Defending the Freedom to Own Pets

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The Future of Dogs in an Animal Rights America

by Walt Hutchens

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What to do #7: Contact lawmakers

Bad bills, proposals, and ordinances are beaten in exactly one way: There are not enough votes for them to pass. 'Not enough votes' happens in two ways:

A) Some lawmakers are convinced by facts -- things like "This idea has been tried in many other places and it does not work; this will be expensive and a waste of money," and so on.

B) This idea is controversial ... there are strong opinions on both sides, election-time votes could be gotten or lost according to how the legislator goes on this thing ... Because ARs are the minority, if we fully mobilize against a bill we can convince most legislators that there are more votes to be lost than there are to be gained.

You can never be sure in advance which approach will be most effective. Generally larger towns and mid-size cities will respond well to facts. Many of these lawmakers are serious about good government; they just want to solve the problem and once they see that an idea won't work, that's the end for them.

Big cities and state legislatures most often pay more attention to controversy. Once it starts to stink it must be last week's fish and they're not interested anymore.

However all AR-law battles should be fought on both fronts -- facts and controversy.

The facts approach can be done by just a handful of people and for that reason you can start that part of the attack on day one. Focus on decision makers (legislative committees, the city council) and on those who control large numbers of potential supporters: board of the state veterinary association, officers of hunting and other clubs. Also hit the newspaper letters columns with facts -- the better papers are always interested in "good government" issues that are presented clearly.

You should spend serious hours reading the text of the bill or proposal trying to think through exactly how it would work if passed. Remember that laws aren't enforced only by great people, they're enforced by ordinary people, and some of them are jerks. Does this bill put too much power in the hands of people who are very likely to abuse it? Be sure to talk to experts -- if the bill affects rescuers, talk to as many rescuers as possible, ditto hunters, cat fanciers, and so on. Use your state list and try Pet-Law itself for these discussions too.

Do not be surprised to find jaw-dropping things in proposals, do not even be surprised at serious drafting mistakes. Proposals are often drafted by a legislative aide (maybe an inexperienced one) working with a shelter director; bills may be written by the best lawyer the state could hire for $28,500. The sharpest people reading bills are probably your people.

We'll never forget the Virginia state legislator who remarked casually, "Oh, we pass unconstitutional laws all the time!"

As you mobilize more and more players -- your state email list will usually be the main place to do that, although if you have one of the effective state federations, it will be able to do it more quickly -- move to the 'controversy' angle. Try to get personal visits with every blessed legislator or city council member. "Senator Snort, my group really hates this idea." Letters, emails, phone calls to all legislators (as well as to committees), lots of letters to the editor.

Personal visits and individual letters (not form letters) are most effective. Phone calls are great, individual emails are good, petitions are almost a waste of time because they're so easy for people to do and difficult to verify. Let lawmakers know that people care enough to work against this bill. Remember that controversy matters because "Votes might go against me" is not a happy thought for a politician. Use the methods that show that a voter cares enough that she will remember at the next election.

Concentrate especially on:

A) The bill's sponsor -- he owns it and can kill it in five minutes when he decides it will be bad for his career.

B) Chairmen of committees -- they can make bad bills disappear into the deepfreeze, slip out of sight under the stove, or vanish as if they were written in disappearing ink, often just by raising an eyebrow.

Be courteous and respectful toward lawmakers. Most of them deserve it and nearly all of them will be playing in the next fight too, so you don't want to alienate them. Of course being respectful doesn't mean you can't recommend an election-day retirement program for those who are solidly AR.

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