Most Americans have never seen the horror of a homicide in person -- up close, bloody and traumatic -- let alone the assault weapon-fueled, mass murder that has devastated Newtown, Conn. If more Americans had personally witnessed just one homicide, I bet we would have stronger gun control laws that could have prevented this tragedy and thousands of other murders in our nation.
As a young local TV reporter during the early 1980s in two mid-sized cities, my colleagues and I saw so many homicides that we nicknamed the police beat "fuzz" and "was" (i.e., cops and murder victims). This dehumanizing "newsroom humor" remains a coping mechanism for journalists today in the "if it bleeds it leads" mantra of local TV news, which caters to our nation's fascination with gun violence.
It's tragic that it takes the murder of 20 innocent children in a single shooting to motivate politicians to suddenly challenge the National Rifle Association on the gun control issue. According to a 2007 report by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, an average of eight kids under 20 years old die daily from gun violence in the United States, yet this carnage hasn't prompted action until now.
As a press secretary in both houses of Congress during the 1990s and for the 2000 Gore presidential campaign, I understand politicians' trepidation. Many Democrats believe that the original assault weapons ban that they helped President Clinton enact into law in 1994 cost them control of the Senate and House of Representatives later that year.
I also vividly remember hearing the NRA radio ads every day when I drove to the Gore presidential campaign headquarters in Nashville, essentially saying that "Al Gore wants to take away our Second Amendment gun rights... so what other rights would he take away?" Many Democrats believe the NRA ads in Gore's home state of Tennessee -- and other rural states -- cost him the presidential election in 2000. No wonder Democrats allowed the assault weapons ban to expire four years later.
Thankfully, we're at the tipping point on the gun control issue. According to a CBS News poll, nearly six out of 10 Americans (57 percent) think gun laws should be stricter, the highest support level in a decade.
Yet, some politicians and pundits still claim gun control is a hopeless issue, pitting rural Americans who love their guns against urban Americans who disdain them. But the truth is this: Rural America -- and rural kids in particular -- are suffering from our lax gun laws too, not just urban America and its kids.
In fact, kids under 20 years old in the most rural counties of the country are as likely to die from a gunshot as those living in the most urban counties, according to 2010 study published in Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed journal by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The study found that rural kids have more gun suicides and accidental shooting deaths, while urban kids die more often of gun homicides.
A few years after Congress passed the original assault weapons ban in 1994, a senator from a rural state interviewed me to be his communications director. As is typical in congressional job interviews, the senator asked me if I could publicly defend him when I disagreed with him on policy position. I said I already knew a position that we disagreed on -- his vote against the assault weapons ban -- but I knew that voting for the ban could cost him his senate seat. To my surprise, the senator candidly admitted: "A lot of good it did me: The NRA still went after me. I won anyway, but I didn't show a lot of courage with that vote."
Today, I trust that this senator now has the courage to right his wrong by supporting new legislation to ban assault weapons. Too many lives of innocent children are at stake for any member of Congress to continue doing the NRA's bidding to maintain the gun industry's profits regardless of the human consequences.
The Newtown tragedy has given Americans a new found perspective: Our first responsibility as parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents is to protect our children from gun violence at any cost. That primary responsibility trumps anyone's Second Amendment rights to bear arms that endanger our kids' safety.