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Originally published December 15, 2012 at 6:01 PM | Page modified December 17, 2012 at 9:16 AM

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Will we grieve and forget, or will we do something this time?

People are saying Friday's Connecticut elementary-school shooting will be the one that will spur government action, but looking at the history of shootings in the U.S., Danny Westneat isn't so sure.

Seattle Times columnist

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"If this doesn't get us to do something about guns, nothing ever will."

That's one of the feelings of the moment. The one that comes, for many, close after the shock that someone could shoot and kill, at close range, whole classrooms of little kids.

I saw this sentiment on the news. Read it in op-eds by gun-control advocates. And heard it from parents of young school-aged children in Seattle.

The sense is: This has got to be as bad as it gets. It made the president cry. This time, it's so horrific we're finally going to try to slow this grim march of mass shootings.

Because we're better than this.

But almost as disturbing as the shootings is how we have come to tolerate them.

There is a mass shooting in America, defined as three or more dead, on average once every three to four weeks. So far this year there have been 16.

Since the one that last rocked Seattle — the killing of five people in May at Café Racer and outside Town Hall — there have been eight more around the country. They were at a soccer game, a movie theater, a temple, a college, a sign company, a spa, a mall, and now, the one they're saying may change everything, at an elementary school.

We have developed an elaborate response ritual to this insanity. First we gawk at the aftermath on television and the Internet. We mourn at candlelight vigils. We get mad at the madness.

Then we energetically debate the particulars. We pore over the types of guns used, and argue whether they have any purpose in the world. We examine the sketchy life details of the shooter, who usually was gripped by some diagnosable mental illness.

We are not completely numb, so we pose tough questions. Why did this guy have these guns? Why wasn't he treated? What could have been done?

Then we do nothing.

The next mass shooting, followed by the same ritual, is coming as surely as the seasons. It probably won't be until January. February, if we're lucky.

The Seattle area has had four mass shootings in six years that involved mentally unstable people with easy access to guns.

In our defense, there are no easy answers. It's true what the gun folks say — gun control won't stop many crimes, and likely will be ineffective, especially at first, at preventing mass shootings. With nearly as many guns in America as people, even targeted measures such as banning assault weapons could take a generation to have much effect.

And yet, many other countries don't stand for this. They have madmen, too, who go on shooting sprees. But as we did to try to stop terrorists after 9/11, those countries take mass societal and governmental steps, imperfect though they may be, to say "This will not be repeated."

Which they sometimes are. But never every three weeks. With gun violence, it's only America, among first-world nations, that does nothing but wait for the next one.

Why don't we try licensing guns at least as vigorously as we do cars and their drivers? Ban assault weapons? Make gun training and background checks more extensive? Make it far tougher for those with signs of mental illness to get guns?

All of these could be done, presumably, without violating the Second Amendment.

Why is Washington state law, even for those caught illegally carrying guns, still considered "ridiculously lenient," as King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said last month? (To his credit he was at least proposing tougher juvenile gun punishments.)

All of this has been the talk of the Seattle area this year. But not more than talk. Maybe the deaths of 20 school kids will prompt action. But the tragedy before that didn't. Nor the one before that or the one before that.

After mentally ill Ian Stawicki's Café Racer massacre in May, his anguished father Walter, himself a former gun dealer, told me, "You can be a raving street schizophrenic here and they won't do anything about your guns." This man has laid bare his life, including his own failings with his son, to try to spur some leader to act. To maybe put a speed bump in the way of the next mass shooting around here.

But ... nothing. It's too complex, I guess, with too many competing rights.

And too much political risk. So we default to our ritual: Grieve, shrug, move on.

We say we're better than this. At some point the evidence is saying, no, this is exactly who we are.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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