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Women mobilizing over gun control

Million Mom March and Armed Informed Mothers March reflect opposite stands next Sunday in D.C.

Sunday, May 07, 2000

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When 6-year-old Lili Thomases recently learned to read, according to her mother, the first phrase she recognized was "Mobilize for common sense gun control."

 
   
The Million Mom March

Local women join Million Mom March next Sunday to fight guns

Some moms to oppose gun law reform

 
 

Lili's choice of reading material isn't accidental. Her mom is Donna Dees-Thomases, creator of the Million Mom March against gun violence in Washington D.C. on Mother's Day, May 14.

Shaken and angered by a shooting at a California day camp for young children, Dees-Thomases, a New Jersey mother of two young girls, nine months ago conceived the idea of a mothers' march for stricter gun control laws.

"Nursery school should be the safest place for children. They might fall off a swing and skin their knee, but they shouldn't have to worry about getting shot at," says Dees-Thomases, 42.

Since then, Dees-Thomases' idea has blossomed into a national event that has attracted hundreds of volunteers, 300 endorsing organizations, dozens of sponsors and more than $1 million in donations.

Although only those personally touched by gun violence will be permitted to speak, television personality Rosie O'Donnell will emcee the march events, and first lady Hilary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to attend,

Dees-Thomases originally anticipated 10,000 marchers. The number expected now has grown to 100,000 in Washington, with thousands more expected at events in 40-plus cities nationwide.

Overall, Dees-Thomases hopes to have a million "mothers and others" marching on Mother's Day for "common-sense gun laws," including the mandatory registering and licensing of handguns.

Pennsylvania tops all other states in numbers of marchers expected to take part -- more than 4,000. Nearly 500 will ride buses from southwestern Pennsylvania, and many more will go to Washington on their own, says Cathie Kopecky, the Pittsburgh Million Mom March coordinator.

"I don't have children, but I love kids," says Kopecky. "I believe in the right to bear arms, but I also believe it needs to be done legally, and I believe people should be responsible."

The Million Mom March has grown large enough to attract a counter-protest. A Dallas-based group, called the Second Amendment Sisters, plans a separate Mother's Day march in the nation's capital. That event, called the Armed Informed Mother's March (AIMM), is intended to "show the American public that not all women are pro-gun control."

Both groups see their marches as kickoff events, the beginning of new movements to promote their side of the gun-control issue. And both groups expect to make their voices heard in the November elections.

"I think you're going to see a lot of Second Amendment supporters and gun owners making a big deal about this in the elections," says Sue Swanson, Ohio coordinator for the AIMM event.

Dees-Thomases agreed. "We plan to make this an issue all through the November elections and beyond."

Polls indicate that a majority of U.S. voters favor tighter gun-control. The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that six in 10 Americans believe it should be made more difficult to buy firearms. The poll shows little difference between parents of young children and adults with no young children.

But there is a major difference between men and women, with 71 percent of women supporting tougher laws, while just 50 percent of men do.

The major presidential candidates, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, differ sharply on the issue.

Gore staunchly supports stricter gun controls and has called for photo licensing for handgun purchases, required child-safety locks on handguns, limiting gun sales to one a month per person and increasing gun-related criminal penalties.

All of these measures are supported by the Million Mom March. The Second Amendment Sisters/AIMM members oppose all of them, except perhaps for increasing penalties for crimes committed with guns.

Bush, as governor of Texas, approved legislation to allow Texans to carry concealed weapons. Like the Second Amendment Sisters, he opposes government-mandated registration of guns, the core demand of the Million Mom March. His campaign has also endorsed stronger enforcement of existing gun laws, voluntary efforts to equip all handguns with child-safety locks and increasing the minimum age for handgun possession from 18 to 21.

Dees-Thomases said she never believed that her emotional reaction to the California day camp shooting last summer would lead to a major national event. But after developing the idea for the Million Mom March, she immediately applied for a National Park Service permit to hold the event on the Mall on Mother's Day 2000.

As a part-time public relations specialist for the David Letterman TV show and past publicist for "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," Dees-Thomases is savvy about getting media attention. She has a White House connection: Her sister-in-law, Susan Thomases, is a close friend of the first family.

A steering committee, "The 100 Founding Mothers," was formed. The group created a Web site, www.millionmommarch.com, and before long attracted supporters from across the country.

Recently, the group set up shop in donated space in a nondescript Washington office building. Dozens of volunteers and a few paid staffers answer 75 phone lines -- a big change since the first days, when Dees-Thomases had one answering machine and two volunteers to take messages.

While Dees-Thomases emphasizes that her group doesn't advocate a ban on guns, opponents of gun control remain unconvinced.

Heil, the Pennsylvania AIMM coordinator, contends that the "Million Mom people want to shred the Second Amendment. They say they just want handguns to be licensed and registered, like cars. But driving is a privilege that you have to earn. The ability to bear arms and defend yourself is a right."

The Second Amendment Sisters, after determining that it was important to counter the message of the Million Mom March, created its own Web site, www.sas-aim.org, and organized a group of volunteer coordinators in many states.

Acknowledging that her group got a later start than the Million Mom March, Heil says she's still hoping to get 1,000 Pennsylvanians to journey to Washington for the AIMM event. "I believe in miracles," she said.



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