Gun Control Debate: How Sandy Hook Parents Are Turning Grief Into Action


The push for stronger gun safety measures in Washington gained renewed momentum this week when a bipartisan compromise on background checks was presented by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and a threatened filibuster was overcome. President Obama gave thanks and credit for this turn of events to the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, who flew back to Washington with him on Air Force One Monday after his speech in Hartford, Connecticut calling for Congress to act on gun safety. They spent days meeting with senators to push for consideration of stronger background checks and other measures.

The families are part of a non-profit group called Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), which formed shortly after the Newtown massacre that took the lives of 20 children and six school employees. According to the group's website, its mission is to provide aid and support to the family members, colleagues, and others affected by the tragedy, and to work to "find common sense solutions to make out communities and country safer." They make clear that they support the Second Amendment and their supporters come from across the political spectrum. Their success in moving the issue forward in the Senate comes on the heels of Connecticut's passage of tough new gun legislation, in which SHP's efforts were instrumental.

This is not to say that SHP is your traditional lobbying effort. What makes SHP different, as well as effective, is its deeply human story and moral weight. When granted a meeting with a senator (they refuse staff-only meetings) they do not engage in strong-arm tactics or use policy wonk jargon. Rather, they talk as grieving parents seeking to tell their story. They speak respectfully, but with a quiet insistence that the memories of their loved ones be honored with meaningful action. As an added touch, some even leave pictures of their lost child with the senator. A similar approach marked their efforts in Connecticut, where SHP members personally asked state legislators to act, and later stood on the floor of the state Senate and watched as the new measure was voted into law.

Beyond their personal efforts, however, Sandy Hook Promise has enlisted some very high-powered help. Los Angeles public relations firm Griffin-Schein, which helped launch the legal challenge to California's Proposition 8, is advsing the group. Last month they helped SHP launch an initiative in Silicon Valley to develop and fund new gun safety and background check technologies by matching venture capitalists and angel investors with promising tech start-ups.

They have also enlisted the counsel of Ricki Seidman, a long-time Democratic operative whose experience includes running the famed "War Room" of the 1992 Clinton campaign and, more recently, helping to guide Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination through the Senate. Most recently, SHP has hired the heavyweight lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti to represent them. Bruce Mehlman is a Republican who served in the Department of Commerce under President George W. Bush. Alex Vogel, another Republican, was chief counsel to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. David Castagnetti, a Democrat, is a former legislative strategist and a veteran of Secretary of State John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. Also reported to be providing guidance to SHP is the centrist Democratic group Third Way, which has itself advocated for stronger gun safety measures.

Despite initial successes, members of SHP aren't complacent. They plan to be returning to Washington in the coming weeks when debate on legislation is scheduled to begin. Many of them don’t believe the current Senate proposal goes far enough, but aren't naïve about political constraints (demonstrated by their choice not to push for a renewed 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban).

Still, they view the new legislation as a small but important step forward. Considering the current atmosphere in Washington, this week's events appear to be proof that the Sandy Hook families may have the right formula for getting action out of Congress.