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MADD success offers hope for progress with gun control

America can combat easy access to weaponry the way it won victories against drunken driving and smoking.

A 13-year-old in an orange softball uniform poses formally at bat.
Softball all-star Cari Lightner, 13, was killed by a repeat drunken driver a few hours after this photo was taken in 1980. Her mother Candace went on to found Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has changed American attitudes and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
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It was good to hear Sam Kinison again.

The maniacal scream, that wicked giggle.

“Such a moral push, isn’t there in this country?” the comedian says on a 1988 album. “To try to get us to behave.”

And here let’s leave out a few obscene gerunds.

“Don’t drink and drive,” he sneers. “God, they have made such a big deal about this, haven’t they? It didn’t used to be such a big deal. You had a few drinks, you drove home. Now you’re a ....”

We’ll skip a pair of crude anatomical descriptions - “... child killer!”

The crowd whoops, ignoring that the one printable accusation is often literally true. Kinison explains the reluctant necessity of drunken driving: ”We don’t want to ... but there’s no other way to get our car back to the house. How are we supposed to get home? We’ve got to drink and drive.“

That neatly sums up the public attitude at the time. Laws were pliant. In Texas, you could legally carry a beer while driving.

Enter Candace Lightner, whose daughter Cari, 13, was run down by a thrice-convicted drunken driver in 1980. The group she formed, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, did not find drunken driving funny. It showed America what the joke cost, the faces of the more than 20,000 Americans whose lives were taken by alcohol-impaired drivers every year.

Attitudes changed. Laws changed. You can’t legally drive and drink beer in Texas anymore — open containers were banned from vehicles in 2001. Now driving drunk is a serious crime. No one is laughing anymore.

Where am I going with this? After the latest mass shootings, calls for common sense gun laws grew louder. They always do, after Parkland and Sandy Hook and America’s litany of shame. Then we go quiet again.

This time feels a little different. Even Republicans are talking about the need to do something, suggesting red herring non-solutions, like making mass murder a federal crime. (There’s a line that Sam Kinison should deliver: “That’ll deter ’em: ‘Gosh, I’d like to shoot up this Walmart, but I could get in trouble!’ Ah, hahahahaha.”

Never give up hope. Because change is possible. It happened with drunken driving. I’ll give another example: smoking. When I joined the paper in 1987, reporters crushed their butts on the tile floor. The idea of banning smoking was cray-zee. As was the notion of banning it in restaurants, never mind bars. People wouldn’t go out anymore. The rights of smokers would be violated, rights that had always trumped the rights of workers in bars and restaurants to not be forced to breathe in somebody’s smoke.

That changed, too. For a few years, smokers were miserably huddled around the entrance of every building downtown. Now I can walk the Loop for hours and not see one smoker.

MADD estimates its actions have saved 380,000 lives since the organization began in 1980. That same year, a third of Americans smoked. Now that figure is 14%. Think of the millions of lives saved.

The drinkers griped. The smokers felt oppressed. The gun nuts point frantically to the Second Amendment, which doesn’t need to be repealed. The same Second Amendment that allows the government to ban machine guns and rocket launchers can allow it to ban high-capacity magazines and set up a few hoops to keep weapons out of the hands of would-be murderers.

I don’t think this is a legal problem right now. It is an educational problem. A public health problem. People didn’t stop drinking and driving just because they faced harsher penalties. They stopped because Candace Lightner marched into state legislatures with a big photo of Cari at softball practice on the day she died.

Cigarette smokers watched enough of that commercial of the man holding a cigarette up to the hole in his throat. Change, as Hemingway said of bankruptcy, came gradually then suddenly. It happened with drunken driving. It happened with cigarettes. It can happen with guns.

Sam Kinison, by the way, was killed in a 1992 car accident. He was 38. The car he was driving, sober, was hit head-on by a pickup truck driven by a teenager who had been drinking and drifted across the center line. The teen was sentenced to a year’s probation and 300 hours of community service.