Organizers planning Million Mom March for gun control

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

WASHINGTON - It had to be mothers who'd think of the march, they believe, mothers who are passionately, painfully, overpoweringly angry. Every day, nearly 12 children ages 19 and younger are killed, they say - shot by one another, by adults, by themselves. Now the mothers want, no, demand, that something be done about guns. And to deliver that plea, they are coming here on Mother's Day. They're calling it the Million Mom March.

They talk about the mother lioness syndrome, a sleeping giant of fierce maternal rage that will spark such convincing passion that lawmakers will be seduced away from the clutches of the National Rifle Association and create ``sensible gun control.'' They're predicting the largest demonstration for gun control ever, most of it here on the Mall, but also in 20 cities nationwide.

When they announced the march last Labor Day, the MMM had one answering machine in New Jersey, with two grandmothers transcribing messages. Now there are volunteers nationwide, and a suite of rented offices on 17th Street with 15 phone lines. On Feb. 28, they had 15,000 hits on the Web site; two days later, there were 76,000. The moms are coming.

Some have cried watching the stories on television. Others have been the mother on television, stunned with grief and disbelief. Or maybe worse: mourning a gunshot death that was considered too ordinary, too commonplace to warrant media attention.

Donna Dees-Thomases had had enough last August when she saw the news footage of toddlers leaving the Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif., after a white supremacist sprayed it with bullets. Within days she came up with the idea of the Million Mom March, for ``mothers, grandmothers, foster mothers and anyone who has ever had a mother.''

Vicki King got angry - and scared - two years ago when she looked out the window and saw a high school student showing a gun to friends on her suburban Silver Spring, Md., lawn. She imagined a bullet coming through the window and hitting her 3-year-old, who was eating lunch in the kitchen. She thought: There are guns everywhere.

She's now MMM national volunteer coordinator, working mostly out of her home office.

For Carole Price, the time came on Aug. 20, 1998, when her oldest child, John, 13, was killed by a 9-year-old friend playing with a gun in Baltimore County. Eleven guns were found in the house where the shooting occurred - on closet shelves, in a duffel bag under a bed. Neither man who lived in the house was held accountable.

``They talk about their Second Amendment rights. Well, my son had a right to live,'' says Price, a bartender who quit to volunteer full time for gun control. In December, she took over as Maryland state coordinator for the march.

Julie Bond of Hamilton, Va., lost her son Jesse, 18, last June; he killed himself.

``He was a wonderful, sensitive young man who had the graduation blues and access to a gun,'' she wrote on the Web site.

There are other postings:

Joan Peterson, Duluth, Minn.: ``I will never forget the phone call on Aug. 6, 1992, telling me that my sister, Barbara Lund, had been found shot to death by her estranged husband. ...''

Leslie Willis-Lowry, Philadelphia: ``On February 2, 2000, my son, Songha Thomas Willis, was fatally shot in a holdup while visiting me ... His senseless killing at 27 years of age has left an unimaginable pain in my heart. ...''

Victoria R. Ballesteros, Los Angeles: ``My 8-month-old son has become my life's inspiration. When he was born, my mother said to me, 'Los quieren tantos que ni quieres que el viento les pegue.' Translation: You love them so much that you don't even want the wind to hit them.' She was right. On Mother's Day 2000 I will march with my mother and my three sisters, along with our husbands and children, to say to Congress, 'Ya basta! Enough is enough!' There is no love like that of a mother, and our passion will be our 'weapon' against intransigent purveyors of violence and destruction.''

Of course, they're not the only people who feel passionately about this issue.

Melinda Gierisch is one face of the Million Moms' opposition. The 30-year-old software designer carries a stylish DeSantis handbag, inside which is usually a Sig Sauer P245 pistol. Gierisch is one of the Second Amendment Sisters, a group organizing a counter-demonstration on the Mall on Mother's Day. (Originally called Moms 4 Guns, they were persuaded by childless women like Gierisch to be more inclusive.)

Most Fridays, she and up to 15 friends shoot at a range in Northern Virginia; afterward they go out to dinner. Under Virginia law, they cannot carry their pistols in a concealed fashion in a place that serves alcohol, but they can carry or holster them openly as long as they don't drink. ``People usually think we're cops,'' she says.

``If you shoot well, there's a meditative feeling about the experience,'' says Gierisch, who for a dealer at weekend gun shows, and goes to hunts and shooting meets with her boyfriend and other shooter friends. ``You have to control your breathing, and focus your concentration intently. There's a real feeling of satisfaction when the bullet hits the mark.''

Gierisch also owns two hunting rifles (she's bagged two deer), several pistols of different calibers and an AR-15 semiautomatic, the civilian version of an M-16. She keeps them all in a locked gun safe bolted to a wall in her town house.

