Skip to main content

Look to MADD in changing our gun culture

By Candace Lightner, Special to CNN
updated 8:44 AM EST, Wed December 26, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candace Lightner: After my daughter was killed by a drunk driver, I started MADD
  • Lightner: MADD radically changed our society's view toward drunk driving
  • She says those who want to change our gun culture can look to MADD's strategy
  • Lightner: Engage the media and harness the support that is pouring in

Editor's note: Candace Lightner is the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

(CNN) -- When I learned about the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, I wept and mourned like many other Americans. I was also reminded of my own daughter's death 32 years ago.

For those parents, families or friends of victims who want to see less guns fall into the hands of potential shooters, my personal journey may help serve as a path for change.

My daughter, Cari, was killed by a multiple repeat offender drunk driver on May 3, 1980. Four days later, I started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I was shocked to learn that over the past decade, approximately 250,000 people were killed in alcohol-related fatal crashes. At that time, public health professionals considered drunk driving to be the No. 1 killer of Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. Drunk driving seemed like the only socially acceptable form of homicide in this country and the attitude toward perpetrators was benign, if not passive.

Candace Lightner
Candace Lightner

I also learned that probably nothing would happen to the man who killed my daughter. So I became a grass roots activist. As I found out, grass roots means, "working outside the system to change the inequities within" and activist means, "getting the job done."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I started MADD because I was angry over the injustice of the status quo. Over time, my efforts helped incite others to action. You kick a few pebbles, you turn a few stones, and eventually you have an avalanche. My "kicking a few pebbles" began in my home with the help of my father and a few friends.

Within three years, MADD developed into an international organization with almost 400 chapters worldwide, a staff of 50 employees, 2 million members, thousands of volunteers and an annual budget of more than $12 million.

Initially, we were mothers who lost children, but soon our membership included everyone who believed in our cause. Before long, voices from long forgotten victims who lost loved ones to drunk driving became loud and clear.

Fiery debate over guns in America
NRA rejects any new gun control laws
NRA: 'Armed officers in every school'
Will the NRA accept new gun legislation?

It was gratifying to realize that many people, given a chance, wanted the same things I did. Our small grass-roots movement grew into a groundswell that radically changed society's views on drunk driving.

Early on, it became clear that I must seek broad and strategic alliances for MADD to be successful. I turned to law enforcement officials, restaurateurs, legislators and civic organizations. It was only by building broad coalitions of such highly influential constituents that MADD, during my tenure, was able to initiate a sweeping change in public attitudes and laws against drunk driving.

There is another very important factor that helped our cause: the power of media attention. From 1980 to 1983, when MADD was very active, some of the biggest reductions in motor vehicle deaths occurred in large part because of the media attention we were able to generate. Jay Winsten, director of the Frank Stanton Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in a New York Times article, "During each high media period, alcohol related fatalities ... fell twice as rapidly as low media periods."

Before MADD, there was little education in the schools about alcohol or impaired driving. The press rarely mentioned alcohol involvement when reporting a crash. Drinking and driving was still legal in many states. Victims of drunk driving had almost no recourse in an apathetic court system more concerned about the rights of the accused. Involvement in the judicial process was discouraged. Victims had no movement to join, little or no legislation to endorse, and no emotional support system where they could share their grief.

The advent of MADD changed all that:

• Governor's task forces on drunk driving were formed in almost every state.

• At our urging, President Ronald Reagan initiated a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, and I was a member.

• MADD was the catalyst for SADD, Students Against Drunk Driving, started by my daughter, Serena.

• We aggressively lobbied for state and federal legislation that would raise the legal drinking age to 21, and we pushed for laws that would hold drunk drivers accountable for their crimes.

• Between 1981 and 1986, 729 state laws pertaining to drunk driving were enacted to help reduce alcohol-related traffic fatalities

• Most importantly, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved because of the grass-roots efforts

Society no longer considers drunk driving socially acceptable. At long last, in many cases, drunk drivers are being forced to accept responsibility for their heinous acts because a fed up public has had enough.

MADD is a good example of how to change society. We didn't give up and neither should those who wish to see a safer world. You can have an impact and you can save lives.

That was the least I could do for my daughter.

I feel the pain for families of those who died at Sandy Hook. For those who want to do something about gun violence, change isn't easy. What is needed is a grass-roots movement similar to MADD that encompasses all aspects of society. To be effective, it must include all the stakeholders involved and reach a consensus that will make implementation -- whether in laws, increased education or other policy changes -- a given.

Ask for a Presidential Commission while the White House is focused on this issue. Don't take no for an answer. Accept each obstacle as a challenge to be overcome. Engage the media and harness the outpouring and support that is pouring in. People need direction. Leadership is key and MADD had that at the local, state and national level. Develop a strategy that people can follow and provide directions and concrete steps that will guarantee successes and keep people motivated. Don't lose the momentum, anger and rage. Now is the time to take action.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Candace Lightner.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT