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It's odd what you notice at times like this. The cheerful sign outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were murdered Friday, says, "Visitors Welcome." Also, the daycare near the school has a "lockdown" protocol. What does it say about us that a school for three-year-olds has a set of rules to follow in case a madman with a gun enters?

Twenty small children were gunned down at Sandy Hook, and if you consider the average lifespan of an American, that's more than a thousand years of life suddenly wiped off the books. More than a millennium, gone.

"They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own," President Barack Obama said, and he looked haggard as brushed away tears. He was speaking from the Brady briefing room at the White House, named for James Brady, Ronald Reagan's press secretary, who has been a gun-control advocate since he was shot in an assassination attempt on the former president in 1981.

"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter," Mr. Obama said.

I don't doubt the President's pain, or his sincerity. Countless people around the world were probably crying along with him; I know I was. The thing is, though, he used identical words when addressing a grieving nation in July after 12 people were killed by a gunman at a movie theatre in Colorado: "Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight and I'm sure you will do the same with your children." The fact that this same kind of gun violence happened so recently that the President was recycling a phrase takes away some of the gravitas of his words.

I profoundly hope he never has to use those words again, because this might finally be the moment for America to start a meaningful discussion about gun control. As Ezra Klein noted in the Washington Post hours after the Sandy Hook massacre: "If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing."

But it wasn't the President's voice, or the outraged voices of pundits, that cut through the noise. It was the puzzled, thoughtful voices of the kids who'd been in the school and survived. Many people said that reporters were wrong to talk to the children, but their eyewitness accounts, their bluntness, was somehow easier to take than adults floundering for meaning. "We heard loud noises," one little girl said. "Some people even felt they got a bit of a stomach ache."

"I saw the bullets," said a young boy. Saw them or heard them? asked the reporter. "Heard them and saw them," he insisted. "A teacher pulled me into her classroom."

Tales of teachers' bravery emerged, as they always do in these situations. A dad named Declan Procaccini told CNN that his daughter's Grade 3 teacher hauled her into a bathroom and locked the door. It reminded me of Gwen Mayor, the first-grade teacher who died protecting her kindergarten students in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996; on that day, 16 five– and six-year-olds were killed by a gunman.

Dunblane, like Newtown, is a quiet, liveable place where tragedies like this are not supposed to happen. "It's incomprehensible," one of the TV reporters said. Except that it's not: There were 37 school shootings in the U.S. between 1974 and 2000, and more than 30 since then. Just the day before the shooting, Businessweek published an article about how in the past four years, "firearm manufacturers and their vocal ally, the National Rifle Association, have enjoyed an extraordinary boom based heavily on fear marketing" – the fear of gun owners in recent years that Mr. Obama will take their guns away. On the whole, as a long-term trend, U.S. gun ownership is down but the laws are still nuts: Florida is about to issue its millionth permit for concealed handguns; Michigan has passed a law allowing concealed weapons into schools and churches.

In Toronto, I heard friends muttering that they were sorry they'd yelled at their children in the morning. Across the continent, even thousands of kilometres away from Connecticut, people talked about how they were going to pick up their kids early from school, hold them close. The tiny things that had seemed so important only a few days ago – Do I have enough wrapping paper? What am I going to do with them if the teachers go on strike? – were now absurdly trivial. It wasn't rational, this need to be close to our children who were not, themselves, in danger. But then we're hardly rational animals. If we were, we wouldn't let this happen again.