Josh Nelson, campaign manager, CREDO Mobile, center, speaks after his group was denied entrance to the Williard InterContinental Hotel where they wanted to
Josh Nelson, campaign manager, CREDO Mobile, center, speaks after his group was denied entrance to the Williard InterContinental Hotel where they wanted to deliver a petition to the National Rifle Association calling for the NRA to get out of the way of gun control. (The Associated Press)

Call it whatever you like. A tipping point. A watershed incident. Or, in the words of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the straw that broke the camel's back.

But it feels as if the Dec. 14 massacre of 26 people in the sanctuary of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., may be the soul-searching moment when we finally have had enough.

Twenty of the dead included first-graders, their far-too-young lives grotesquely ended in a slaughter that our shocked nation is grappling to comprehend.

Newtown has become Anytown, USA.

"All of us recognize that it could happen anywhere," Steven Zipperman, chief of the Los Angeles School Police, told school administrators at a Canoga Park forum this past week.

The open question is if this raw emotion and anger will translate into something tangible.

Galvanized by another elementary school shooting nearly 24 years ago, legislators passed the nation's first assault-weapons ban as part of a series of stringent gun laws that have given us the country's toughest restrictions.

"We made the decision to change," said Peter Keane, a professor of law at Golden Gate University and longtime gun-control advocate. "Now, if there's ever going to be a moment to change the insanity surrounding gun laws in this country, then it just arrived. If this is not done now, it will never be done."

The debate over how to respond is a complex one: Amid a renewed push for limits on guns, other parents and advocates are urging more armed security in schools.

At the Canoga Park forum, held at the Los Angeles Police Department's Topanga station, private school administrators said parents are pressing them to arm security guards.

At a press conference Friday, the National Rifle Association said an armed guard should be in every school in the nation. That sparked immediate debate across the country.

Gun violence all around

The sad reality is gun violence is an all-too-common occurrence.

Rifles line a wall above in front of people standing in a gun shop Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Seattle. The reaction to the Connecticut school shooting
Rifles line a wall above in front of people standing in a gun shop Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Seattle. The reaction to the Connecticut school shooting can be seen in gun stores and self-defense retailers across the nation: Anxious parents are fueling sales of armored backpacks for children while firearms enthusiasts are stocking up on assault rifles in anticipation of tighter gun control measures. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (The Associated Press)
In the Bay Area, the cities of San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco are coming to the end of a painful year that has seen a rise in homicides - typically gun-related.

In Los Angeles, homicides are up even as violent crime overall is down 8 percent for the year.

Across L.A., slayings are up slightly, 289 compared to 285 last year. In the San Fernando Valley portion of the city, they're up to 60 from 48.

But those are only a fraction of the people victimized by gun violence.

Through Dec. 15, 1,157 people had been shot in Los Angeles this year, down 8 percent from the same point last year. The number of shooting victims in the Valley is down 13 percent, with 174 compared to 200 last year.

And in the areas of Los Angeles County patrolled by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, there were 151 homicides through Nov. 30 - down nearly 37 percent from the 170 during the same period a year earlier.

In some ways we can become numb to that slow, steady rate of shootings

Yet it took the senselessness of Sandy Hook to re-ignite the long-dormant debate on gun control. President Barack Obama has promised to present new firearms proposals to Congress in January.

Feinstein will introduce a bill that would re-enact an updated version of the federal assault-weapons ban, which lapsed in 2004, in the effort to curb military-style guns like the .223 semiautomatic rifle used in Newtown.

Such legislation is a tough sell in a nation clearly enamored with guns - there are an estimated 300 million in the United States - and where conservative-minded politicians are hesitant to cross the NRA.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at USC's Price School of Public Policy, said it's frustrating because no one can say what the "magic formula" is when it comes to reforms that might have a significant effect.

But while Jeffe believes "all ideas have to be on the table," she sees the potential for some gun limitations because Sandy Hook is different from anything we've ever witnessed.

"Twenty babies were shot down," Jeffe said. "That image will linger."

The mood for change

The image of five dead children in Stockton, Calif., had similar power in 1989.

Los Angeles state legislators Mike Roos and David Roberti earlier had co-sponsored a bill to ban assault weapons. But despite a 1984 massacre of 21 people in a San Ysidro McDonald's by a killer whose weapons included an Uzi, there was little political will for regulation.

Then, Roos said, "Stockton happened."

On Jan. 17, 1989, a troubled drifter toting a semiautomatic rifle fired off 106 rounds in three minutes on the Cleveland Elementary School playground, killing five kids and wounding 29 other children and one teacher. Roberti was in the office of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian when word arrived about the attack.

"He was given a note by his secretary and his face became visibly ashen," Roberti said. "He let it be known not too much later that he would sign something if we could get it to his desk. It wouldn't have happened without the blood of martyrs, and that's exactly what those children were."

Over 17 weeks, amid an intense lobbying effort by the NRA to defeat the bill, Roos and Roberti built support. It narrowly cleared the Senate and passed the Assembly by a single vote with Chuck Quackenbush, a Republican from Los Altos, being the difference as he broke with party ranks.

"It was a very polarizing time, but I felt a responsibility to listen to the voters who put me in office," said Quackenbush, who now is a Florida detective who investigates fraud.

Researchers say it is difficult to quantify the effectiveness of any gun laws because they often have so many loopholes and can be poorly enforced.

But Roberti and Roos remain convinced this ban has made a difference.

"Knock on wood, but we haven't had another Cleveland School happen in California," Roberti said of massacres involving young children.

But it didn't end mass killings. In 1993, the 101 California Street shooting in San Francisco where eight died and six more were wounded sent shockwaves that would be felt in Washington, D.C. That incident helped lead to the federal assault weapons ban, co-authored by Feinstein, that became law in 1994 and was allowed to lapse a decade later.

In hindsight, Quackenbush said he would not vote for the state ban. He doesn't believe that law "stopped one assault weapon from being in a California closet." Rather than focus on banning weapons, Quackenbush said if anything good comes out of Sandy Hook, it should be the realization that mental-health issues are the root cause of these tragedies.

"I could write the script for what's about to happen in the political debate, because it's going to be very similar to what occurred in California," Quackenbush said. "Everyone will be passionate and call each other names. But more laws are not going to protect children in schools.

"I would go in the direction of improving mental-health treatment. The commonality in all these mass shootings is that (the gunmen) uniformly are mentally ill."

`People have had it'

As they wait for the national debates to play out, parents, educators and police are wondering what they can do to keep schools safe.

St. Mel School in Woodland Hills already had a security task force of parents, including retired LAPD officers and a current California Highway Patrol officer. In the wake of the Connecticut shootings, the group will review the school to look for any security weaknesses, Principal Mary Beth Lutz said.

Feinstein told the PBS "NewsHour" that she has "every sense that it will be an uphill road," but that limitations on military-style weapons must be part of the solution to school violence.

"This is the moment because people have had it," Feinstein said. "They live in fear. ... This has to stop."

Los Angeles News Group Staff Writers Eric Hartley and Andrew Edwards contributed to this report.

memmons@mercurynews.com 408-920-5745. San Jose Mercury News