They shouted, they testified, they cried, they baked, they begged, they fawned, they fought. They were the most successful citizen-advocates in memory: the parents, children, siblings, and spouses of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001. How these families rose from tragedy to reshape national policy is a tale that holds many lessons for those who aspire to change gun laws in memory of relatives lost at Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Oak Creek, Fort Hood, Columbine, and countless other venues of heartbreak.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, of course, were sui generis. Nearly 3,000 people died, and the shock drove the national conversation for years. Yet the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults trying to protect them, could still galvanize the country and allow families affected by gun violence to have an impact that has, so far, eluded them.
The 9/11 relatives did not face a wealthy, entrenched, influential interest group such as the National Rifle Association, but they had to surmount other obstacles—a president and his allies who didn’t want an independent investigation of the attacks, and an airline industry trying to protect its future. Still, the families won an independent commission; the time, money, documents, and interviews it needed to do its job; and the adoption of many of its recommendations. And they did it from a standing start, with little clout or even knowledge of Washington.
The families advocating for new gun-control policies, by contrast, have an ally in President Obama and the scaffolding of several prominent advocacy groups: the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Mayors Against Illegal Guns (led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg); and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group formed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband. What these new families share with the 9/11 families is moral authority—and the standing to wield it.
Although the president has already signed 23 executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence, relatives of gun victims must first agree on their goals before embarking on the long legislative struggle to achieve them—just as the 9/11 families did. Mary Fetchet, who lost her 24-year-old son on 9/11 and now directs Voices of September 11th, advises them to bone up. “Buy Congress at Your Fingertips,” the iconic directory, she says. Study tactics, form a strategy, and learn about policy. Fetchet and others became credible experts on terrorism and the intelligence system. The gun-violence relatives need to do the same on guns, crime, mental health, public health, and public opinion.
Speed, urgency, and focus were also key for the 9/11 families. “They focused on a very specific recommendation early on in the game, and that was to establish the commission,” says former Rep. Lee Hamilton, its eventual cochairman. “They did not come forward with a 50-point program.” Obama’s reform package, or parts of it, could serve the same function for Giffords and other gun-affected families as they talk to lawmakers.
Persistence and nerve are other essential ingredients of success. The gun families will need at least a few people willing to devote time and money (often from their own pockets) to keep their priorities front and center for months, even years. “The most important lesson is to never give up,” says Carie Lemack, who lost her mother, Judy Larocque, on 9/11 and who now heads the Homeland Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The 9/11 families identified and cultivated allies on Capitol Hill. They made sure they had a presence at every committee meeting on their issues. Lemack even baked brownies for committee aides who saved her seats. She organized 200 calls to the White House to follow up on promises made, says former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, the other 9/11 commission cochairman, and some family members blocked doors to congressional offices until they were allowed in.
While the 9/11 families dogged inside players, they also used social and broadcast media on an outside track. Here, the gun families have a deep bench of spokesmen. Nearly two dozen relatives of massacre victims attended a Brady Campaign press conference four days after Newtown, and four families whose children were killed there helped announce a new Sandy Hook Promise group on the one-month anniversary of the shooting. Obama singled out a Virginia Tech survivor this week. Some of these relatives and friends may become the equivalent of the telegenic Jersey Girls, four widows who lost their husbands on 9/11 and discovered the power of getting their message out.
The 9/11 families applied both internal and external pressure when the Bush administration didn’t want to give the commission access to the president, Condoleezza Rice, CIA documents, or enough time and money for its work. “Every one of those was a big fight, and every time the families came to help us,” Kean says. “They were just outraged if anything looked to be disrupting our investigation.” They weren’t afraid to hold their allies to account, either, as Kean learned when he opposed their demand that he subpoena testimony and documents. His staff, he said, could hear the relatives yelling at him through his office walls. “One of them said, ‘Put this ring on your finger. This is all that’s left of my husband,’ ” he recalls. “You have to be understanding of people who’ve had that kind of loss.”
That moral authority is the ultimate source of power for the 9/11 advocates and for the families of gun-violence victims. But mere standing is not enough. As the 9/11 families demonstrated, it took long hours, practical skills, and single-mindedness to change national policy. It is, as Hamilton put it, “no sport for the short-winded.”
This article appears in the January 19, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Playbook.