HAVE WE LOST our humanity?

When a troubled young man goes on a shooting spree, and kills 32 people, what we hear even louder than the gunfire is the sound of some people pushing an agenda to increase the number of Americans carrying guns.

Are chunks of metal that fire other pieces of metal for the sole purpose of maiming and killing that important to us that we are willing to sacrifice lives?

A pattern has emerged over the years in this country. Someone or some people go on a killing rampage - the signs of emotional and mental problems are always there - but we do little to prevent the next such incident.

We pray for the dead, debate gun control - at which the National Rifle Association howls so loudly - then collectively shrug our shoulders and go about our business, rationalizing our lack of action, pretending another such massacre won't occur, hoping quietly it doesn't.

But another incident does occur, and we go through the same convulsions of shock and prayer and rationalizing and pretending another massacre won't occur, hoping quietly it doesn't.

We repeat this scenario every few years, and horrified as we are, nothing is done to prevent it. We just hope, quietly, that it doesn't happen again.

This is what has been defined as insanity - doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result each time.

Do we fear doing something to change? Has the NRA convinced us more guns are the answer? Do we really value a firearm over life? Is a gun really essential to our freedom and way of life?

Regardless of what anyone says, this nation was not forged by firearms and blood - it was formed on ideas. And ideas and ideals are what make great nations.

History's despots - from Caesar to Saddam - were not really defeated by weapons, they lost to ideas. You can always take a gun away from someone - Hitler, Stalin and a whole raft of tyrants happily pried guns from their opponents' cold, dead hands.

What you can't take from someone is their mind. That's why ideas, not weapons, are what tyrants fear the most. When Cambodian dictator Pol Pot seized power in the mid-1970s, he killed everyone who wore glasses.

To Pol Pot, people with glasses were readers and thus thinkers of ideas. His camps for re-educating the population were about teaching people not to think because to think would mean to formulate ideas that would undermine the dictatorship.

THAT'S WHAT our nation has always been about - and that's what the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are all about - ideas.

For some reason, too many people have seized on one of those ideas - the right to bear arms - and decided that, above all else, it's the most important thing to our freedom and way of life.

Our history tells us we've always been a violent country and guns have been part - and a crucial one - of that violence. And there are those who will see the deaths in Blacksburg, Va., as just another incident in our violent history.

And, considering four years of carnage in Iraq, the 33 deaths including the gunman's seem almost unremarkable. What makes the carnage really shocking, though, is this:

After all the progress in humanity this nation has made since its founding in 1776, we are apparently no safer - and no wiser - than we were 232 years ago. *

Peter Durantine is a writer from Hummelstown, Pa.