12/14/2012 11:08 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

If Not Now, When? If Not Us, Who?

I heard the news at lunchtime and it left me shaken. Some 26 people, including 20 children, are dead in a Connecticut school massacre. Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the mass killing, educates children from kindergarten to fourth grade. The murdered children, in other words, were between five and ten years of age. I could not finish my meal. I wanted to throw up.

If not now, when? When will we as a nation work up the courage to face down the gun lobby and enact serious, national gun-control legislation? When will we leave the comfort of our cocooned and quiet lives and tell Congress and the White House that our patience is an at end? When fifty children die? When 100 are gunned down? The slaughter of the innocents must stop.

If not now, when? 2012 might be remembered in the history books for many reasons. But it will certainly be recalled as the year gun violence reached a critical mass.

We do not yet know many of the salient details regarding the Connecticut massacre, but we know a good deal about two other massacres that occurred earlier this year.

In early August, Wade Michael Page, a Neo-Nazi, walked into a Sikh Temple in the peaceful Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek and killed six worshipers at prayer. The perpetrator had served in the U.S. Army between 1992 and 1998, where one of his assignments had been as a psychological operations specialist. He struggled with depression and alcohol abuse, however, and was given a general discharge because of repeated misconduct. From the Army, he drifted to Colorado where he became involved with race-hate groups and performed with heavy-metal, white-power bands with names like Definite Hate. He was fired from a job as a truck driver for his drinking. He drifted from Colorado to Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, Page was able to clear background checks and purchase, legally, a Springfield Armory XDM nine-millimeter semiautomatic hand gun with three 19-round ammo magazines. A YouTube video endorsement of this particular gun, by the way, boasts about it "hitting the sweet spot of concealed carry" (Tom Gresham, Guntalk, May 31, 2012). The gun store owner who sold Page his weapons found nothing amiss with him -- "He raised no eyebrows whatsoever."

If not now, when? There is something hideously, grievously wrong when a depressed, alcoholic, washed-out psy-ops guy and Nazi hate-monger can buy this kind of fire power. It is time for gun control with real teeth.

Just two weeks before the Sikh Temple massacre, on July 20, 2012, 24-year-old James Holmes stood up in a crowded theater and opened fire on movie-goers there to see the midnight premiere of the latest Batman film -- The Dark Knight Rises. Holmes was, by all accounts, an intelligent but highly disturbed young man. He came from an affluent, academically successful family, graduated in the top one percent of his college class, and gained admittance to a competitive, demanding graduate school -- the University of Colorado's program in neuroscience.

Away from home, however, Holmes' mental state deteriorated severely in the months before the shooting. He consulted a psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia. His academic performance declined precipitously, he failed important examinations, he made plans to withdraw from school, he frequented prostitutes. He left bizarre, incoherent messages on peoples' voice-mails. And he began to stockpile guns and ammo.

Holmes had acquired a virtual fortress-worth of heavy weaponry by the evening of July 20. Making purchases in bulk from local gun shops and from internet suppliers, Holmes had acquired two Glock pistols, a Smith & Wesson semiautomatic rifle, a Remington Model 870 shotgun, 3,000 rounds of ammunition for both pistols, another 3,000 rounds for the rifle, 350 shotgun shells, tear gas, explosives to booby trap his apartment, a state-of-the-art bullet proof vest, and a hunting knife. All purchased legally, without raising a single red flag.

If not now, when? Mass shootings on a smaller scale are now so common they no longer hold our imaginations. Who even thinks of Jacob Tyler Roberts, who only two nights ago shot up a mall in Oregon, killing two people, and taking his own life? Who now recalls Radcliffe Haughton, who gunned three victims at a shopping mall in Wisconsin in October? Like a low-grade fever, like an annoying headache we have learned to ignore, we avert our eyes, we pretend not to notice, we learn to live with gun violence as just one more risk of modern life.

If not now, when? For sure, there are deeper causes to this sort of violence. We have an epidemic of untreated psychiatric illness in this country. We have become a nation of lonely individuals, where many do not fit. Isolated, alienated, disturbed, buried under a soul-robbing capitalism, there are many reasons the psychologically vulnerable are moved to violence. Intervention is needed, a helping hand extended, efforts made to address these root causes. I get all that.

If not now, when? There is no reason alienation, derangement, or mental illness should transmute itself into murderous violence. Except for the guns.

Why are we selling guns with this kind of firepower? How can the mentally disturbed acquire arsenals that could rival whole police departments of just a few years ago? Our G.I.s at D-Day, Inchon or Khe Sanh were not equipped like this.

If not now, when? When shall we muster the will to take political action to remove the guns from the hands of the demented and disturbed?

There is a place in American society for guns. When I was in Boy Scouts, decades ago, I shot .22s and air rifles. I earned a marksmanship merit badge and a sharpshooter's rating in an NRA junior rifle program. When I was a teenager, I even had a target range for my air rifle in my parents' basement. There is a place for guns.

But for the kind of firepower used in these acts of mass terror. Let's no longer ask "If not now, when?" We know that this is the time. It is up to us. Our schools and classrooms, our movie theaters and shopping malls, our public spaces everywhere, must no longer be turned into shooting galleries. The crazies can no longer be in control. The reign of gun terror must cease. Americans must demand immediate and comprehensive gun control legislation. Now.