My 10 years in the Illinois General Assembly may be buried in a past long forgotten, but there are a few lessons of the trade that come to mind when trying to influence legislators.
When public officials seem particularly out of touch with their voters, it takes a concerted effort on the part of ordinary citizens to get their attention. Only by threatening them with their livelihood and their jobs can you convince them to adjust their thinking and their voting records to match those of the constituents they represent.
There’s history here on how advocates of gun safety might go about this. In 1980, Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver. Her mother, Candace Lightner, sprang into action to change driving laws to decrease the blood alcohol level deemed to be drunk driving and increase the penalties accordingly. I was first elected a state legislator in the same year Candace Lightner embarked on her quest to fight drunk driving, and I can personally attest to how much of a difference MADD made on legislators.
Prior to any organized support for lowering the blood alcohol level such as MADD provided, bills would be introduced into the legislature where they would go off to committee to die a certain death.
As MADD established offices and lobbying teams in the states, legislators were returning home to their districts on weekends hearing loudly and clearly from the growing number of mothers who had taken up the cause and demanded action to get drunk drivers off the street.
The results of MADD’s work over the years are stunning. In the United States, the number of drunk driving deaths has been cut in half since MADD was founded in 1980. MADD claims it has saved 380,000 lives. One thing it did for sure. It put the fear of God in legislators who could see the growing numbers of moms at their doorstep demanding tougher drunk driving laws.
By 1982, 35 states considered more stringent DUI laws, and 24 passed them. No more than a year later, 129 new DUI laws had passed lowering the permissible blood alcohol level. Then they went to work on the federal government, getting the legal drinking age raised to 21 with President Reagan signing the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984.
With this kind of success, it should come as no surprise that mothers are gathering again, albeit a new generation of moms with a new cause — the fight against gun violence and the need to bring some common sense to the laws that govern gun usage and ownership. Anyone who doubts their success hasn’t met up with Shannon Watts.
Shannon Watts was a stay-at-home mom and former communications executive until the day a shooter walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, with a semi-automatic, military-style assault weapon and shot and killed 20 children and six staff members. One of the deadliest school shootings in American history, Sandy Hook would serve as a rallying cry for Americans committed to banning assault weapons in the United States.
Like Candace Lightner fighting drunk driving, Watts picked up the mantle of leadership, but this time for action to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in America. She founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a nonpartisan, grassroots movement to demand action from legislators, companies and educational institutions to advocate for gun reforms. It supports the Second Amendment but advocates for reforms that will stem gun violence in America.
The movement’s efforts have paid off. It takes credit for gun safety legislation passed in 20 states, with nine of those measures signed by Republican governors. Moms Demand Action has chalked up victories outside legislative assemblies, like its successful efforts to get Dick’s Sporting Goods to stop selling firearms and convincing Starbucks, Panera Bread and other businesses to ban firearms in their establishments.
Shannon Watts has recently written “Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World.” It’s a siren’s call to women by a fearless change agent with specific pointers on how to create grassroots organizations that will serve as a counterpunch to the National Rifle Association.
Today, Moms Demand Action counts six million supporters while the NRA’s website cites nearly five million members. With chapters in every state, including Idaho, Moms Demand Action is gaining steam due to a deadly set of circumstances.
The latest killings in El Paso and Dayton bring more supporters to the growing chorus of citizens calling for reforms in our gun laws.
Apparently, Moms has some serious work to do in Idaho. Last April, Gov. Brad Little signed legislation lowering from 21 to 18 the age limit for carrying a concealed handgun within city limits in Idaho without a permit or training. Idaho’s chapter of Moms Demand Action registered its disappointment by pointing out that “Gov. Little could have protected Idaho cities by exercising his veto authority, but he chose not to…Most Idahoans support firearm safety and training, and it’s truly disappointing the governor decided not to stand up for the common-sense requirements that this dangerous law will eliminate.”
If Moms Demand Action is to have the same impact saving lives as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, it will need help from Idaho moms and others. Men and women are welcome. You can volunteer for Moms Demand Action at its upcoming meeting scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Garden City.