THE BLOG
12/21/2012 02:37 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

America's Fearful Gun Laws

I learned this week that my former coworker's youngest daughter was one of the children senselessly taken by the Newtown massacre. She had just celebrated her seventh birthday. Like all Americans, I've thought long and hard about our country's epidemic of gun violence over the past week. But as I put my condolence card for my old colleague in the mailbox, alone atop dozens of Christmas cards to other friends and former colleagues, a stark contrast emerged between the hope that animates the holiday season and the fear that animates our national debate on guns.

Fear, like hope, steers much of the public's imagination about, and opinion toward, our nation's laws and lawmakers. But when it comes to our gun laws, fear has us highjacked and is taking us into dangerous territory.

On one side of the equation, gun enthusiasts fear that the federal government will simply take away their guns. And, hunters and hobbyists excluded, some of the main reasons for owning guns in the first place are driven by fear. The desire for self-defense is born of fear. Whether it's fear of being attacked, robbed or trespassed against, this fear is sometimes rational but more often is not.

A related fear - which veers more toward paranoia - is the fear of a tyrannical government against which citizens will have to defend themselves. Pointing to the Second Amendment's "right to bear arms" that proceeds from the need to maintain a "well regulated militia," some gun enthusiasts use a hyperbolic and defiant language of insurgency. In doing so, they forget that our founding fathers used the term "militia" to refer to an armed citizenry that would serve our democratic government, not contest it. The "militia" was a prototype of America's military, not a group of gun-owning citizens that would defend against our military. It's an absurd perversion of our founding fathers' intent - and the spirit of the Second Amendment - to claim that individual ownership of assault weapons is justified as protection against a democratic government's tyrannical potential.

Let's not forget, after all, that one man's tyranny is often another man's tax reform... or healthcare legislation... or sensible gun control policy. If one thinks seriously and soberly about these rationales for gun ownership, all of which are touted by the likes of the NRA, we'll come to Roosevelt's conclusion that fear itself is, indeed, the only thing we have to fear.

On the other side of the equation, politicians fear the domineering influence of the gun lobby, and they have good reason to do so. After Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000, many pundits claimed it was his rigorous gun control record that did him in. It's true that, nationally, many gun enthusiasts are one-issue voters and a minority of these voters can sway election outcomes in swing states. When I was working on John Kerry's campaign in 2004, our senior strategists were aware of this reasoning for Gore's defeat, and were relieved that our candidate just so happened to be comfortable with guns. Though a proponent of common sense gun control legislation, Kerry was a combat veteran and an occasional hunter.

I was with the senator when he took a hunting trip in Ohio in the final week of the 2004 campaign. Many reporters knew the senator's numbers weren't great with pro-gun voters and criticized this event as a purely political maneuver. Even though Kerry is indeed a hunter, the event was no less strategic and staged than any other campaign event. It reflected the pressure our elected leaders feel to allay gun owners' fear of losing their guns.

To be clear, John Kerry's passionate advocacy for gun control is just as real as his status as a gun owner and hunter. While he can afford to be independent and conscience-driven on this issue, there are many politicians newer to Washington who hail from pro-gun districts and who deeply fear the political influence of the NRA.

The NRA has framed its gun advocacy within the rhetoric of individual rights, the classic conversation stopper in democratic deliberation. So when David Gregory invited every senator with an A rating from the NRA onto Meet the Press Sunday, it's no wonder they cowered from the conversation. If lawmakers are afraid to talk, you might as well book the man of whom they're afraid. This Sunday, Meet the Press will host NRA head Wayne LaPierre. We can expect LaPierre to display just enough reflection to show he cares about victims of gun violence before eagerly invoking "freedom" and "rights" to assault the wave of sensible gun control legislation that's currently under consideration.

Our founding fathers warned us against agendas, like LaPierre's, that flaunt rights and flout government intervention. Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, observed that "a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter."

Fortunately, public opinion is shifting underneath the NRA's feet. A new Pew Research poll released Thursday finds that, for the first time since President Obama took office, more Americans say it's more important to control gun ownership than say it's more important to protect Americans' right to own guns.

Fear is the reason that at least some Americans clamor for and, yes, "cling to" their guns. Fear is the reason that at least some politicians won't support gun legislation that defies a powerful special interest. And fear is, ultimately, the reason we're left with a set of laws that enable a deeply disturbed individual to have easy access to a family member's legally-purchased collection of semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammo clips.

As we awaken from this national nightmare and support our elected leaders who fight for sensible gun control legislation in the weeks and months ahead, we must not be motivated by fear. After all, no legislation can fully prevent random acts of heinous violence. Instead, we must be motivated by the hope that we can liberate ourselves from the fear that led us to our irrational gun laws in the first place. It is the season of hope, after all.