Many Moms' Voices Heard on Mall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2000; Page A01
Mothers, daughters, sisters and others gathered on the Mall yesterday in the largest protest ever against gun violence, sometimes tearfully and often angrily calling on Congress to address their demands.
Young and old, traveling from every corner of the country, the diverse assembly for the Million Mom March stood behind a passionate manifesto calling on the country to fundamentally change how guns are regarded and regulated.
Over and over, women shared details of their personal tragedies, telling of children, brothers and parents killed in accidents, in random violence and by their own hands in moments of desperation. Others confessed their fears that no matter how safe a neighborhood, their sons and daughters still could become tomorrow's victims.
And on a sun-drenched Mother's Day, they and the many speakers delivered a blunt warning to lawmakers who would ignore their voices in the elections this fall.
"We are giving birth to a movement," said Rosie O'Donnell, the television talk show host, who served as mistress of ceremonies. "We are now women and children demanding to be counted... We are the voice of the majority of Americans, and it is time we are heard."
With the U.S. Capitol as her backdrop, O'Donnell made clear the enemy, focusing the marchers' sights on the National Rifle Association and its supporters. "We have had enough... of the NRA and their tactics. Enough of the stranglehold the NRA has in the Congress and Senate. The NRA is buying votes with blood money."
Her challenge drew a massive wave of cheers from the chanting, swaying crowd of several hundred thousand, who packed the Mall from Fourth Street NW to beyond Ninth Street. Their presence, speaker after speaker said during the four-hour afternoon program, would prove a "turning point" in the divisive debate over gun control.
"I stand here before you without any written words. I stand here before you, talking to you from my heart," cried Patricia Anderson of Albuquerque, honoring a son who was shot but survived. "Mothers, we have shed tears for our children. Let's make our tears a river... a raging river of votes [to] get our legislators out of office if they do not want stricter gun controls."
Across the Mall at Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW, a counter-rally organized by the Second Amendment Sisters attracted hundreds of people, about half of them men, to call for vigilant defense of the constitutional right to bear arms and defend family and property.
Susan Camarata, 39, a mother of two, drove down from suburban Philadelphia to talk about the crime that persuaded her to begin carrying a gun. Fourteen years ago, she was robbed, beaten, choked and raped by a man from whom she had asked directions. She managed to escape and later testified to help send him to prison.
"I fear for my life when he gets out," she said, although she now arms herself with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. "Now I can defend myself and my children."
Million Mom March organizers claimed their demonstration drew as many as 750,000 people to Washington. The crowd did not appear as large as other events that have received lower estimates, but with U.S. Park Police no longer providing a count because of the disagreement that inevitably ensues, the organizers' calculation was the only one available yesterday.
Even accounting for a boosterish inflation of the estimate, the historic rally was unquestionably the largest public gathering against gun violence in the country's history. The second-largest, held last year in Denver in protest of the NRA's annual meeting there, counted 12,000 people.
Across the country, thousands of other women also gathered at sister protests in more than five dozen cities. Although there were gun-rights gatherings in several of them--sometimes literally across the street--police reported no conflicts between the groups.
The NRA responded to the day's activities via television. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Executive Vice President Wayne La Pierre said that education was the way to keep young people safe from gun accidents and that stricter prosecution would make for safer streets. But political measures such as handgun licensing and registration "are a controlled burn of the Second Amendment," he said, "and setting fire to freedom should never be the answer."
In the middle of the national Million Mom March, an Arlington man who dared raise a pro-gun defense was booed as he walked down the Mall's gravel sidewalk. Robert Jennings's sign declared, "My mom is a gun owner, a great shot and a great mom," and he held it up high. "I grew up in a family that had guns, where shooting was a family activity," he explained, "and our guns never killed anybody."
But his was only one of the thousands of posters and banners carried aloft, and it was the other message that carried the day.
Many had traveled all night to reach Washington. Anne Claftin, of Newton, Mass., rode on a bus bringing supporters from New England. She left her six grown children and 13 grandchildren back home and came solo.
"I just decided I wanted to do this for myself, and for them," said the former teacher, who is 60. "I just feel that moms are going to make a difference."
And from Oswego, N.Y., drove Freda Bowman, 55, with her own mother, 95-year-old Ann Weber. They met up with Bowman's daughter and cousin, who live in Northern Virginia, and all took turns pushing the family matriarch in her wheelchair. A passerby gave Weber a single red rose.
"I don't know if we have a constitutional right to keep our children safe, but we should," Bowman said.
Kristi Anderson and Elizabeth Cregan arrived from St. Paul, Minn., with photos of their mother, slain in a gang ambush on a Chicago street 24 years ago. Three bullets hit their father. The sisters, both stay-at-home moms with young children, bypassed Chicago's rally to come to "the big one" in Washington. "If the politicians ignore us, they're fools, because a lot of people are voting this issue," said Cregan, 40.
And although Charmaine Jones lives as close as Alexandria, she was up at 4 a.m. to get ready for the march. Jones, along with 2-month-old Sierra and 8-year-old Lashae, was among the 1,000 mothers hosted at a morning reception at the White House. She let Lashae explain why they were involved.
"Because my daddy died," the second-grader said quietly, standing beside her new sister's baby carriage. "He got killed by a 16-year-old."
The stories shared from the demonstration's main stage were equally tragic. The audience needed little background on some.
"Lauren, we are here, our arms are wrapped around you and the children of the nation," said Dawn Anna, who remembered the daughter killed last year in the massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School.
The day began with a morning interfaith worship service that opened with an Islamic call to prayer and offered scripture from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, from the Hindu, Baha'i and Sikh traditions.
And then, led by an African drumming group from Richmond, thousands marched toward the main stage, pushing in until the Mall for blocks was nothing but solid bodies.
The event included the ringing of a 400-pound bell made of melted handguns. Twelve boys and girls came forward one by one--symbolic of the 12 children who gun-control proponents say are shot and killed daily in the United States. Gun-rights advocates bitterly contest the statistic, saying that most of the deaths involve 18- and 19-year-olds in drug and gang violence.
The program blended celebrity with advocacy. Speakers included actresses Reese Witherspoon and Susan Sarandon; Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, both daughters of Robert F. Kennedy; two congressmen who have lost relatives to gun violence; and singers Melissa Etheridge and Courtney Love.
On stage, Laura Wallace and Renae Marsh Williams talked about their children, Wilson High School students Andre Wallace and Natasha Marsh, sweethearts slain on a District street in February. "I've been praying, 'Andre, give me the words,' " Wallace said.
Elsewhere on the Mall, the march mood alternated between festive and somber. Between the play at a "children's village" where clowns and games entertained, to the tears at a memorial wall that lists the names of 4,001 victims of gun violence.
Founder Donna Dees-Thomases of New Jersey, a publicist on leave from CBS Entertainment, announced late in the day that the Million Mom March will move forward on two fronts, creating a foundation for educational efforts and an organization for political lobbying and community outreach. It will continue to press for handgun licensing and registration, safety locks, limited monthly purchases and more stringent background checks of buyers.
Whether the political landscape has already changed remains to be seen.
"Only if we follow through on it," said Rep. Constance A. Morella of Maryland, one of the few Republican lawmakers from Congress to attend. "Realistically, it's got to start tomorrow."
Staff writers Christian Davenport, David Fallis, Maria Glod, Steven Gray, Carol Morello, Emily Wax, April Witt and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.
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