What the Gun Fear Debate Can Teach Us About Leadership

Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley
Published in
6 min readFeb 21, 2018

We’re not having a gun control debate. We’re having a gun fear debate.

At the foundation of every interpersonal, organizational, or societal problem is fear. Fear you’re going to be denied or stripped of something: money, security, autonomy, opportunity. Even your life.

Leadership is about always trying to identify and address the structures that cause the foundational fear, rather than the behaviours that emerge as a result.

When it comes to gun violence, we’re not seeing enough leadership from those placed in political leadership positions in America.

Why? Because in politics, the creation of fear is used to win. In leadership, the removal of fear is used to succeed.

True leaders don’t give a shit about winning. What they care about is succeeding.

Too many of us aren’t being leaders in this debate. We’re acting like there are only two sides, picking one of them, and demeaning those on the other side as less than us, both intellectually and morally.

And we don’t just do this in large social debates. We do it in our organizations and in our relationships.

Leadership is no longer asking, “what do they want?”, and instead asking “what are they afraid of losing?”

Leadership is being reflective enough to ask yourself “what is that I’m honestly afraid of losing?”

Leadership is recognizing that the fear of others is often as genuine and justified as yours.

When it comes to how to deal with guns in America, we’re trying to negotiate a balance between two fears: the fear of the carnage that can be caused by firearms, and the fear of the vulnerability that comes from not having them.

To deal with this effectively we have to be leaders: we have to understand and acknowledge how justified each fear is.

Many opponents of restrictive gun control argue that there are so many guns in the hands of people who use them for criminal activity it is necessary to make sure the potential victims of those criminals are armed: “As long as the bad guys have a gun, I need a gun.”

How is it not justified to be afraid of violent crime? While the statistics show that violent crime rates have trended downwards for years, what do you care if you or someone you love has been the victim of a violent crime, or live in one of the many areas in America where it remains a constant threat? Someone who feels that way isn’t stupid or lacking in compassion for the victims of gun violence.

But proponents of stricter gun regulations are afraid of violent crime as well. After all, what is a mass shooting if not a profoundly violent crime on a large scale?

Is it wrong to be afraid that guns are a bigger threat to innocents than they are a protection against the guilty? There are over 300 million guns in America. In 2015, 268 felonies were justifiably thwarted by a civilian with a gun. But 489 people were killed by a gun accidentally, many of them children. Faced with those numbers, is it not reasonable to be afraid of how many more crimes are perpetrated with guns than prevented?

Opponents of restrictive gun control will point out that even if that’s true, widespread gun ownership is necessary to avoid a huge potential crime. A crime much more destructive than even the biggest school shooting: a decision by the government to strip Americans of their individual rights by force.

That’s a huge and justifiable fear. We’ve seen it happen over-and-over again throughout history. Though we often choose to ignore it, it’s happening right now all over the world.

The 2nd amendment was created in large part because of this fear (though it’s important not to gloss over how big a role the fear of slave uprisings played as well). The founders of the United States recognized something profoundly important: power corrupts. If citizens in their new country were unarmed, they would be helpless if those in power — out of ambition or insecurity — decided to one day take the liberty of the citizens by force. Was that an unjustified fear then? No. Is it an unjustified fear now? No.

Those who support stricter gun regulations are justifiably afraid the “militia” that has emerged as a result of the 2nd amendment is not “well-regulated” as intended. They fear it’s now a bigger threat to Americans than the US Military.

Is that an unjustified fear? There are somewhere around 2 million members of the US military (if you include those in the reserves). Of those, only about 400,000 are in combat positions. Each of them is charged with defending Americans. They put their lives on the line to do that, and as such, it can certainly be argued they must love America.

It’s estimated there are 100 million people with guns already in America. Many of them are armed with exactly the same weapons as those combat troops. The US military is outnumbered 50 to 1. Its combat troops are outnumbered over 200 to 1. It’s quite possible a situation like that was the intention of the 2nd amendment.

The problem? Many of those heavily armed members of the militia hate other Americans.

They claim to love America, but they hate Americans.

And if even 1% of those gun owners fall into that category, they outnumber US Military Combat forces 2 to 1.

Is it unjustified to fear this “unregulated militia” is a bigger threat to Americans than a hypothetical scenario in which the US Military is turned on its own citizens?

And yes, some of the members of both sides of the debate will not be moved from the idea that their fear is more justified, no matter what evidence is presented to them, and in what tone. But leadership is acknowledging that you don’t have to engage those people in the solution: you have to engage most people.

There will be no solutions until there is a recognition that everyone engaged in this debate has something in common: a justified fear. One side’s goal isn’t to take guns away, it’s to remove the fear of the senseless murder of too many Americans. The other side’s goal isn’t to make America more dangerous, it’s to ensure there are checks in place to make sure its liberty and democracy aren’t destroyed entirely.

Leadership isn’t mobilizing one side against another. Leadership is recognizing that people have a right to be scared. That their fears are justified. That people at every point on the idealogical spectrum when it comes to gun violence are justified in their fear.

Gun violence exists in our society, which leads to a fear of gun violence, which leads to demands for easy accessibility to guns, which leads to huge amounts of guns being produced, which leads to Americans being shot by other Americans. The cycle has embedded itself. It’s unimportant when and how it started to spin, but it’s here now, and it’s killing people. It’s killing kids.

Huge differences in opinion exist over which part of the cycle to address most urgently, but the foundational fear is the same.

Leadership is starting with the focus on the common enemy, not on your differences in how to fight it.

This article isn’t to make an argument that falls anywhere on the spectrum of positions when it comes to dealing with gun violence in the United States. But in watching the debate unfold once again, I once again recognized it’s representative of a leadership failure common throughout society.

This failure plays out on a much smaller and less serious scale in organizations, individual departments, families, and even romantic relationships. We battle over behaviours instead of striving to understand and address the fears that drive them. Leaders don’t need “their way” to get what they want, they need “a way” to be less afraid of what they might lose. Leadership is helping themselves and others get clarity on that fact, so the right issues can be addressed.

So let’s stop pointing guns at once another: literal, intellectual, and moral. Let’s stop trying to win and start trying to succeed.



Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley

Founder & Chief Catalyst of Day One Leadership. West Wing junkie. Collector of penguins. Did that TED talk on lollipops.