The hands that rocked the capital

Nearly a million mothers take their gun control message to Washington while the Second Amendment Sisters stage a feisty sideshow.

Published May 15, 2000 3:00PM (EDT)

At the Million Mom March here Sunday, the T-shirts told the story. Shirts emblazoned with photographs of young
men and the dates of their births and deaths were
plentiful. Even more common was the slogan of the gathering: "We're looking for a few good moms."

And the good mothers turned out in droves. According to march
organizers, 750,000 people attended the Mother's Day rally, although official estimates put the number at a vaguer "tens" or "hundreds" of thousands. The crowd was predominantly white and female, strollers were ubiquitous and pink was the favorite hue of the day. Marchers hailed from everywhere from Sacramento, Calif., to Ithaca, N.Y., and were affiliated with groups ranging from Jewish Women International to the National Education Association.

Funny lady Rosie O'Donnell emceed the rally, but the comedic mien she radiates on her television talk show was not on display Sunday. O'Donnell was all business and outrage as she described the obstacles attendees would have to overcome to see their anti-gun-violence agenda passed into law.

"The NRA [National Rifle Association] is buying votes with blood money," O'Donnell lectured sternly. But, she added, the organization had "better get used to us. We will not go away."

O'Donnell made gun violence a personal cause after the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., last year, when she asked female viewers to take guns from their husbands and make their homes gun-free. In doing so, she became a de facto leader of the gun control movement, a potent antidote to National Rifle Association helmsman Charlton Heston. And in Washington on Sunday, she found a receptive audience.

The march was the brainchild of Donna Dees-Thomases, a part-time public relations consultant at CBS and mother of two who was spurred to action after hearing about the nursery school shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif., last year.

Dees-Thomases and the other rally coordinators say they do not advocate an outright ban on handguns. Instead, the often-repeated line of the day was "licensing and registration" -- in other words, forcing gun owners to comply with the same requirements drivers do, an analogy that was evoked in many speeches. Specifically, licensing would force gun purchasers to complete a safety course and undergo a background check to ensure they didn't have a criminal record and were of
legal age. The registration restrictions would also require a gun seller to check the purchaser's license and register the gun's serial number.

O'Donnell and other speakers pointed to recent examples of other activists who have successfully taken on entrenched interests. Mothers Against Drunk Driving led efforts to tighten drunken-driving laws across the country, and a series of state lawsuits extracted concessions of negligence and massive settlements from the tobacco industry. "People said tobacco was undefeatable," said O'Donnell. "They were wrong."

O'Donnell was joined onstage by a parade of people who had been affected by high-profile cases of gun violence. Dawn Anna, the mother of Lauren Townsend, who
was killed in the Columbine massacre, grew tearful when she addressed the crowd. "Politicians, take heed," Anna said. "We are watching you. The hands that rock the cradle rule the world."

Patricia McQueen, whose daughter, Kayla Rolland, was shot in February by a fellow first-grade classmate in Flint, Mich., gave a short, emotional speech. "The gun that killed my daughter in her classroom was one that could be loaded by a 6-year-old, carried by a 6-year-old and fired by a 6-year-old," she said.

Jim Brady, former press secretary to Ronald Reagan -- who along with his wife, Sarah, has been a vigorous champion of gun control since he was seriously injured in an attempt on the former president's life in 1981 -- spoke of the need to "change
the firearms laws, or the lawmakers." Three mothers of kindergartners who were killed in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996 spoke of their successful push to pass a handgun ban in the wake of that massacre.

The march also attracted its share of celebrities and high-profile politicians. Susan Sarandon, Melissa Etheridge, Melissa Manchester, Courtney Love and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend all took the stage.

Sarandon argued for mandatory trigger locks, noting that it is easier to operate a gun than remove a childproof top from a bottle of Tylenol. She and most of the speakers also hammered home the message that the ultimate success of the rally would depend on the action attendees took in their communities. In addition to voting, speaker after speaker urged marchers to write their representatives, help organize gun
buybacks and vote.

"I'm not going to let Jesse Helms outdo me!" Children's
Defense Fund president Marion Wright Edelman yelled to the crowd.

Rep. Jarrold Nadler, D-N.Y., reiterated that theme when he spoke separately with reporters. The march would get congressional representatives' attention, he said, but what would make a real difference would be the pressure attendees exerted in their home districts. And while Congress has shied away from imposing even mild gun restrictions, such as closing the
"gun show loophole" of the Brady Bill's background checks, Nadler said he expected registration and licensing requirements would be passed within five years. "A critical mass is developing," he said. "It's like what MADD
did -- they forced the laws to be passed. The same thing will happen with guns."

The audience seemed hungry for this optimism. All the women I spoke to gave the same reason for turning up: They were "fed up" with gun violence that claims the lives of 12 children a day (a statistic cited often throughout the day), and they wanted to do something about it.

"I'm scared to go to work," said Denise Loiselle of Seminole, Fla., who was accompanied by her college-age daughter. "And I've had enough. This is a cause that is worth driving 24 hours for."

Other women spoke of the losses their families had suffered because of gun violence. "My four grandchildren are going to grow up without a father," said Charlotte Gray, whose 30-year-old son was killed in a random shooting in Washington in 1999. "Something needs to be done. I don't want another mother to go through what I've been through."

