When President Obama went to Colorado a week ago to meet the families of the victims of the Aurora massacre, he said he had come to talk with them "not so much as President as I do as a father and a husband."
A day earlier, when the President's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, addressed the shooting rampage that killed 12 people and seriously injured 58 others, he said he spoke "not as a man running for office, but as a father and a grandfather, a husband, an American."
But their public and private roles are not always so separable. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney would perform a real service to Aurora's victims and survivors and their families, and all other Americans, by speaking frankly and specifically -- not as husbands and fathers, but as leaders seeking the nation's highest office -- about the issues that the movie-theater tragedy has thrown into stark relief.
These include the need for better identification and treatment of mental illness. Most of all, they include the need for sane restrictions on firearms sales and use, to help prevent the next Aurora or Tucson or Fort Hood or Virginia Tech. Voters should seek the same candor among candidates for Congress and the General Assembly.
An old joke called Social Security the third rail of American politics -- touch it and you die. Today, absolutism toward the Second Amendment fulfills that role, in Washington and Columbus.
Gun lobbies, notably the National Rifle Association, are well organized and politically powerful, often intimidating. To advance their agenda, they spend a lot of money to assemble coalitions of voters and make campaign contributions to pliant and cowed candidates of both parties, but mostly to Republicans.
Not so for the rest of us. When an outrage such as Aurora occurs, we wring our hands and demand that somebody do something to stop the violence. Within a few days, we tell ourselves that nothing is going to change, so we may as well go on to something else. And the cycle continues.
During his campaign four years ago, Mr. Obama pledged to work to bring back the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. He hasn't kept that promise. The evidently deranged young man charged in the Aurora shootings, James Holmes, had a legally purchased arsenal that included an AR-15 rifle -- a semi-automatic weapon that a reinstated ban would have covered.
Last week, Mr. Obama offered a few tepid remarks before a friendly audience about tougher enforcement of existing gun laws, such as those that govern background checks of would-be firearms buyers. Nothing very specific.
Mr. Romney said new gun-control laws would not "make all bad things go away," as if anyone had credibly argued they would. I'd like to see him debate the elected official who called assault weapons "instruments of destruction, with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people."
What dangerous radical made that career-killing statement? Mr. Romney did, in 2004, when as governor of Massachusetts he signed a law banning assault weapons in his state.
According to news reports, James Holmes ordered 6,000 rounds of ammunition -- 3,000 rounds for handguns, an equal number for an assault rifle -- and 350 shotgun shells, all online, without a background check. No existing law prevented that. Are the President and Mr. Romney OK with preserving such a level of consumer convenience?
The suspected shooter attached a high-capacity, 100-round magazine to his assault rifle. If the candidates are not willing to advocate the kind of assault-weapons ban they both once courageously supported, how about at least reinstating the former federal ban's limit on the size of magazines to 10 rounds?
The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Americans have an individual right to possess firearms, to protect themselves and their homes. Would the candidates like to defend the proposition that this right would inevitably be infringed, and the freedom of hunters and sport shooters compromised, by any further restrictions at all on guns and ammunition?
The gun lobby has gotten a lot of mileage out of its fantasy that President Obama has a secret agenda to confiscate private citizens' firearms. He must know how to keep a secret: The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave President Obama a failing grade after his first year in office.
How long will elected officials, from the White House on down, be allowed to evade hard questions about why tragedies like Aurora occur and what might be done to prevent them? As long as Americans who don't subscribe to the gun lobby's narrative allow it to go unchallenged.
No one expects Congress to ban private handguns. No restriction on gun ownership will anticipate and stop every mass shooting. No one seriously argues that it would.
But a better-balanced policy can make such tragedies less likely and less lethal. An inability to do everything is no excuse for doing nothing. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got it right when he challenged both major-party nominees to "stand up and tell us what they're going to do about" gun violence.
Right now, what passes for a political debate about gun control starts from the premise that any new proposal that might do more to keep weapons of mass destruction away from dangerous lunatics and felons is a desecration of the Constitution and a threat to the freedom of law-abiding citizens.
As long as that mind-set dictates public policy on firearms regulation, we'll acquiesce in 30,000 gun deaths a year in this country. And we'll wait for the next Aurora.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com