12/20/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Moving Forward After Sandy Hook: Why Hugging Our Children Is Not Enough

In the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, President Obama concluded his heartfelt remarks by stating that he and Michelle that evening would do what "every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter."

Hugging your loved ones in the wake of a horrific tragedy is an understandable human reaction. You're relieved that everyone in your family is safe and you're sobered by the knowledge that others weren't so lucky. There's absolutely nothing wrong with hugging your kids in response to all of this -- unless, of course, that's all you do.

Imagine that your spouse narrowly missed being in a serious car wreck on the way home after picking the kids up from school. He rounded a corner and there in the middle of the road was a pile of cinder blocks. He managed to swerve and miss the cinder blocks without either veering into oncoming traffic or going off the shoulder and ramming into a tree.

Of course you are relieved that everyone is okay. But if you are responsible and caring members of your community, you and your husband do not just go on down the road leaving the pile of cinder blocks for the next car that rounds the corner. You call the authorities and tell them about the cinder blocks. You flag cars before they turn the corner, alerting them to the danger. You stop traffic while someone carries the cinder blocks to the side of the road.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook there is plenty of work for all of us to do. Some of it is easy and obvious. Other work is more complicated. Some things can be done quickly. Others will take time.

As the days wear on, the debate seems to be shaping up as one between tightening up gun control vs. increasing services to the mentally ill and their families. But this is a false choice. The reality is we need to do both.

In Liza Long's poignant essay, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother," she states, "It's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness."

The fact that one is easy and the other is less so does not mean we refuse to tackle the easy one. The logical approach is to knock out the easy one right away, then dig into the more challenging one. Or even better, we could take both of them on at the same time.

If you are in the camp that feels that easier access to mental health services is the answer, I respect your position. But if you are serious, you will walk your talk and dedicate your efforts to improving our mental health care system -- or at the very least not oppose others' efforts to do the same. And you won't employ idle talk about the need for these changes simply as a justification for opposing new gun control legislation.

If President Obama's experience in fighting to get the Affordable Care Law passed is any indication, changing the system to make it easier for those who suffer from mental illness to get the help they need will be difficult indeed. Simply determining who needs these services will be the subject of much disagreement.

When it comes to people who appear to be off balance, at the top of my list would be those who are so irrational and dogmatic about gun rights that they oppose any new gun control measures, however modest and reasonable.

Or those who are so jittery about their personal safety that they have to carry a gun when they pop into the grocery store or go out for a jog in their million dollar subdivision in broad daylight.

Or those who are so paranoid about the government that upon hearing that 20 children have been gunned down their biggest worry is that Big Brother will want to take away their personal cache of weapons.

Or those who are so convinced the world is coming to an end that they have taken to stockpiling ammunition in preparation for the end times.

In my view, any of these behaviors would indicate the possibility of mental illness and the need for support services. And none of these people should have guns until they've worked through their issues.

Hugging goes in the category of self-soothing. It's what we do to calm ourselves down after our nerves are jarred by something horrific. If you were lucky enough not to have lost a loved one in the Sandy Hook massacre, go ahead and take some time to hug it out. But after you're done, don't just pick up with your Christmas errands and general merry making. Pick an issue, roll up your sleeves and get to work.