Albuquerque, N.M., native Joan Shirley, whose son was shot dead along with two friends by an unknown assailant last year, said the loss galvanized her to activism. "I'm embarrassed to say I was one of those people who thought that it wouldn't happen to me," she said. "I'm particularly touched by those
who are here who haven't lost anyone to violence, people who are here to help support the cause."

Help the cause and, perhaps in a few cases, also catch 15 seconds of fame. When one mother spotted a local television camera she hissed to her daughter: "Emily, pick up your sign!"

The crowd also had its share of hecklers. A man decked out in colonial garb, who would give his name only as "Citizen," carried a sign proclaiming "the right to keep and bear arms must never be licensed." "What are you going to
do if he breaks down the door at night?" he yelled out to no one in particular. "Fight him off with a golf club?"

But for the most part, the tone of the rally had all the gravity of maternity. Anna Quindlen, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, riffed on the mother theme in her address to the crowd. As a mother, she said, she had put latches on kitchen cabinets and had spoken to her children about how to handle the pressures to have sex and take drugs.

"We've worked 24/7 to keep them safe," she said. "We want moderate, sensible laws that keep them safe." And to those who ask why those laws are necessary, Quindlen offered the same response she said she often gives to her three children: "Because I said so."

In one of the day's more poignant moments, pop star Courtney Love reminded the audience that the leading cause of gun deaths is suicide, a fact that her late husband, Kurt Cobain, who killed himself with a shotgun, has come to symbolize. Choked up and holding back tears, Love called for background checks that would include the mental health of gun purchasers and expressed her sadness over the copycat deaths her husband's suicide inspired.

Sister act

By Salon News Staff [May 14, 2000]

In the shadow of the Washington monument, just a few hundred yards from the
750,000 mothers gathered to demand stronger gun control measures, several
hundred people converged at a rambunctious counterprotest dubbed "Second
Sisters -- A Celebration of Life." The event, the inverse of that
led by Rosie O'Donnell in front of the Capitol, offered some of
the day's most colorful moments and signage.

Second Amendment Sisters founder Kimberly Watson said the event grew out of
postings on the Free Republic Web site by like-minded women, who were
offended at the
self-righteousness of the Million Mom March's message and wanted to stage a
counterprotest. "Just a few weeks ago, I was a mom. Now, I'm a Second
Amendment Sister," she told the audience.

Like Free Republic itself, the protest drew a diverse
crowd united in its distrust of government and loathing of President
Clinton, whose impeachment was regularly invoked at the event. The group
even organized its own dueling march down Constitution Avenue, which, packed
with kiddies and strollers, offered a diminutive mirror image of the day's
bigger, better-publicized event.

Speakers included Texas State Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, who witnessed the
murder of her parents and 21 others in the 1991 massacre at Luby's Cafeteria
in Killeen, Texas; Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, who found a way
to tie the Second Amendment to President Clinton's sexual
improprieties by implying that
Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Gennifer Flowers and
Clinton's other women could have
warded off his advances had they only brandished weapons; and Yale Law
School scholar and "More Guns, Less Crime" author John Lott.

Gratia Hupp recalled her parents' murder and said that her only sorrow
was that the handgun she could have used to save them was a 100 yards away
in her car, instead of in her purse, when she needed it.

Does Gratia Hupp
harbor any contempt or hatred for George Hennard, the gunman who killed her
parents? No, she told the crowd. "You don't get mad at a rabid dog; you
shoot it." To Gratia Hupp, the calls by the Million Mom March organizers for
mandatory gun registration are just a precursor to outright confiscation, a
first tile in what would surely result in a domino effect. "I will not
register my gun," she told the crowd to huge applause.

When asked by Salon how she felt about the demand of the moms on the other
side of the National Mall for mandatory child safety locks on guns, Gratia
Hupp said, "Kids jump in buckets every day and drown -- why don't we put lid
locks on them?" She also noted that "a large number of kids are killed by
dressers falling on them," but offered no statistics to back up the
statement. She also said, "More kids are killed accidentally in cars. Why
don't we put helmets on kids in cars?" When the reporter reminded Gratia
Hupp that many states have enacted tough seat belt laws to reduce the death
toll from automobile accidents, she got angry and, in a thick "Don't mess
with Texas" accent, offered, "I'm not even gonna go down that road with

Judicial Watch's Klayman provided a different take on protective armor: "If
the president wants a trigger lock, have him install it on his zipper,"
Klayman said from the stage. Evoking more illustrious times for his
organization, Klayman also suggested that "Juanita Broaddrick wouldn't have
been raped if she had had a gun."

As at the Million Mom March, where speeches were heavy with statistics, the
speakers at the Second Amendment Sisters event event offered a few of their

  • Guns save more than 2.5 million lives a year.

  • Ninety percent of the time, brandishing a weapon is enough to keep a
    crime from happening.

    But the agitating tone of the counterprotest was best illustrated by the
    participants themselves. During the march, a woman, sign in one hand,
    Pampers in the other, said to another, "Let's go piss off the mothers."

    They probably did annoy a few, but the media seemed more interested in the
    Second Amendment Sisters than did the crowd gathered on the Mall.

    With reporting by Camille Peri.

  • By Alexandra Starr

    Alexandra Starr is a freelance writer based in Washington.

    MORE FROM Alexandra Starr

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