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Annette John-Hall: This country still can't get it right on guns

I get a lump in my throat every time I read about the murder of a child. Even the hard-boiled journalist doesn't trump the mother in me.

Leo Steinriede, 10, on South Broad Street across from City Hall
Leo Steinriede, 10, on South Broad Street across from City HallRead more

I get a lump in my throat every time I read about the murder of a child.

Even the hard-boiled journalist doesn't trump the mother in me.

Yet, as the first of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre - 20 of them children - were buried Monday, I realized through my anguish that this one feels so painfully hard to accept.

Just writing the phrase this one feels absurd. But here's the cold-blooded truth: For all our sophistication and brain power, we're the most violent nation on the planet. Astonishingly, 244 people have been victims of mass murder since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999.

We nobly hold up our right to bear military assault weapons with alarming vigor, under some misguided guise of control and constitutional individualism, and it's killing us. It's killing our children.

Protecting our kids is "our first job," President Obama told grief-stricken Newtown, Conn., residents - and the nation - Sunday. "If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right."

Well, so far we haven't gotten much right.

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, nearly 3,000 young people under 19 die from gun violence every year. That's more than the student population of some small colleges. That's war-casualty numbers. And while we've got collective hand-wringing, vigil-holding, and flag flown at half-staff down to a science, we allow our kids to be sitting ducks because our crack legislators don't have enough guts to push for commonsense gun laws to stop it.

Every young person deserves to live - doesn't matter if it's a first grader in a Newtown classroom or a 10th grader walking home in North Philly. And we all should be equally outraged when that right is snuffed out by a gun.

"In times when there's mass casualties, we pay disproportionate attention, compared to the reality that many young people are dealing with every day," says John Rich, director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University. "It's not an either/or proposition. It's all bad. We should resist the urge to compare, and strive for a situation where we'll never have to bury a child because of those circumstances."

Change coming?

I don't know about you, but maybe the horror in Newtown may finally spur some traction on gun control in Congress.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), author of the 1994 assault-weapons ban that President George W. Bush let expire in 2004, says she'll introduce legislation this week. And some NRA card-carrying Republicans and Democrats agreed Monday that some sort of reasonable restriction on assault weapons like the kind the Newtown gunman used is needed.

But change also has to come from the bottom up, and judging from the petition drives that have popped up on and, folks have been moved to act.

"I don't want to be overly optimistic, but it feels like a sea change," said Shira Goodman, director of CeaseFirePA. "People are wondering how we let it get this bad."

And no doubt wondering, with 320 homicides in Philadelphia, 80 percent of them by gun violence, how we allowed a public safety debate to be framed around gun rights.

See, first graders don't come with a political agenda, unless you call playing, learning, and coloring an agenda. Their only expectation should be that we keep them safe. And not through drop-down classroom drills, armed teachers, or playing a Russian roulette waiting game until the next massacre happens again.

If this nation has any conscience at all, we can't let that be our new normal. We just can't.

Not anymore.