THE WOUNDS deepen.

The city reels from the murder of Sgt. Stephen Liczbin-ski, and in the midst of it, there are more blows to our sensibilities:

There's the sickening eruption of what looked like gratuitous violence when police arrested three men driving away from the scene of another shooting - beating them and kicking them unmercifully, over and over, in a tableau of unchecked rage.

There's the petty insensitivity of Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, who balked at the mayor's order lowering flags to half-staff, arguing that only the governor or president can order flags lowered - as if protocol mattered at this point.

There's the continuing mindlessness of the gun lobby's argument that weapons such as the SKS that killed Liczbinski should be available to one and all, as if only Second Amendment rights should be impervious to modification - unlike all the other rights we have.

There's the same cycle of act and react, argue and rebut, flail and finger-point in an impotent surrender to violence.

And, worse, there's the continuing failure to force the change of gun laws.

The mounting toll is mind-boggling: three Philadelphia police officers slaughtered in two years.

And still the struggle remains for sane gun restrictions to compensate for the kind of beast among us we don't know how to contain, the vicious predators who speak with bullets and kill with ease.

What will it take, you have to wonder, for things to change?

How many police officers - husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, neighbors, colleagues - have to be sacrificed to this rampant perversity?

It took several high-profile massacres, for instance, to prompt the 1994 federal law that banned military assault weapons.

There was the McDonald's slaying in 1984 in San Ysidro, Calif., and the schoolyard shootings in Stockton, Calif., five years later.

There was the Louisville, Ky., workplace murder in 1989, and the slaughter five years later when a gunman fired from the San Francisco office tower.

The death toll in these cases from the Uzis, TEC-DC9's, AK-47s and Chinese-made semi-automatic rifles was 41; another 67 people were wounded.

The uproar about the military-style armaments that the ATF has called "mass-produced mayhem" prompted the federal law.

It was a rare victory in the effort to balance the playing field between police and better-armed criminals, and a triumph over the uncompromising National Rifle Association.

But society has coarsened and become accustomed to massacres - from Columbine to Virginia Tech, and all the others in between.

And the slaughter of innocents seems to be the trade-off our leaders are willing to pay to pacify the powerful lobby of irrational Second Amendment purists.

Yesterday, while this city reels from this latest blow, for instance, our legislators in Harrisburg - who've refused to pass any substantive gun restrictions - were courageously poised to protect us from the terrible threat of gay marriage.

The federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to expire in 2004, against the sentiments of police across the country and city dwellers who are victimized by gun violence every day.

Bryan Miller knows all about the frustration of indifferent lawmakers.

He lost his brother to an assault weapon. And he struggles for reasonable gun laws as head of CeaseFire New Jersey.

"Anybody who's done legislative advocacy for any time will tell you that large change only occurs two ways," he told me.

"One is a hurricane, or volcano or cyclone, or Oklahoma City - some incredible disaster that forces legislators and politicians to make change.

"The other is the more effective one: long-term commitment to advocacy. It's slow, and it's up and down; there are hills and valleys in the process, but that's how you bring about change.'

"It's unsatisfying for a long time, but the end is worth it."

If nothing else, the assassination of Sgt. Liczbinski may hasten us towards that end.

And we can only hope that no other police officers have to become statistics along the way. *

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