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Time to face our peculiar national problem

In response to the latest mass killings in Southern California, President Obama once again deplored a type of crime that seems increasingly peculiar to American society. "The one thing we do know," he said, "is we have a pattern now of mass shootings in the country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world."

The reason certainly is no secret. It's the ready availability of guns of all varieties openly purchased or traded in an open society, in which the gun-rights lobby successfully wards off most governmental attempts to bring sensible controls to the mayhem market.

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In what sounded like another note of futility, Mr. Obama lamented: "Those same people who we don't allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm, and there's nothing we can do to stop them."

We have heard that complaint from the nation's leader before, most memorably after the Newtown, Conn., schoolroom massacre, the Charleston, S.C., church slaughter and beyond. The president showed up after both of those attacks. Touchingly, he led the bereaved Charleston congregation in a mournful singing of "Amazing Grace."

He put Vice President Joe Biden on the task of rallying public support for new gun-control laws requiring tougher background checks for purchases at gun sales shows and the like. But it was to no avail, as the National Rifle Association and allied pro-gun lobbies successfully invoked their legislative muscle to foil the good intentions.

This time around, Mr. Obama immediately entertained the possibility that the San Bernardino episode was an act of terrorism by military-garbed assailants, turning the investigation over to the FBI. In his speech to the nation Sunday night, he confirmed his suspicions: "This was an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people," he said, making a rare address from the Oval Office.

His lament was all too familiar: We need to "make sure that when individuals decide that they want to do somebody harm, we're making it a little harder for them to do it. Because right now it's just too easy. ... And we're going to have to, I think, search ourselves as a society to make sure that we can take basic steps that would make it harder — not impossible, but harder — for individuals to get access to weapons."

The president's first gesture was more symbolic than substantive — ordering the American flag lowered to half-staff over the White House and all other federal buildings, U.S. embassies and military installations at home and abroad, followed by the weekend speech, which failed to offer new plans to defeat the Islamic State. Regardless of whether terrorism was involved or just plain domestic madness, more was required from him.

Hasn't time come for Mr. Obama to take a hands-on role in that societal search of which he spoke to counter this ugly stain on the American way of life? A beginning would be calling leaders on both sides of the gun-availability issue — in Congress, in both parties and the gun lobbies as well — to a White House meeting directly with the president to demand a breakthrough.

The country is now experiencing uncommon public protest — over police brutality, campus rape, racial profiling, governmental dysfunction and all the rest — perhaps not seen on such a scale since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the street demonstrations of the Vietnam War.

It's not enough for the president to muse about the society searching itself. While he still has more than a year as the national leader, he needs to stir himself to much firmer actions to bring about a much more nationwide response to this continuing gun violence.

As unpopular as he may be with the opposition party that now controls both houses of Congress, Mr. Obama must at last take on the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby that holds much of Capitol Hill hostage over seasonable and widely supported gun-control legislation.

American lives are not only at stake in the global fight against the Islamic State. They are being claimed almost daily on the streets and in offices, schools and other public places in the U.S. The president needs to preach with renewed vigor his "Yes We Can" slogan to Congress and his fellow citizens in both parties, while he still has time.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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