Some events change everything, with countless lives subsequently compartmentalized to before and after. Sandy Hook Elementary may take on that status.

Some events change everything, with countless lives subsequently compartmentalized to before and after. Sandy Hook Elementary may take on that status.

Flags are at half-staff and a deep sadness hangs over the nation, not so much because of the troubled young man responsible for the deaths of 28 people, including himself, on Friday in Connecticut, but because the loss of a child is every parent's nightmare. The stories rolling in of the crushing silence that greeted first responders at the school, of the moms and dads waiting at a designated spot to be reunited with the children who never walked in the door, of their reactions at ultimately being told that what they feared most was true, of being denied the chance to see and hold them as police preserved the crime scene ... well, it's difficult to even write about without choking up. Hug your kids.

As with the massacres before it, there were the usual common denominators, revolving around guns and mental illness - their existence hardly unique to this nation - and the cultural/systemic triggers that bring the two of them together with uncommon frequency in America. But this one is different. You can feel it in the way Americans are responding. When it's open season on defenseless first graders, a line has been crossed. No society on planet Earth can tolerate it.

An obviously shaken President Barack Obama spoke Friday of "meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics," but even then some fell back into their familiar camps. One online reader faulted not guns but the "tragedy of errors," which is precisely the point that person was not trying to make. That "tragedy of errors" has been repeated ad nauseam - just this year in Connecticut and Oregon and Colorado and Minnesota and Oklahoma and Wisconsin and Washington state and California - aggravated by the easy availability of high-powered weapons that can kill a lot of people with staggering efficiency. In the span of minutes, the gunman here shot each of his victims with a long rifle (a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic) multiple times - of those the state's chief medical examiner himself autopsied, between three and 11 times, in fact. Do the math.

It's not all about guns but you can't divorce them from the equation because they are the weapon of choice in the vast majority of these mass murders. If there is some justification for civilians having military-grade assault weapons - which go beyond any need for self-defense or hunting - one would sure like to hear it.

One trusts that those who are wedded to their various ideologies also own a conscience. There simply must be a meeting of the minds on the issues that arguably contribute to this pathology - from the public's access to not all but certain types of guns, to identification and treatment of the disturbed, to the prevalence of violence in the entertainment media. If it wasn't before, it's now a moral imperative.

Forget the fiscal cliff for a minute. If this tragedy does not prompt action, what will? Do we really want to tempt the imagination of the next sociopath? This is a test of this culture's priorities. It's not a partisan issue. Dead kids should not be the price of living in a free society. It's just not acceptable. The whole world is watching.

Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.