In any crisis, there are likely to be people who can keep their wits about them and react rationally and effectively, and people who will completely lose their heads and make a bad situation worse.
It is just human nature. The best we can do is to allow those who can help to make their contributions as we minimize the damage done by those who cannot.
As we look for ways to react to the great evil that occurred last week in Newtown, Conn., those who are responding with adult calm are those who are proposing limited, specific and doable steps to reduce the number of military-style weapons that fall into the hands of people who are not mentally competent.
Those steps might include those proposed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors: a ban on assault weapons with high-capacity magazines, a strengthened background check system and tougher penalties for trafficking in illegal firearms.
No system of controls or bans is totally effective, as our national experience with guns, liquor and drugs has proven again and again. But that is no reason not to take steps to minimize the harm that all those things can do, generally with a public health approach rather than a more confrontational law enforcement mindset.
One thing that we must not do is give in to the fearful, fanciful and frightening idea that our schools, our streets, our nation would be safer if only there could be more guns in the hands of more people. That is a notion that is at once empirically unfounded and ethically bankrupt.
Experience over time and across the world has shown something that should be obvious: More guns means more violence and more death. To surrender to the idea that individuals need guns in their homes and on their belts, that teachers should have them in their desks, is to totally give up on the idea of even having a civilized society and throw in with a law of the jungle philosophy that humanity should have left behind centuries ago.
The knee-jerk suggestion by, among others, Utah state Rep. Curt Oda that arming teachers would make schools safer is irrational and uncivilized.
The likely result would not be fewer massacres, but many more suicides, accidents and out-of-hand confrontations that would receive little media attention because each of them would claim only one or two victims rather than dozens.
The Second Amendment is here to stay, and people do have a right to defend themselves. But the best way we have of defending ourselves is through civil society and the rule of law, not an armed-to-the-teeth environment that will always be a hair-trigger away from disaster.