Moms regroup for 2nd D.C. march

Mother's Day rally to focus on assault weapons ban

May 09, 2004|By Geraldine Baum | Geraldine Baum,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - Four years ago on Mother's Day, Donna Thomases led a gathering in Washington, D.C., of 750,000, mostly women, demanding tougher gun laws. It was a glorious day, as she remembers it, of emotional speeches and sweeping promises followed by a flood of positive news reports about the "Million Mom March."

Then a New Jersey housewife who had been spurred to action by the horrific 1999 shooting at a Jewish center in Granada Hills, Calif., Thomases was on a broad mission to force this country's gun-toting citizenry to change its ways. The march initiated a new sorority of moms into the fight.

But since that Mother's Day a lot has changed - from the political environment in Washington to much about Thomases' life.

And today, when Thomases turns up on the Capitol steps for a second march, there won't be nearly as many moms - or movie stars or media - with her. Rather, Thomases is expecting a modest turnout of committed activists focused not on a broad agenda, but on a single piece of legislation: the federal assault weapons ban due to expire on Sept. 13.

It might seem she has gone backward, but Thomases insists that she has not.

"That was a wonderful day four years ago," said Thomases, 47, divorced and living with her two daughters in Manhattan, "but I think we've all learned a thing or two, and if we can just get five people in every community inspired to change things, that's how it's going to get done."

Specifically, she's talking about five activists in each House district represented by a congressman who opposes the ban. Although polls show public support for the ban, which was adopted in 1994, gun-control advocates are worried it won't be renewed - it is considered vulnerable, especially in the House.

The National Rifle Association, the most powerful gun-rights coalition in the country, maintains that 10 years of restricting semiautomatic weapons has done nothing to stem crime and that Thomases and her group have a more far-reaching goal than they care to admit. "They're trying to cover up their real agenda - to ban all firearms," says Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's spokesman. "It's that simple."

Hearing this, Thomases, a native of Louisiana who has lost her drawl and now speaks very fast, slows down. "I am not an expert on the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban. But I have a lot of trust in the police chiefs across the country who have asked the Congress to extend it. I go by their judgment," she says. "As for our real agenda, well, we're a very moderate group and while all movements have extremist elements, we don't. We're for sensible gun legislation. It's that simple."

Before the Granada Hills shooting, Thomases had little knowledge of or interest in gun laws or Washington political maneuverings. She had long worked as a publicist - in her last job, promoting top-10 lists for The Late Show With David Letterman - but had gone part-time after moving with her family to Short Hills, N.J.

Looking back on her paid career, Thomases laughs: "I got paid a lot to talk about the top 10 things the president's dog advises him. But then I got a `volunteer' job that was a lot more complicated and involved a lot of unpaid hard-working women."

She ticks off their accomplishments: 67 chapters of the group opened across the country and legislation adopted in several states, including New Jersey and Maryland. From 2000 to 2003, the number of children who die every day from gun fire dropped from 12 to 8.

But the "Million Mom March" organization stumbled. Within a year it lost most of its funding and had to lay off almost all its Washington-based staff at a time in which the capital was turned over to a Republican Party not friendly toward gun-control. Thomases readily admits the group became too bureaucratic and had to rethink its strategy.

Over the last year, Thomases wrote a book, Looking for a Few Good Moms (Rodale Publishing), which came out last month. While she was writing, she came to realize the group's greatest strength was its can-do mom culture. "We weren't good with meetings and paperwork. We just knew how to make phone calls and get things done."

The group merged with two like-minded organizations and over the last year focused on the assault weapons ban and getting President Bush, who has said repeatedly he is behind it, to become an active supporter. In February, Thomases spoke at a news conference announcing that finally, after four years, there would be another march on Mother's Day to get Washington's attention on the issue.

"In three short months," says Thomases, "we found our culture again. People were calling, signing up, wanting to do."

She says she has learned a lot in four years. She does not get fiery with her opponents; she does not expect miracles from one march; and frankly, she does not want to be head of this group after September.

She'd like to see a new president take over every two years. "You need someone new and excited," she said, adding that all she wants is to go back to leading one chapter with four other committed moms - and maybe also to find a paid job.

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