Voices of Newtown: How gun violence victims became effective lobbyists

The testimony of Newtown parents and others who have lost loved ones to gun violence has become a potent political force on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debate stronger gun safety measures.

Jessica Hill/AP
David and Francine Wheeler, parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Benjamin Wheeler, embrace during a gun violence conference in Danbury, Conn., Feb. 21, 2013.

When it comes to gun safety – especially in the wake of a string of horrific multiple shooting deaths – “Nobody has a more important and powerful perspective on the issue than the families who have lost loved ones.”

That statement, by White House press secretary Jay Carney Friday, can be viewed cynically – as if gun control advocates, including President Obama, had "exploited the tragedy for political gain,” as National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre put it a week after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., December 14, 2012, which killed 20 first-graders and six adult educators in a hail of semi-automatic weapon fire.

But that perspective, conveyed by those who have lost loved ones or been the victims of gun violence themselves (such as former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords), in fact is the most emotionally powerful and politically effective way to convey the message.

We saw a lot of that this past week, and we can expect to see a lot more this coming week as the US Senate and House of Representatives take up gun control measures.

On Saturday, the President’s regular radio/Internet message was delivered not by Obama himself but by Francine Wheeler, whose six year old son, Ben, was among those killed at Newtown. She is the first person to deliver the address other than Obama or Vice President Joe Biden since the two took office in 2009.

“Ben’s love of fun and his excitement at the wonders of life were unmatched,” Mrs. Wheeler said, her husband David at her side. “His boundless energy kept him running across the soccer field long after the game was over. He couldn’t wait to get to school every morning. He sang with perfect pitch and had just played at his third piano recital. Irrepressibly bright and spirited, Ben experienced life at full tilt.”

“I’ve heard people say that the tidal wave of anguish our country felt on 12/14 has receded,” she said. But not for us. To us, it feels as if it happened just yesterday. And in the four months since we lost our loved ones, thousands of other Americans have died at the end of a gun. Thousands of other families across the United States are also drowning in our grief.”

(Slate keeps a tally of those Americans killed by gunshot since Newtown. As of Thursday, it had reached 3,413.)

The Newtown families now in Washington have professional lobbyists helping them gain access to lawmakers and polish their presentations.

“With access to money and media, they’re using persistence, visibility – and, most all, their unique moral authority – to help prod Senate action,” write Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen at Politico. “They don’t try to sound like wonks or pundits or operatives. They just tell their heart-breaking stories, weaving in a demand for action that is respectful but forceful. As a result, senators respond to them as bereaved parents, not advocates.”

They also leave behind cards with photos of the child they’ve lost, politically powerful icons.

Senators responded this past week by knocking back a threatened filibuster of legislation that would increase background checks on gun buyers, strengthen laws against illegal gun trafficking, and increase school security aid.

That’s just a first step, however, and many gun control amendments are to be expected from gun safety advocates as well as gun rights supporters. Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D) of Nevada, has promised an “open amendment process.” The Republican-controlled House is likely to be an even tougher venue for the Newtown families and organizations pushing for tougher controls on guns.

CQ Roll Call reports “an early list of five amendments to watch, including some that could turn what is now a sweeping gun control bill into one that significantly expands gun rights.”

These include amendments dealing with concealed carry, mental health records, armed prosecutors, high-capacity magazines, and background checks.

The Newtown families will be there to hear the debate, witness for gun violence victims, and lobby lawmakers. So will former US Rep. Giffords, shot in the head in a January 2011 attack near Tucson, Ariz., that killed 6 people and wounded 13 others.

Americans for Responsible Solutions, the pro-gun control group Giffords founded with her husband retired astronaut Mark Kelly, has hired two new lobbying firms to help push compromise gun control legislation, reports Politico.
At a state legislative hearing in Newtown after the Sandy Hook tragedy, David Wheeler spoke of his lost son Ben when he recalled the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” found in the Declaration of Independence.

“I do not think the order of those important words was haphazard or casual," he said. "The liberty of any person to own a military style assault weapon and a high capacity magazine and keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life. Let's honor the founding documents and get our priorities straight."

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