by Pete Mazzaccaro

When I was a kid of about 12 or 13, I really wanted a BB gun.

Several of my friends had BB guns, and we’d do the usual things you do with BB guns. We’d shoot at cans, GI Joe figures and other objects that a BB might knock over. I never turned the gun on squirrels or other little critters, though I’m sure the thought crossed my mind.

When I asked for a BB gun, my dad said something that still sticks with me today.

“Anything you would do with a BB gun is something you should not be doing,” he said.

My dad, an Army sergeant who also hunted as a kid, had no interest in me owning a gun of any kind. I think today of his answer, and I think it applies to the larger gun conversation we’ve again been forced to have following the terrible tragedy of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings that claimed the lives of 27 people, 20 of them first graders.

Gun rights are indeed a sacred cow in this country. We have organizations dedicated to battling anything seen as an encroachment on those rights. Every effort to curb guns – from banning certain classes of guns to requiring licensing to own and/or purchase guns – is a slippery slope to a time when the government will confiscate our weapons.

But like so many debates in our country, we spend an awful lot of time on abstractions – that madmen can use anything to kill if they want to or that mental illness and criminals need to be better restrained. The problem, they say, is not the guns, but the people.

But every massacre we read about is not carried out in the abstract. They are acts that are nearly always carried out with powerful guns.

Guns, particularly the semi-automatic pistols and assault rifles used in these massacres, are designed to kill many efficiently and quickly. They are not for sport. They are not for hunting. They are, quite literally, weapons of mass destruction, killing machines we’ve allowed on our streets.

The gun lobby often likes to say that a solution to gun violence is for more people to carry them. Forgetting the fact that characters like Anthony Lanza, the young man who attacked the school, are not likely to be deterred, I don’t know many people who would like to be responsible for their own defense against semi-automatic weapons.

I am convinced, now more than ever, that a comprehensive gun ban is not only called for – it’s imperative. We need not only a ban on semi-automatic weapons but also a system of licensing and checks to be sure that anyone who buys a gun must be licensed and have a clear record. We regulate and require licenses for everything in this country, yet we’re lax on the ownership of guns. It makes no sense.

I am hopeful that this tragedy has finally changed the debate. The murder of defenseless children – only a few years past being babies – in their school, in one of the safest towns in the country, is the sort of outrageous act that resists our usual ability to shrug it off and rationalize. As President Barack Obama said in his address to an interfaith memorial in Newtown on Sunday, we must  do everything we can to honor the victims.

To me it’s simple. Although 99 percent of gun owners would never break the law, semi-automatic weapons really have no place in a safe and civilized society. We will never eradicate similar tragedies from happening in the future, but we can do a lot more to reduce the probability, and I think most Americans would agree that the effort is well worth it.