With each gun purchase, she completed the required state and federal paperwork and waited a week to be approved. She did not find this processing onerous but nonetheless opposes any form of gun control because she believes it opens the door to gun confiscation. The argument that shooters should be regulated to at least the same extent as drivers leaves her cold. ``Driving is a privilege,'' she says. ``Shooting a gun is a right.''

None of the remedies proposed by the MMM or other gun control advocates, starting with licensing and registration, would save anyone's life, she says. She supports enforcement of federal gun laws to deter criminal behavior, and points to the successful Project Exile pilot program in Richmond, Va., which proponents say has reduced the murder rate there by one-third by increasing enforcement of existing gun laws.

``It's always been easy to get a gun in this country,'' she says. ``The question is: What has changed with youth that makes them want to kill?''

The statistic promoted by the Second Amendment Sisters for their counter-march - called Armed Informed Mothers' March, or AIMM - is that ``every 13 seconds an American gun owner uses a firearm in defense against a criminal.'' The march will feature women who have used a gun in self-defense.

The AIMM isn't as ambitious or well organized as the MMM. It also has a Web site ( 20,000 ``signatures'' posted on an online petition. AIMM is estimating a crowd of 1,000 to 10,000 and needs to raise about $14,000, according to organizer Juli Bednarzyk. Requests for underwriting from the NRA and the Gun Owners of America have been turned down, says Gierisch, so whatever her group collects will be in small contributions. The organizations told her that rallies are not in their programs, she says.

But like the MMM, the members of AIMM want to continue their efforts after the emotion of Mother's Day has passed. Says Dianne Sawyer of Columbia, S.C., of the AIMM steering committee, ``Women are a vulnerable part of our society and have a right to self-defense.''

A dozen MMM volunteers gathered recently for a big moment: A marcher mom was going to be on ``The Rosie O'Donnell Show'' - publicity most causes can only dream about.

It's one thing to think of a catchy title and launch your march. Actually making it happen is quite another.

The MMM was gifted in having Dees-Thomases, a mother of two in Short Hills, N.J., who works part time as a publicist for ``Late Show With David Letterman.'' She is well connected and well versed in how to pitch an idea and inject humor into a potentially grim crusade.

She calls gun shows ``Tupperware parties for criminals.''

She noticed that the date of the march, May 14, was nine months from its announcement on Labor Day - enough time for Congress to ``deliver'' legislation.

Formerly with ``CBS News With Dan Rather,'' she was able to announce the march on ``CBS This Morning.'' And her sister-in-law is Clinton campaign veteran Susan Thomases, who gave her excellent advice.

The group got a toll-free number (888-989-MOMS) and published a chatty newsletter. They added features such as a ``time-out chair'' to their Web site; occupants have included gun control opponents Dan Quayle, National Rifle Association Chairman Wayne LaPierre and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

They feel they're on the verge of making major waves. ``This will be the largest demonstration for gun control in American history,'' predicts Andrew Maguire, director of the Bell Campaign, a gun control organization modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Dees-Thomases asked Bell to be the ``fiscal sponsor,'' and Maguire has raised about $400,000 of the $800,000 to $1 million needed. Some $300,000 has come from a collaborative to prevent gun violence funded by philanthropists Irene Diamond and George Soros. The rest is trickling in at the rate of $10,000 to $15,000 a week, boosted by the March 8 Rosie O'Donnell appearance.

The message was carefully honed. The group is seeking ``sensible'' gun control, not ``strong'' gun control, as some factions wanted. And they are not, as a group, against hunting.

``I do not own a gun,'' says Carole Price. ``But I wouldn't want to live in a country where somebody told me I could not own a gun. We're not gun grabbers.''

Recently, MMM has hired professional organizers and public relations specialists, resulting in a bit of a culture clash as they move in on the women who have gotten the enterprise this far on their unpaid energy.

And tension surfaced recently when the largely suburban, white moms began organizing inner-city black women, who feel suburbanites have ignored urban casualties for years, getting excited only when white children began getting murdered.

``We all know the history of race relations in America. There is nothing that's new on that,'' says Washington, D.C., coordinator Sultana E. Gorham-Bey. ``But we've got to bury the hatchet and feel one another's pain in such a way that we rise over the separatism.''

Says Dees-Thomases: ``They're right - shame on us that we haven't been there earlier.''

Politicians seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced she will attend the march, and President Clinton has stepped up his gun control campaign. Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York unveiled a sweeping proposal calling for reforms like mandatory trigger locks. Even Smith & Wesson recently agreed to begin adding trigger locks, childproofing and other smart-gun technology to its new models.

But no politicians will be allowed to speak at the Mother's Day rally unless they have suffered personally from gun violence. The speakers will be witnesses, people whose loved ones have been killed or maimed by guns.

Many marchers will not be in that sorrowful category, but they will no doubt echo the words of another writer on the MMM Web site, who identified herself simply as ``Margaret of MI.''

``I have no story about a gun-related death,'' she wrote. ``I want to keep it that way.''

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