01/13/2011 10:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Can We Have a Conversation About Gun Safety in Safety?

Tragic, horrifying, despicable - all these words describe the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and over a dozen other innocent civilians in Arizona last Saturday. But the most important adjective is the one we're hearing least: preventable.

We know by now that the shooter was mentally ill. It's entirely possible, as many commentators are saying, that he was influenced by the extreme, divisive rhetoric of right-wing politicians. That, however, is not the main issue here. What is, is the fact that despite Jared Lee Loughner's obviously disturbed mind, he was able to legally - legally - buy a semi-automatic weapon in the first place. A gun, in fact, that was banned under the Clinton administration. A ban that was allowed to expire under George W. Bush. In spite of bipartisan support for renewing the assault weapons ban, it has languished in Congress due to lack of political will.

While the effects of an individual's mental state are impossible to predict, the effects of loose gun laws are not.

Arizona's gun laws are among the weakest in the entire country. So weak that Loughner could have walked right up to the crowd, gun drawn, and not have done anything illegal until the moment he started shooting. Again, improvements can be made in gun safety legislation that will prevent these tragedies - tragedies that are becoming far too common - without impinging on Second Amendment rights. Improvements in access to medical files from Arizona's own records could have easily identified him as someone not qualified to own a gun. Decreasing the number of crazy people who have access to guns makes our communities safer, and does not impede the gun rights of those who are qualified.

It is far past time to have a reasonable, sane conversation about gun safety in this country. We must not be so afraid of the NRA and its well-voiced advocates that we direct the debate towards mental health and the tone of political discourse. We must have the compassion, and the courage, to have this conversation. We must not be afraid to critique policy that allows mentally ill people to purchase semi-automatic weapons. The kind that kill not only their targets, but also innocent bystanders. The Second Amendment is not just about protecting the individual, it is about protecting the people.

Gun advocates like to portray themselves as the ones who will protect the crowds in these situations - the ones who will pull a gun and shoot down the bad guy before the police can show up. But none of Arizona's gun owners were on hand that Saturday. We are fooling ourselves if we do not admit that it is those same laws that allow people like Loughlin to have guns in a shopping mall in the first place. In Tucson, it was unarmed bystanders who tackled Loughlin before he could reload, pinning him to the ground, until authorities arrived three minutes after the shooting started.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) is planning to introduce legislation in the House that would once again limit the availability of assault weapons: "They are weapons of mass destruction," she told the Huffington Post in a Monday morning interview, "and they've become the weapon of choice." Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is introducing the same legislation in the Senate. "The only reason to have 33 bullets loaded in a handgun is to kill a lot of people very quickly," the Senator said in a statement. Let's hope that these initiatives are able to pass, that we are able to recognize that there are legitimate gun safety laws that even gun advocates should get behind to protect our communities

After all, it is not just that the rhetoric needs to change, but the laws themselves. We pray for the injured and the families of the killed, and extend our deepest sympathies. But we also recognize that these tragedies are preventable, and we are the ones who must take responsibility, and enact gun legislation that creates safe environments for everyone.