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Globe Editorial

The scourge of guns: what Obama didn't say Add to ...

Tonight, with eloquence and poetry, Barack Obama summoned Americans to unity, and to respect for public service. But he missed an opportunity to tackle the cancer of handgun worship and violence in America - a contagion that afflicts the American body politic and a public health emergency that strikes down tens of thousands of innocent and troubled Americans every year.

After the ritual denunciations, brazen mass shootings in the U.S. typically prompt two responses in the political mainstream. Many demand more, not less, access to guns. Others suggest minor changes to America's gun laws, and no change to America's gun culture. Mr. Obama could have joined that third, small group of advocates, currently lacking political power, calling for real change.

Instead, for the moment, he has stuck his head in the sand.

Handguns and assault rifles are a blight that make the U.S. one of the world's most murderous societies, on a par with South Africa and Colombia. Consider that:

- Gun violence is the leading cause of death for young African-American men.

- According to the Brady Campaign, in 2009 there were at least 260 incidents in which at least three people were shot.

- In 2007, suicide by gun claimed 17,352 people - more than those murdered by guns - and states with high rates of gun ownership have been found to have twice the gun suicide rate compared to states with low gun ownership.

This is a North America-wide affliction. A large proportion of illegal handguns in Canada come from the U.S., as do the weapons fuelling Mexico's brutal drug trade-related violence.

A skewed veneration of Second Amendment rights mean reasonable attempts at gun control go nowhere. Federally-mandated background checks are still not applied at gun shows. Many assault rifles, banned in 1994, are now back on the market, legally.

The Tucson shootings show deficiencies in areas such as mental health and political discourse. And given that the event was a memorial service, Mr. Obama's main role was as mourner and unifier-in-chief.

But because the target in the killing spree was a U.S. Congresswoman, tonight's event was also political. Otherwise, a mass shooting that kills six is - and this itself ought to be an outrage - below the usual threshold to summon an American president.

The celebrated master of context and nuance had a simple political task. Mr. Obama could have, at least, uttered two simple lines: "Our worship of weapons designed only to kill humans must end. In the coming weeks, I will offer a detailed response to this epidemic." A call to rein in America's gun obsession was, sadly, left unsaid.

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