01/17/2013 07:03 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Keep Your Arms, but Raise Your Voice

It's fun to hate Washington, especially now. Between the inter-party cursing, purity pledges, and occasional weeping fits, our elected leaders, horns locked, manage to find a way to do not much of anything. And why should they? Having gerrymandered their way to job security, many in Congress feel little incentive to compromise for the national good. It's no surprise that a recent poll carried out by Public Policy Polling found Congress less popular than head lice, Nickelback, colonoscopies and Donald Trump.

Yet blaming that faceless monolith -- Washington -- for being inflexible and doctrinaire is a little too simple. Because the thing is, in a democracy, voters get the government they deserve. Elected representatives are no worse than the rest of us when it comes to the art of compromise. We expect our representatives to act statesmanlike, to cobble together agreements that require some giving with the taking, but then demand adherence to the party line when our issue is at stake. As it is in Washington, so it is across the land: for most everyone, conversation consists of talking and... waiting.

Take gun control, the divisive issue of the day. Those of us with strong views on the matter, for and against, have spent the last month criticizing, mocking, and lambasting each other for not getting it, whatever it is. Perhaps we would all be better off if we stopped moaning about the blockheads in Washington and started listening to our political opponents with an aim to understanding them.

C'mon, liberal HuffPo readers: indulge the essence of liberalism and show some tolerance for world views and cultures that differ from your own. If the gun control crowd, and I count myself a part of it, ever hopes to win broader support, it would be wise to make allies of moderate gun owners.

Listen for a minute to my friend Peter (not his real name), a retired Navy Captain, husband, father, and gun owner, as well as a deeply thoughtful and educated man. Like many who grew up in a farming community, Peter was surrounded by hunters and guns. "It was common to see pickup trucks at the diner with rifles or shotguns in a rack in the window," or weapons placed near farm house doors, he wrote in an email exchange. His grandmother kept a western-style revolver in her dresser drawer, and the World War II veteran next door shot off his M1 rifle every 4th of July just as the sun set. "I will never forget how impressed I was with the raw power of it -- the incredibly loud report and the inches of flame that were visible at the muzzle. As a young boy in farm country, I simply thought that was one of the neatest things I had ever seen."

Along with most teenage boys in the area, Peter was allowed to own a gun only after he'd proven he was mature and smart enough to handle one, and had completed gun safety training -- "which we did without direction from the state, by the way," -- he says. His neighbors relied on guns not only to kill predators who threatened livestock, but also for hunting and protecting their homes from intruders. "Remember that 'out in the country,' as we called rural living, law enforcement was in some ways a partnership between the sometimes distant sheriff and the citizens. We didn't have a 911 service and had no expectation that the sheriff would arrive in time to help."

Owning and living with weapons became a part of ordinary life. "Over the years I enjoyed being outside for hunting or marksmanship and still do. But there's no bloodlust here -- no killing for the sake of killing, no fantasizing about violence." Guns are tools to be used properly and responsibly, but they're also entertaining. "The sounds, smells, and competition are attractive to me and very, very fun to do. I would go so far as to assert that you would like it," he wrote.

Like most gun owners, Peter does not belong to or support the NRA. He called LaPierre's solution to arm school officials an "idiotic response that drives me nuts and represents the kind of thinking that has always prevented me from joining the NRA." Yet he wanted to remain anonymous here, for fear of backlash by his liberal employer. "Here I am -- an American patriot hiding something that is not only legal but constitutionally protected." He is deeply offended by the smugness and thinly veiled condescension of many on the left who condemn what they don't understand and demand immediate legislative action that he believes is not only based on ignorance but also bound to be ineffective.

To me and people like me, including the vast majority of responsible gun owners in this country, gun ownership -- even if just a right that is not exercised -- is fundamental to my background, my interests, and my rights. I recognize that my rights (such as voting, speech, etc.) carry with them the responsibility to exercise those rights in a responsible manner, and that failure to do so can in fact impinge on the liberties of others. But when others who might not share that legacy conclude that it's irrelevant or somehow backward, it's offensive and frankly, un-American.

Now I understand: Peter's conviction about the right to own a gun mirrors my own about a woman's right to reproductive freedom. Like him, I worry about the slippery slope of compromise -- first waiting periods, then mandatory counseling, and before long the Handmaid's Tale has come to life. I too am appalled by the thought of distant government entities dictating what's best for me, or determining what's necessary for the good of the state, if that mandate conflicts with my core identity. What claim do octogenarians in robes and clowns on Capitol Hill have over my own body? And I too am outraged by simplistic solutions to intricate problems -- think "just say no" -- that disregard the complexities of culture and human experience. In short, gun owners' reflexive defensiveness makes as much sense to them as my rejection of any measure that seeks to restrict abortion does to me.

Got it. And reasonable gun owners, here's what we don't understand about you: If you remain silent, those of us without weapons will assume that the NRA speaks for you. If you say nothing, we'll believe that the 300 million guns already in circulation are owned by loud-mouthed hysterics fretting about zombies and U.N. troops. If you keep quiet, we'll conclude that your affection for weaponry trumps your concern about all the innocent victims who have lost their lives to a nut with a gun, and all of those on deck. Show us we're wrong. Raise your reasonable voices and condemn the NRA, as some gun owners have started to do, disassociate from the wackos, and join the national push to help fix the problem.