RICHMOND

Over and over, stricken parents in Newtown, Connecticut, have heard sincerely sympathetic people say, "I can't imagine what you are going through." But one of the dads who appeared recently on Katie Couric's afternoon show has made me do it. Made me imagine.

His response to "I can't imagine" is "I want you to imagine, you must imagine, or nothing will change." And so I've tried to do that. It's horrible, it's tragic, it's bloody. And try as any of us might, it is basically unimaginable.

One not only can't quite put him or herself in the spaces occupied by Newtown families, Aurora families and Columbine families. One doesn't even want to. And yet that father, whose mission now is to create change, says we must. It is necessary for his reality to be our nightmare, too, or he's quite right -- nothing will change.

Awful as it is, we have to imagine being a teenager at Columbine, lying on the floor of a familiar classroom and hearing the kid next to him breathe her last. We have to imagine surviving a night at the movies, splattered with the blood of the person in the seat beside us. We have to think about a scene so horrific that the first responders at Sandy Hook corralled the parents at the fire house and would not let them into the school.

The Columbine parents, of both the victims and the shooters, continue to live their nightmares, but while the word Columbine has entered the lexicon, it's not something most of us think about even once a month. We don't talk about Aurora or whether anyone in that community ever wants to see the inside of a movie theater again. We have become calloused enough to feel relief that only "a few" were killed at a mall in Portland, Oregon.

Fortunately, we often see Gabby Giffords and do not have to "imagine" how a gunman ruined her life as she knew it or about the incredible hard work she has done to partially retrieve her ability to speak. But, just as we moved away from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, we get back to our daily whatever rather quickly.

That dad in Newtown is unwilling to let that happen. He is grateful for the outpouring of sympathy from neighbors and strangers, but he's insisting that they not excuse themselves from "I can't imagine." He wants change, and he's obviously all too aware of how quickly we forget.

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One question is how to get senators and representatives to stop saying they can't imagine how horrible these horrors are and start letting the horror in. Start thinking of being there. Start seeing the panic in those schools, start hearing the gunshots and the yelling.

It is sickening to find that whose who supposedly represent the American people are so worried about maintaining their seats in Congress that they cannot pause to think about the empty seats on school buses and at the kitchen table. They argue all sorts of dry technicalities about the Second Amendment (and an armed militia that George Washington certainly needed and that we don't have) and people's rights and their belief that criminals and mentally ill people will still get guns.

But the fact is that we did not have these massacres when we were a nation of shotguns, rifles and Colts. We had shootouts, yes, like Wild West episodes or gangsters killing gangsters, all of them dependent on limited weapons and strategy.

The multi-shot magazines have to go. The assault rifles have to go. The background checks have to be universal. And if private-sale people make end runs around checks, they must fear getting caught, just as a bartender worries about serving a drunk and not taking his keys.

It's time to do the right thing because we really can't imagine it happening again.

Ruth Bass is a former Eagle Sunday editor. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.