Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
On May 3, 1980, a 13-year-old girl named Cari Lightner was killed by a drunken driver. A terrible alcoholic, the man had three prior drunken driving convictions. He had just come from a bar, on the back end of a three-day binge.
Within weeks, Cari’s mom, Candy Lightner, co-founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). All over the country, mothers fed up with the unwillingness of politicians to do anything about drunken driving flocked to the organization. Within a few years, MADD had persuaded President Ronald Reagan to support a national drinking age of 21, and it had pushed through state laws toughening the penalties for driving while intoxicated. Perhaps most important, MADD turned a dangerous behavior that had long been socially acceptable into a taboo.
I was out of town on Friday when the Newtown, Conn., massacre took place and could only connect to my loved ones by phone. My fiancee wept uncontrollably: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to drop Mackie off at school and never see him again,” she said, referring to our 2-year-old son. My grown daughter also cried.
Listening to them — and seeing how powerfully affected the country has been by this horrible slaughter of children and their teachers — I couldn’t help thinking about MADD. Its success came about because its founders tapped into a wellspring of anger that had been quietly building — just like the current anger over the recent spate of mass killings. But it also came about because mothers could give a human face to the consequences of political inaction: their own children. How do you trump that?
Sadly, thanks to the elementary school shootings on Friday, children are now inexorably linked with the kind of mass killing that has become far too common. On Sunday, at the vigil in Newtown, President Barack Obama explicitly cast the country’s lax gun laws as a failure to protect children. I have no doubt his remarks were heartfelt, but they were also politically shrewd. Rarely has the National Rifle Association been so silent.
One absurd argument some gun extremists already are making is that, instead of tightening gun laws, we should go in the other direction and start packing heat. That way, you see, we can mow down the bad guy before he gets us.
In Michigan, a bill to allow concealed weapons to be brought into public schools, day care centers and churches has been approved by the Legislature and is awaiting the signature of that state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder. In the most recent issue of the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the country is so “saturated” with guns — some 300 million — that it’s pointless to try to put controls on gun ownership. Besides, he says, “people should have the ability to defend themselves.” A Texas congressman, Louie Gohmert, said that if only the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School “had an M4 in her office,” she could have stopped Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman.
But the experience of other countries puts the lie to that argument. In 1996, a man in Australia killed 35 people in the course of an afternoon rampage. Australia soon went from having relaxed gun laws to having tough gun laws, including such measures as character witnesses for people who want to own a gun, and the purchase of a safe bolted to the wall or floor. There still are plenty of hunters in Australia, but it hasn’t had a mass killing since.
South Africa may be an even better example. For many years, South Africa was a country every bit as gun-soaked as America. I have a friend, Greg Frank, a hedge fund manager in Charlottesville, Va., who lived in Johannesburg during a time when it had become so crime-ridden that people felt the need to own guns to protect themselves. He, too, owned a gun as a young man: “I made the excuse that I needed it for self protection.”
The guns didn’t make anybody safer. People who were held up while waiting at a red light rarely had time to pull out their guns. And the fact that so many homes had guns became an incentive for criminals, who would break in, hold the family hostage, and then order that the safe with the guns be opened. “Everyone knew someone who had family or friends who had experienced gun violence,” he said.
Finally, he says, people got fed up. In 2004, the laws changed, requiring annual relicensing, character witnesses and other measure to keep guns out of the wrong hands. There was also an appeal to voluntarily surrender guns.
“I took my gun to the police station,” Frank said. “The cop receiving it wrote down the serial number, took my ID, and I was gone. It felt transformational, like a huge weight off my shoulders.”
It will for us, too, when we finally get serious about stopping gun violence.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.