It came at an unfathomable cost. But across the nation, long-held political bargains that have pitted individual gun rights against broader public safety concerns are being re-examined after the loss of 20 innocent schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn. In Washington, leaders of both parties have joined President Barack Obama in expressing a willingness to have an honest conversation about guns and violence. But the same can't be said in Tallahassee, where recalcitrant Republicans are avoiding the issue or arguing for arming more Floridians. The difference in tenor and direction of the conversations in the two capitals could not be more disappointing.
Outside Florida, the impact of Newtown has been felt across the political spectrum. The politically powerful National Rifle Association, which has long dictated American gun policy, broke its silence Tuesday to say it was "shocked, saddened and heartbroken'' by the shootings and promised "meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.'' On Monday, Bill O'Reilly wondered on his Fox show, "Do we need semiautomatic rifles to be easily available?" The host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, former Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, said Newtown had changed his pro-NRA beliefs. Gun control is not about individual rights, he said, but public safety.
If only Republican leaders in Florida were so thoughtful. U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent has tried to shift the debate, as many have, to focus on the treatment of the mentally ill. That is a discussion well worth having. But Nugent, a former Hernando County sheriff, should recognize how different the outcome in Newtown might have been had the shooter not had access to a military-grade weapon and multiple high-capacity clips. Among the topics ripe for debate: reinstating an assault weapons ban that Congress allowed to lapse eight years ago; closing the federal loophole allowing no background checks for private gun sales; and limiting the size of magazine clips.
Even more disappointing has been the chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee, Republican Dennis Baxley of Ocala. He suggested that Florida should allow guns in schools so that teachers could defend their students. This is the same Republican lawmaker who used misinformation in 2005 to convince lawmakers that the state needed to pass the controversial "stand your ground" law. He also backed a 2011 state law — since blocked by a federal judge — that prevented doctors from asking about guns in the home, the exact kind of awareness that might have made a difference in Newtown.
As Newtown's families bury their children this week, members of both political parties in Washington finally sound willing to take action on gun control. In Tallahassee, too many politicians remain in denial even in the aftermath of an unimaginable loss of young lives.