12/17/2012 12:41 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Only Obama Can Lead Us Out of the Morass of American Gun Violence

What will it take to stop the slaughter?

It's a question the president seemed to ask, but did not try to answer directly Sunday night as he spoke at an emotional memorial service for 20 children, babes really, gunned down in cold blood by a 20-year-old madman.

Certainly the Republican-controlled House of Representatives won't help. Even before these first-graders could be buried in Newtown, Conn., some GOP stalwarts had begun defending their gun-lobby patrons. Some called for better-armed teachers, schools turned to fortresses.

"I wish to God (the principal) had had an M4 in her office, locked up, so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out ... and takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids," Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert reportedly told Fox News Sunday.

Speaking as a Fox News host, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said "laws don't change this kind of thing." Then he added, "We ask why there's violence in our schools, but we've systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"

That's right. He blamed godlessness, not guns.

And just the day before Adam Lanza blasted himself into a sealed school to kill indiscriminately, Michigan lawmakers passed a bill that, The New York Times reports, "would allow people to carry concealed weapons in schools."

What's next? Will the gun zealots propose taking kindergarteners out to the shooting range for gym class? Ask them to carry concealed weapons in their Mickey Mouse lunch boxes? All in the name of self-protection?

How did this country get so far off course in its definition of freedom?

Clearly, it will be up to Democrats to show the guts and expend the political capital needed to slow the gun violence that is endemic in America today. And clearly they will fail unless Barack Obama directly leads their charge.

It won't be easy, though in his words of solace in Newtown, the president seemed to show a sense of resolve.

"We can't tolerate this any more," he said. "These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change."

Indeed, we must. For years, Congress has stood mostly mute while the money and propaganda machine of the National Rifle Association has rallied the right and silenced spineless Democrats.

As Charles Blow wrote in The Times on Saturday, only 43 percent of Americans polled by Gallup a year ago thought it wise to ban assault rifles like the one used to kill the students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School as well as the killer's own mother. Some 53 percent said "no" to such a ban. (For the record, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined common people packing weapons similar to those which our soldiers use in Afghanistan, guns that can spray dozens of lethal bullets at the touch of a trigger without the need to reload.)

There are times true leaders must ignore the polls. This is one. Only the president, if he chooses, is capable of seizing the bully pulpit to lead the people, if necessary, right to the doors of our do-nothing Congress that let an assault weapons ban expire a decade ago.

Though the issue of gun control was virtually invisible in this year's presidential campaign, historic events can and should change presidential agendas. It is a fact of which President Obama seemed mindful Sunday night.

"I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this," he said. "Because what choice do we have? Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard?"

For years in fact -- after Virginia Tech, after Tucson, after Aurora, Colo. -- the politics have been too hard. And whether the president will lead and sustain efforts to ban America's most lethal guns remains to be seen.

But the events of last week should leave him, and any other elected politicians not bought and sold by the NRA, no room for moral vacillation.

On Friday, in a bucolic town in the Connecticut countryside, 20 innocents -- sons and daughters, grandchildren and siblings -- were riddled with bullets before they could finish the first half of the first grade.