — by the age of 38, then live another 44 years back on Earth with the memories of it?

Gene Cernan knew the moon better than any man alive. He died in 2017 at the age of 82. Only four of the 12 men who walked on the lunar surface are still living. Locally, he is being remembered by the Cernan Space Center at Triton College, which has a special exhibit running through April.

Cernan and Apollo 17 are also on many minds this week because of NASA’s first return trip to the moon in 50 years with Artemis 1, a program that will carry humans back to the lunar surface and eventually, if all goes well, to Mars. The unmanned capsule successfully landed in the Pacific this past Sunday. The timing was no coincidence.

On this day of two anniversaries, there is hope on two fronts: that we will continue our manned exploration deeper into space and, equally important, we will begin at long last to reduce the horrific toll taken by gun violence in this country.

That would make Dec. 14 each year a day of solemn remembrance … but also an occasion for celebration.

Our second Memorial Day.

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