A soft message meets a hard reality

Gun control: Maybe a million moms can stop the carnage, but history suggests it's a long shot.

May 07, 2000|By ELLEN GOODMAN

WASHINGTON -- Donna Dees-Thomases is breathless. The New Jersey mother of two broke the land-speed record this morning. She went from a dead sleep to a seat on a 5: 30 a.m. train in less than a half-hour. At 9: 00 she's here in the D.C. headquarters of the Million Mom March.

I am tempted to tell the founder of this Mother's Day mobilization for gun control to take a deep Lamaze breath. But frankly the office is so, um, pregnant, with maternal images that I pass it up.

She is just days from the May 14 due date. The walls are replete with posters and articles. A Newsweek cover blares: "Murder in the First Grade." A Washington Post headline screams: "6 Youths Wounded in Gunfire at Zoo." Then there are the T-shirts that say: "We're looking for a few good moms."

In fact, this march is urging more than a few good moms to give up breakfast in bed for political action. There are now 400 busloads destined to hit D.C. and 50 other satellite rallies from Providence to Austin to Tulsa to Oakland.

This event was, well, conceived, almost nine months ago. Dees-Thomases had ignored the whole issue, closed her eyes to Columbine, paid as little attention as possible to violence. But one night last summer while watching TV she saw preschoolers the age of her own fleeing a Jewish community center in Los Angeles after a gun attack.

Unable to shake the image, she looked at gun sites on the Web that were, she says, "almost pornographic."

Then one morning on a commuter train into Manhattan, she found herself seated next to a man with a swastika tattoo and a suspicious gym bag and she wondered: "Where have I been?"

She took out an envelope and scribbled, "Let's get moms involved." By the end of the first day, this woman who had been a publicist for Sen. Russell Long and CBS News had registered a Web site domain: "Millionmommarch.com." By the end of the first week, she had a permit for a march.

In a kind of "Hey, kids we can do the show right here" moment, one friend created a logo, another designed a T-shirt. They connected with other mothers by word of e-mail and then organized with the help of gun-control groups who don't always see eye to eye. Months later, they enlisted Rosie O'Donnell, as mentor and emcee, adviser and starshine.

"It was my idea for about a minute, then it went to the universe," Dees-Thomases says, sipping coffee in this rabbit warren of offices. The Million Mom March will not add up to a million and won't be all moms; it will look more like a rally than a march. But it clearly hit a chord and may turn out to be the largest grass-roots mobilization yet for gun control.

The goal, she says, is to make others feel what mothers feel when they've lost a child, "when they go through the supermarket putting her favorite food in the basket." It is to push for legislation as well as emotion, for the licensing and registration of handguns, a modest proposal that sets the NRA teeth and PR machine on edge.

Those of us who have been there, done that, been to marches, done marches, may wonder about the half-life of even this most appealing gathering. Dees-Thomases points to a suburban shocking-pink color scheme in the poster and says, "Maybe it's too pink." But I wonder about it being "too mom." What is the half-life of mothers' events?

The march is "gender friendly," says its founder, who has welcomed men and other non-moms. But at the same time she claims some special protective maternal instinct behind the movement for gun control to save children's lives.

Yet when women are set on a higher moral pedestal it's easier to admire them ... and ignore them. Indeed the moms, the wives, the grandmothers of victims from Sarah Brady to Carolyn McCarthy have often garnered more respect than victories. A year after Columbine, dozens of gun control measures have been introduced to Congress and none has passed. The trick is always to get power with the praise. To win votes as well as sympathy.

In the last weeks of this march's gestation period, the volunteers are understandably focused on the big date: what to do with donated hot dogs and how to keep the strollers in front. But the hardest work is always after the delivery. What happens the day after Mother's Day?

Dees-Thomases says earnestly, "If we do not deliver the message, shame on us." But then she remembers the recent remark of her own 4-year-old, "Mommy, suppose there are still guns after the march?"

It's a question about expectations and disappointments that she rolls over in her own mind. But then the woman who has learned what you can create in nine months says firmly: "I was apathetic. I was cynical. If I can be motivated, anyone can."

Ellen Goodman is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Boston Globe.

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