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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leadership After Tragedy

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Grief, horror, sorrow and sympathy -- after a tragedy like Monday's shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, these are the appropriate first responses from not only typical Americans but the nation's political leaders.

But in the face of tragedy the responsibility of political leaders is not just to look back in sorrow. Their job is to look forward toward practical steps that might reduce the risk of repeating this awful experience. It's too early to say conclusively what lessons public policy should take from Monday's rampage. But it's not too soon to say that is the question Washington should be asking once the immediate shock has passed.

That may seem obvious, but it's not. In these circumstances, the understandable first instinct of many Americans is to focus on the private factors that shaped the shooter's character -- family, friends, religious institutions, and so on. Confronted with such chilling evil, most Americans would probably agree with William Faulkner, who said that you cannot legislate what is in men's hearts.

That is likely U.S. President George W. Bush's first instinct as well. In 1999, when he was governor of Texas, I interviewed him eight days after two students slaughtered classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado. Without much enthusiasm, Bush marched through his positions on gun control, school safety and other relevant policies. But he came to life when he spoke about the limits of the law.

"Of course there are going to be reactions -- pass a law," Bush said. "The big law is the universal law: How do mothers and dads do their jobs? The fundamental question is going to be: Can America rededicate itself to parenting as the No. 1 priority for all of us?" He paused and smiled his goofy grin. "That's called a peroration," he said.

There is wisdom in that answer, but evasion too. No one doubts that increasing the number of children reared with strong values would reduce the burden of violence in the United States. And no one imagines that laws can always deter someone driven to harm others.

But that doesn't mean abandoning the search for better ways to reduce the threat of random violence. The issue isn't whether the Virginia Tech attack might have been prevented if a particular legal loophole had been closed last month. It may be that no combination of plausible policies would have deterred this rampage. And it is almost certain that the next horrific attack will present different facts.

"In the wake of Sept. 11, we didn't just look at policies to stop planes from flying into buildings. We looked at how vulnerable we were to foreign attack," said Bruce Reed, who helped coordinate U.S. President Bill Clinton's response to the Columbine shootings as White House domestic policy adviser. "And we didn't ... say if someone is crazy enough to fly a plane into a building, they will find a way to kill us somehow."

Approaching the Virginia shootings in the expansive spirit that prevailed after 9/11 would mean serious exploration. There should be an assessment of the availability of counseling for troubled young people. Bush's decision to de-fund the Clinton program that subsidized the hiring of more local police should be questioned. And, yes, the discussion about access to guns that both the Republicans and the Democrats have silenced should be reopened.

The redeeming grace of tragedy is that, throughout U.S. history, it has sparked reform. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, which killed almost 150 workers in a New York City sweatshop, inspired workplace safety breakthroughs. The 1989 attack on a Stockton, California elementary school by a drifter armed with an AK-47 provoked outrage that led to the important gun control laws of the 1990s.

The ineradicability of evil ensures that we will never be free from terrible days like Monday. But the United States will compound this tragedy if it fails to learn from it.

Ronald Brownstein is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this comment appeared.