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Start talking about 'massacre prevention,' it's too late to talk about 'gun control'

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It's the language that changes things.

When the English got serious about colonizing Ireland the most enduring change they made was to rename our towns.

We had survived every successive wave of plundering invader, but when the Empire changed our place names they changed our reality. Words accomplished what swords could not.

So it turns out there's quite a lot in a name.

I bring this up because I remember all the utterly empty rhetoric that I used to hear in the news in the darkest years of the Troubles. Each day brought a torrent of increasingly exhausted words: outrage, atrocity, condemnation, retaliation. 

Your eyes started glazing over before they wheeled on the inevitable religious leader (of whichever denomination) to express his (it was always a man) views on the latest killing.

'I - condemn - this - outrage - and - atrocity - and - I - implore - there - be - no - retaliation…'

In the north too long a sacrifice had made the language numb. It prolonged our suffering by being unequal to it. It had diminished our capacity to get beyond things. Words had literally failed us.

When words fail you it's the best indication you have that you're standing at a crisis point. Feeling completely unequal to the task means you're staring at a job worth doing. Feeing unable to express it means that you absolutely must. These are lessons that all the decades of suffering in the north have taught me. I don't know much, but I know that anguish that is immense and unspeakable is the harbinger of extraordinary change. 

When I read the news about the shootings in Connecticut on Friday I despaired, like most people do in the face of inexplicable horror. But perhaps unlike a lot of people in that state I have seen that kind of horror up close before. 

A few years after the transformative ceasefire was announced and the peace process had begun in the north, I was on an Aer Lingus flight from New York to Ireland when the young woman seated next to me turned and said: 'Isn't it terrible about the bomb?'

My heart sank. I didn't know what she was talking about. It was Saturday August 15, 1998. She was talking about Omagh. Twenty-nine people died, including six teenagers and five children, and 220 people were injured. They were all just ordinary people out shopping and socializing. 

A few hours later I learned that most of the youngest killed had come from my home town. Shaun McLaughlin, Oran Doherty and James Barker all died instantly when the bomb exploded, they were all just 12 years old. Fernando Blasco Baselga, a Spanish exchange student learning English in my town, was also killed. He was just 12 too. Rocio Abad Ramos was a Spanish exchange group leader, was only 24. By the time I actually reached Omagh that evening the traffic was still being diverted from the still smoking town center. 

The Omagh bomb killed Protestants and Catholics, it killed nationalists and unionists, it killed a Mormon teenager, it killed adults and teenagers and children and it even killed an infant in its mother's womb. 

It was an act of unspeakable savagery. It was also utterly pointless. It was an admission of the final collapse and failure of the so-called armed struggle. It was proof of the nihilism that had prolonged it. It was the last straw.

But the young woman on the plane beside me didn't think so, I recall. She nodded her head from side to side and said firmly: 'There will never be peace in Ireland.' 

I told her, right to her face, she was quite wrong. There would be peace now because they had tried every other alternative. I knew that the time had come, I could feel the time had come, there it was staring me - and all of us - in the face. 

Winston Churchill once said Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing after they have exhausted all other possibilities. The Irish were at the same point in the 1990s. It's human nature, I think, to ignore what has been staring you in the face for years. It's because of the heavy hand of history, it's because of the fear of getting it wrong, but if you wait long enough you'll discover you have no choice. 

Throughout the 1990s the Irish public's reaction to the words 'peace process' became as emotive and complicated as many Americans reactions to the words 'gun control.' A significant percentage of the population would glaze over and stop listening the moment those words were uttered. What we discovered was that the language would have to change and evolve to bring all parties to the table.

They had talks about talks, they had proximity talks, finally they talked face to face. The thing was, after decades of stalemate, they were finally talking. 

Entire government cabinets worked on drafting the right words. Words were the harbingers of change. Words matter.

So today I propose that we stop speaking of 'gun control' and we start talking about 'massacre prevention.' Because its an aim we can all support. Because the language matters. You have to change the language to change the reality. 

Find the words to talk to your friends and neighbors about 'massacre prevention.' Don't speak of 'gun rights' or 'gun control' ever again. It's too late for that anyway. Don't let other people frame your debate for you. Frame your own debate. The only positive change you are likely to see now depends on the work you do to find and describe your horror about the shootings on Friday and your resolve to talk to your friends and neighbors about what needs to be done.

Ask questions worth asking: why must our Supreme Court decide who can marry who, but any lunatic with a pulse can buy a semi automatic? Ask: who does the NRA actually represent, gun manufacturers or gun owners? Ask: do you want to live in a nation where the people around you are armed to the teeth and at the ready at all times?

Ask questions and don't be deterred by the windy rhetoric that comes back at you. The Second Amendment says that guns should be 'well regulated.' So why does the NRA oppose mandatory background checks at gun shows? There are over 300 million guns in America, almost as many guns as people. After Friday there's no one in America who can ever argue that they are 'well regulated' again.

Finally, ask everyone you talk to what would you do if those children in Connecticut had been yours?

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