01/04/2013 04:10 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

How Deeply Does America Care About Children?

As Congress now wades into gun control issues in the wake of the Newtown slayings, a broader question becomes to the fore: Does America care enough about its children to do the right thing?

Adam Lanza carried three weapons into Sandy Hook Elementary: a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic weapon and two handguns -- a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm. In the aftermath, debate ensued about limiting sales of only one. While handguns are severely restricted in Europe where shootings are a rarity, banning them is, for several reasons, unthinkable to most Americans.

American children -- in Newtown and elsewhere -- are under different threats worthy of our consideration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that one in three will develop diabetes at some point in their lives, putting them at risk for blindness, amputations and heart attacks. More than a decade will be cut from their lives. These medical tragedies are caused by massive increases over the past century in our consumption of three products -- sugar, meat and cheese. As the statistics mount, serious debate has ensued about limiting only one. Some have started to limit sugary sodas, but meat and cheese are consumed in quantities that would make much of the world gasp and are leaving our kids fat and sickly.

There are other real threats to our children. As global climate change turns from controversy to incontrovertible reality, three causes are clear: CO2, largely from combustion of fossil fuels; methane, especially from cows who, in America, collectively outweigh the entire human population; and nitrous oxide, produced by the use of nitrogen on soil, mainly to grow livestock feed. As the world our children will inherit degrades before their very eyes, serious debate has ensued about limiting only one, with an on-again, off-again debate about CO2. Cutting methane or nitrous oxide means reducing the number of animals Americans raise, slaughter and ingest -- at a collective rate of more than one million per hour, and so far that is something our policymakers have had trouble contemplating.

When the names of children killed in Newtown were read one by one in stone-cold silence, our hearts were torn apart. But it seems that memories fade, and so does our collective will to take serious action to prevent future tragedies.

Here is the answer: We can take action individually and locally. We do not have to wait for the National Rifle Association, the National Restaurant Association or any other NRA to agree to a handgun ban, a burger ban or any other equally sensible step. We can work within our communities to leave guns to cops. We can serve healthful meals to our children in schools. And we can change our purchasing habits so as to stop abusing the Earth. In so doing, we can embolden our leaders to aggressive and diplomatic action.

That's where the stunning progress in the war on tobacco came from -- individuals quitting smoking, individual hospitals and restaurants banning tobacco, followed by communities taking action, and finally, an international movement to curb the threat. Let's do the same with the threats our children face now. Let's show that America does indeed care about its children.