A gun without a madman will not destroy an entire classroom of innocent children. A madman without a gun would be unable to cause anywhere near the level of horror that occurred Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
It is at the intersection of those pathologies a nation led by politicians forever fearful of the powerful gun lobby and a society that shuns all aspects of mental illness into perpetual shadow that America too often finds itself standing.
As was the case at Columbine High School, at Virginia Tech and, Friday, in a school full of children, the political posturing begins before the SWAT teams have been able to stand down. That is followed by claims that calls for action are premature, given the fog of violence and the need for quiet mourning.
President Obama, to his credit, focused his heartfelt statement Friday afternoon on a nation's sympathy for those lost, those traumatized and those who are beyond comfort in a day of unimaginable horror that brings all of us pain.
But he also said, as he brushed away tears, "we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
He is right about that. It is only a matter of whether his resolve will outlast the current news cycle.
The gun culture in the United States is too deeply ingrained, the political power of the National Rifle Association too great, the fear that too many people feel toward their own government too firmly set, for anyone to propose, pass or enforce the sorts of laws that are common in the rest of the civilized world, where few own guns and fewer still are killed by them.
But the most basic craving any of us should have, the desire to be safe and to keep our children safe, should move us to realize that a free flow of firearms, especially those designed for no purpose other than to kill as many human beings as possible in as little time as possible, is going to result in the arming of an individual who, when so armed, is more dangerous than a ticking time bomb.
And who has no fear of being felled by a passer-by with a concealed pistol.
Limits on assault weapons, universal background checks and, most of all, more assertive outreach to people in a fragile state of mind, are steps that can, that must, be taken, steps that will not deprive law-abiding citizens of legitimate means of self-defense.