WASHINGTON - Carrying homemade signs and photographs of loved ones killed by gunfire, gun control advocates used a Mother's Day rally yesterday to begin a campaign to lobby for renewal of a ban on assault weapons.
The rally, the Million Mom March, attracted about 2,500 people, its organizers said. It focused on supporting legislation to renew the 1994 ban on semiautomatic assault rifles, which is to expire in September.
The legislation is unlikely to move forward in the Republican-controlled Congress, and gun control advocates hope to make it an election-year issue. They plan to travel to swing states and elsewhere to lobby, hold rallies and try to enlist local elected officials and police chiefs in calling attention to the bill, which focuses on guns such as the AK-47, Uzi, Tec-9 and Street Sweeper.
"I think we've got a real chance to change the politics on this," said Michael D. Barnes, a former Maryland representative who is now president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "We know we are in for a real struggle, but it's winnable."
The battle pits the Brady Campaign, which has merged with the Million Mom March, against the National Rifle Association.
"I don't see the stomach for it on Capitol Hill," said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, in an interview yesterday.
House legislative leaders said last year that there would be no effort to renew the ban. Though senators supported it this year, tacking it onto another gun bill, that legislation was ultimately voted down.
By traveling to political battleground states, gun control advocates hope not only to sway members of Congress, but also to pressure President Bush into working to get the bill passed.
"He got the Congress to declare war in Iraq," said Donna Thomases, the founder of the Million Mom March. "He can get us to stop declaring war on ourselves."
Bush has supported the ban on assault weapons and has said he will sign the extension if it reaches his desk. His opponent, Sen. John Kerry, has also backed it.
But advocates on both sides of the issue, and some lawmakers, say Congress will never act on the bill unless the president requests it.
"You can't just say you will sign a bill," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat. "If he has the political will, it will be done."
White House officials have said in the past that Congress sets its own agenda, a position that campaign and White House officials reaffirmed yesterday.
LaPierre called the Federal Assault Weapons Act "a needless law that hasn't accomplished anything" and said the NRA would lobby against it.
Gun rights supporters also held a rally yesterday a few blocks away from the White House. Organized by Second Amendment Sisters, a group of women who support gun rights, the rally drew several hundred.
"Self-defense is a basic human right, and a firearm is the most effective means of self-defense," said Maria Heil, the group's spokeswoman.
Like LaPierre, Heil said she did not believe Congress would act on the bill extending the ban. She said the rally was timed to coincide with the Million Mom March because "we can't let them go unanswered."
Gun-related killings have declined in the last decade. The latest statistics available show there were 10,808 in 2002, according to the Department of Justice. That is down from a high of 17,048 in 1993, the year before the assault weapon ban was passed.