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A weapon of mass destruction

We tend to respond in one of two ways to the news that a deranged gunman has fatally shot a group of people with an extraordinarily lethal weapon. Some people are simply horrified. Others wonder where they can buy one, too.

It should come as little surprise that the FBI reported a surge in Glock handgun sales in Arizona following the shooting rampage in Tucson. There were 263 background checks in the state the first weekday after the shootings, compared with 164 on a corresponding Monday last year.

It is important to note that not all background checks lead to a completed sale, the FBI points out. That's a relief, now that Jared Lee Loughner, the accused shooter who reportedly bought his Glock at a local gun shop, offers a disturbing example of someone who was not disqualified.

Gun dealers told reporters that there also appeared to be a rise not only in handgun demand but also in the popularity of high-capacity clips like the one that allowed the Tucson shooter's weapon to hold 31 rounds.

Such an extra-long magazine would have been outlawed by the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, plans to introduce a new bill to outlaw these high-capacity magazines again. She takes the issue personally. She entered politics after her husband was gunned down and her son permanently injured in the 1993 Long Island Railroad massacre.

But the word from Capitol Hill is that fans of high-capacity magazines have little to worry about. That's partly because of the new conservative tea party-influenced Congress and partly because many Democrats have lost their enthusiasm for gun control.

Has Tucson changed the mood? If anything expressed that possibility, it was the sentiment embodied in what I think was the most powerful moment in President Obama's riveting speech at the Tucson memorial.

He was paying tribute to the victims when he came to the particularly heartbreaking story of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Obama cited the tragic irony of her interest in government and the hopes many of us share that her death might inspire our politics to work toward less vitriol.

"I want to live up to her expectations," he said. "I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."

He delivered that first line after a long pause -- and ended that passage with an even longer one, as the crowd cheered agreement. Noteworthy was a brief departure from his prepared text, which significantly deleted the word "us," turning the original, "I want us to live up to her expectations," into a poignantly personal promise.

Defenders of high-capacity magazines cite hypothetical excuses for their legalization, but we now have the very real story of Patricia Maisch, a 61-year-old bystander. She helped stop the massacre by grabbing the shooter's magazine after two men tackled him as he tried to reload.

"If that had happened after 20 fewer bullets had been fired," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "more lives could have been saved."

How many more Glock shocks must we have, I wonder, before we once again outlaw an accessory that turns a handgun from reasonable self-protection into what McCarthy accurately calls a "weapon of mass destruction."

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