‘We as a nation, we are left with some hard questions,” President Obama said at the memorial service on the Sunday after the Newtown massacre, and he is right about that. Too bad we don’t seem to be asking those questions barely two weeks later, as the debate has already deteriorated into another political brawl over gun control and little else.

Three days after his moving remarks in Newtown, Mr. Obama’s first act was to form a task force on gun control under Joe Biden. It will report next month, but already we know it will recommend more or less the same laws that prevailed in the 1990s or already exist in some states. A ban on certain “assault weapons” that are easily adapted to get around the law. A ban on large magazines that mean a determined killer can simply carry multiple clips. And more regulation of gun sales between private individuals.

None of this is likely to stop the next massacre, any more than the last rifle ban stopped the Columbine murders in 1999. Adam Lanza obtained his guns from his mother, who obtained them legally. Connecticut has an “assault” weapons ban, though it didn’t include the weapon he used.

Gun control advocates are already demonizing their usual foils at the National Rifle Association, and it’s true that the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has a political tin ear. His recommendation that every school in America have an armed guard—paid for by a reduction in foreign aid—is as much an overreaction as a gun ban.

But he is right that any gun controls will have to deal with the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court has found in two landmark cases is an individual right. This is a barrier to regulating guns that are in common use for sport or self-defense, including handguns. There are 280 million guns in America, nearly one on average per person. As recently as this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Illinois law that banned carrying a loaded weapon in public.

This does not mean no gun regulation. As Antonin Scalia wrote in the Heller decision of 2008, the Second Amendment is not “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Governments can impose substantive regulatory limits: to license guns; bar felons or the mentally ill from buying guns; regulate certain types of heavy weapons, and so forth. The U.S. does all of those things to some extent today.

The hard question for liberals is what else they want to do. Certainly gun laws and other types of gun violence prevention could be thoughtfully improved with better background checks, more rational tracing systems, and more aggressive and effective policing, including more cops on the street and especially in big cities. But the reality is that none of this would have prevented Newtown.

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The NRA and gun owners don’t trust gun controllers in part because they suspect the real liberal agenda is a near total ban on gun ownership by the law abiding. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg claims to believe in the Second Amendment, but try getting a gun permit if you are an average New York citizen. The regulators have made it exceedingly difficult, though this de facto ban hasn’t stopped gun violence and didn’t prevent a killer from blowing away three unarmed shopkeepers as recently as this fall.

As the gun control battle rages, meanwhile, discussion over the mental illness of mass killers has all but vanished. Yet the common thread running from Jared Lee Loughner to James Eagen Holmes and now perhaps Lanza is severe mental illness. They expose the degradation of the institutions that once defended civil society and treated the sickest among us.

E. Fuller Torrey and Doris A. Fuller recently explained on these pages how the dismantling of public psychiatric hospitals that began in the late 1960s was a social catastrophe. Thousands of unstable people were released into a world with few medical or cultural guardrails, and there are even fewer restraints today.

The three largest mental health hospitals in the U.S. are the psychiatric wings at Riker’s Island in New York, Cook County Jail in Chicago and Los Angeles County Jail. This ex post facto patch is not a credible replacement for coercive institutionalization of those who pose a danger to themselves or others.

After every gun trauma, people call for a “conversation” about how to manage these disorders of the mind, but like the gun “conversation” that liberals want to have, it never advances. A Hartford judge named Robert K. Killian Jr. has been arguing for a bill in the Connecticut legislature that would give the state the authority to forcibly medicate and stabilize people with severe mental disabilities like schizophrenia for up to 120 days. Judge Killian is working from his own experience with repeat offenders, but Democrats keep killing the bill on civil liberties grounds.

A good-faith effort to modernize mental health law also requires the political right to answer some hard questions. The often squalid and brutal mental asylum system of the 1950s isn’t coming back, and it shouldn’t. Can the social service planners who can’t run health care, education or public housing be trusted to identify when erratic, disruptive or alarming behavior tips over into pathological danger? Probably not, but states with so-called assisted outpatient treatment laws have shown results in limiting violence among the mentally ill.

This strikes us as a more promising path to reduce the number of mass shootings than another long and politically frustrating battle over gun control. President Obama seems determined to pass new gun laws, but the likeliest outcome will be new regulations that will satisfy a political yearning to respond to Newtown but will have little practical effect on the next Adam Lanza.

As the late James Q. Wilson once adapted Oscar Wilde’s remark about bad poetry, all bad public policy springs from genuine feeling. The political impulses after the trauma in Newtown are raw and sincere yet are more likely to result in the illusion of progress instead of the real thing.

A version of this article appeared December 26, 2012, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hard Newtown Questions.

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