On April 20, 1999, when two heavily armed students started shooting at Columbine High School, an armed deputy was on duty. Deputy Neil Gardner exchanged fire with at least one of the gunmen, and other law enforcement officers quickly responded to his call for assistance.

Despite their efforts, 12 students and one faculty member died.

Gardner was assigned full-time to the Littleton, Colo. high school. In Santa Rosa, police officers are present for a while most days at middle schools and high schools. But there are nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States — as well as thousands of private schools where parents also expect and deserve safety for their children. The cost of full-time police protection would run into the billions, with no guarantee of an outcome any different from Columbine.

The National Rifle Association's proposal for armed guards in every school is a diversion. Arming teachers or principals, another idea pushed by gun advocates, sounds more like a movie script than a serious strategy for protecting schools. Neither idea deserves to be taken seriously.

Nor should hysterical claims that local, state or federal government officials are planning to take anyone's guns away. No one has suggested that — and there isn't any way to do so.

But it is time for an informed and measured national conversation about guns, safety and violence.

It may be impossible to prevent the next Newtown, the next Columbine, the next Fort Hood. But it may be possible to limit the carnage.

Here are some ideas worth pursuing:

<BL@199,12,11,10>Assault weapons: These are military-style firearms — compact, designed for rapid firing, with reduced recoil and a limited range for fighting in close quarters. They have been used time and again in mass killings. Banning them wouldn't stop anyone from hunting or protecting themselves. California has banned assault weapons since 1990.

<BL@199,12,11,10>Ammunition: High-capacity magazines facilitate rapid killing. They're not needed for self-protection or hunting. The Newtown massacre introduced the nation to ammunition designed to stay inside the body and do the maximum amount of damage. Again, there's no civilian need for this type of killing power.

<BL@199,12,11,10>Background checks: California and federal law require a background check, but a loophole in federal law allows unlicensed dealers to sell firearms without background checks. In addition to closing the loophole, better background checks offer an avenue for keeping weapons away from people who are mentally unstable.

<BL@199,12,11,10>Research: Federally funded research into firearms and gun violence is almost non-existent, a result of NRA pressure on Congress and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With better data, better strategies can be developed.

Gun advocates will argue that criminals will continue to find guns. Maybe so, but that's no excuse not to make it more difficult. And keeping guns away from people with mental problems, as appeared to be the case with Adam Lanza in Newtown, must be a priority.

Most Americans believe reasonable controls on firearms and firepower will save lives. What they don't want is to see their country turned into an armed camp.