Abby Levine

Sandy Hook Families: Turning Pain Into Change

In today’s Politico there’s a poignant article describing the path the families of Sandy Hook victims have followed to become advocates for stronger gun laws. It reveals that they’ve become quite savvy in a short period of time.

The families created a 501(c)(3) organization to promote solutions to gun violence, including tougher laws.

The families created a 501(c)(3) organization to promote solutions to gun violence, including tougher laws.

As Politico makes clear, the Sandy Hook families have certain advantages—chiefly the resources to hire experienced D.C. lobbyists—not available to many citizens who come to Washington, D.C., to press their case. But they also have a lot in common with other citizens-turned-activists.

Most of the lobbyists I and other attorneys at Alliance for Justice work with are driven to become advocates—for clean air, access to health care, you name it—for personal reasons.

While a personal connection to a cause is often the motivation for pushing for change, it is usually not enough. In addition to your personal story, it is often helpful to:

Do your homework — Tim Makris, the executive director of the new nonprofit formed by Newtown residents to address gun laws, told Politico: “We don’t go in and pound the table,” he told us. “We spent many weeks studying these issues, so we’d really know what we’re talking about. We know this is a marathon. It took our country a long time to get where we were on 12/14. And it’s going to take a long time to change.”Researching and understanding the background and politics of your issue is an essential activity for any lobbyist to be effective.

Play to your strengths – The Sandy Hook families realize that they have the nation’s attention, but only for a short while. The article notes, “…the families have a rule against staff-only meetings: They won’t do them. They insist on sitting down with the senators themselves.” Most public interest lobbyists can’t make such demands, but—right now, at least—these families can demand that level of respect and attention and they serve their greater cause by demanding it.

Think about policy change at all levels: federal, state, and local Many of the victims’ families worked on the passage of a tough new Connecticut gun law. Politico called that effort “a dry run for the Washington push.”

Be open to compromiseWhile many of the families started out hoping for an assault weapons ban, some are now accepting that incremental steps are often a necessary part of the process. On the subject of an pushing for an assault weapons ban, Nelba Márquez-Greene—who lost her 6-year-old daughter, Ana, in the shooting—said: “At first, that was where my heart was,” she said. “I have since learned that it’s a more complex issue. … We’re looking for real change and common-sense solutions, not things that just sound good.” At the same time, Politico notes that a smaller group of Sandy Hook families are working with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to advocate for tougher laws. Big policy change typically requires advocates to take positions across the spectrum.

You don’t need to go it alone.  While a personal tragedy or incident may lead to your lobbying (yes, lobbying!), you’re not alone.  Find an organization—often a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) or, if  you’re part of a labor union, your union—that works on similar issues.  They might have staff that can explain the process, help schedule appointments, allow you to practice, etc.