Mothers Against Guns

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One thing you notice, as the stories unfold, is how the youngest victims of accidental shootings tend to be shot in the head--how natural it is, when you are a child and playing with a loaded gun, to point it at your friend's face and go "boom." At the bustling Washington headquarters for the Million Mom March, the stories--of toddlers caught in a cross fire, grandmothers murdered on vacation, six-year-olds gunned down at school--are as essential to the cause as are the T shirts and the slick website. The Million Mom March could not exist without such anguish. The stories that pour forth from women who have lost loved ones to gun violence are deeply personal and unremittingly awful. The tears flow at press conferences and in meetings at the White House. And this Mother's Day, as moms from around the country converge on the Washington Mall, the tears will spill onto the national stage.

The war over guns in America highlights the distance between the personal and the political. Women, while telling pollsters that they overwhelmingly favor more controls on guns, have been largely silent on the issue in public. But as each fresh shooting horror is met by the same inaction in Congress, a roiling frustration may be awakening an army of moms who see themselves as outsiders armed only with their clout as voters and agitators. And as politicians stare into the gender divide--polls show that about 72% of women, vs. 22% of men, favor more regulation of firearms--gun control could join more traditional women's concerns, such as education and health care, as a key issue in races across the country.

Already last week the presidential campaign was rocked by release of a videotape in which a top official of the National Rifle Association boasted that the organization was extremely close to George W. Bush and would have a President "where we work out of their office" if he were elected. At the same time, several gun manufacturers suspended negotiations with state and local officials, in hope that they would win protection from lawsuits if Bush were elected. Al Gore attacked Bush as a tool of the N.R.A. Bush, while long friendly to the gun lobby, tried to distance himself from it. "It's stomach churning," says Donna Dees-Thomases, chief organizer of the Million Mom March. "But it's still important for us to remain nonpartisan. There are still Republicans who want to do the right thing" on gun control.

Activists among the Million Moms have had more success at the grass roots than in Washington this year, persuading state and local governments from California to Connecticut to Florida to pass safety-lock requirements and restrictions on handgun purchases. And gun-control advocates have taken gunmakers to court--resulting, for example, in the deal last month in which Smith & Wesson agreed to incorporate new safety features in its handguns.

But such baby steps aren't enough for Dees-Thomases, 42, a housewife and mother of two young children from Short Hills, N.J., who is trying to turn her outrage over gun violence into a national movement. If each of us has a tipping point for tragedy, Dees-Thomases' happened last August, as she watched TV coverage of nursery-school children holding hands in a line and being led away from a shooting spree at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif. "I just thought, 'Those children could be my own!'" she says. "So I decided to try and do something before it was too late." Dees-Thomases scrawled her plans for a march on Washington on the back of an envelope. Within a week, she had reserved the Mall for an event she didn't yet have any participants for. Classified ads in local papers advertised an 800 number, and contacts with gun-violence victims' groups across the country helped disseminate the word through e-mail and Internet news groups.

As news of the march spread and moms from around the country called in, Dees-Thomases used her talent for generating publicity--she once worked as a press aide to a U.S. Senator and later as a publicist for Dan Rather and David Letterman--to gather corporate sponsors such as Viacom, Stride Rite and Oxygen Media to cover the $2.3 million budget for the march. The Bell Campaign, a gun-control group funded by heirs to the Levi's blue-jean fortune, is picking up any shortfall. Dees-Thomases now has a small paid staff and a battalion of volunteers who answer 75 phones and stuff mountains of envelopes. Dees-Thomases was pleased last week when the National Park Service raised its attendance prediction to 150,000, which would make the march the largest rally ever held for gun control.

Concern over gun violence has been building even as the number of Americans killed by guns has fallen--down almost 20% from 1993 to 1998. Among children too gun deaths have fallen, tumbling 28% from a peak in 1994 to 1997, when 4,223 kids died by gunshot. But highly publicized shootings like those at Columbine have changed perceptions. A recent TIME/Discovery Channel poll showed that 70% of parents feel violence in schools has increased. What's more, Americans no longer see gun threats against kids as a problem confined to inner cities. While violent crime has fallen sharply in urban areas--down 10% from 1997 to 1998--it has slipped just 1% in suburbia.

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