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How to jump-start a movement: changing U.S. gun culture

December 20th, 2012
05:28 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

Want to change American gun culture? Ask Candace Lightner.

Thirty years ago, she did more than almost anyone else to change another seemingly entrenched aspect of American culture: drunk driving.

When her 13-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a drunk driver, there was a cavalier attitude towards driving under the influence.

“Unlike gun violence, which has always been abhorred, drunk driving was joked about, talked about, accepted,” Lightner told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview on Thursday. “I called it the only socially acceptable form of homicide in this country.”

Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) – her first office was in her daughter’s bedroom – and became a fierce advocate for change.

“My first thought was to protect my children and anyone else from seeing this happen,” she said. “My second thought was to punish the man who was responsible for the crime. The third thought actually was to change the system that I felt allowed this man to continue to drink and drive.”

Lightner said she, from the very beginning, had a broad strategy for her campaign. She worked on every level of American society, from neighborhood groups to the president, Ronald Reagan, encouraging them to form task forces and change laws.

For the advocates of change in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Lightner distilled four critical elements from her fight: passion, practicality, public support, and an appeal to personal accountability.

Activists already have the passion and public support, she said, though they must seize the momentum of support before it inevitably fades. The practicality, she said, “is hard to understand in the beginning.”

As she successfully lobbied her governor at the time, Jerry Brown, and President Reagan to organize drunk driving task forces, she encouraged them to bring all stake holders to the table.

The alcohol industry was vehemently opposed to raising the drinking age to twenty one, she said, but “if you can get them to agree to most of it, you will get [the initiatives] passed, and you can move forward. But you need everybody involved.”

The NRA, Lightner admits, is a more formidable foe than the alcohol industry, which had no inherent stake in allowing people to drink and drive.

But allowing such easy access to guns is “like leaving your [car] keys around the house when you have an alcoholic in the home,” she said.

As for President Obama’s promise to “pull together real reforms right now,” Lightner was skeptical.

“I honestly believe that we need to do much more,” she said. “I’ve heard wonderful suggestions on this show and other shows over the past few days – they’re going to go into the [ether]. They’re not going to go anywhere, unless you get all of these people together and you actually make a plan to adopt these solutions.”

CNN's Ken Olshansky produced this story for television.

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