WASHINGTON --- Ten years ago, on Mother’s Day 2000, some three-quarters of a million people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the largest demonstration in history supporting stricter gun laws.
Painstakingly constructed through word of mouth, basement phone banks and Kinko’s copies by a ragtag band of volunteers with almost no organizing experience, the crowd stunningly exceeded expectations. The event revitalized the national push for common-sense gun laws to protect America’s children and gave birth to a broad national network of activists. Satellite events in 73 cities added nearly a quarter of a million more activists to the day’s remarkable place in the history of the fight against gun violence.
As the Million Mom March celebrates its 10th anniversary, the event has left in its historical wake a web of activists who remain committed to the struggle against gun violence despite the difficulty of passing federal legislation during the tenure of the Bush Administration. Its leaders have built strong Chapters and local coalitions that have helped to pass strong gun laws on the local and state levels.
The urgency for national action continues: since that day of bright skies and warm air, an estimated 872,247 Americans have been killed or injured with firearms. .
The Million Mom March - whose volunteers joined forces with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in 2001 - has Chapters nationwide, and volunteers have played an instrumental role in passing both local and state laws across the country. The Chapters are continuing their local activities and are currently working to persuade their U.S.
Representatives and U.S. Senators to support pending legislation in Congress to close the gun show loophole.
“We’re making progress all the time. I am proud to say that here in my home state of California, elected officials know who we are and they know that there’s a cost to crossing us,” says Mary Leigh Blek, who served as the President of the Million Mom March organization after the event on the Mall. “We have made progress in our communities, but now we need to turn our energy to passing federal legislation.”
On May 14, 2000, with buses of activists pulling into Washington D.C. from virtually every state in the nation, the Washington Post and ABC News reported the results of a poll of 1,068 adults showing that about one in 10 reported having been shot at and nearly one in four had experienced a gun pointed at them. A 400-pound bell made of melted firearms was rung. A “Wall of Death” carried the names of 4,001 gun violence victims. Women’s movement leaders like Rosie O’Donnell, Susan Sarandon and Melissa Etheridge were joined by elected officials including Congresswomen Connie Morella of Maryland and Carolyn McCarthy of New York, and many others. The crowd included thousands of children.
Few might have believed back then that the activists would stay committed, but they have. In fact, two days after the 2000 March, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote, “in this cynical, media-saturated time, it’s hard for anyone to conceive of something so old-fashioned as a political movement with members who sustain their commitment over time and do unglamorous organizing work when cameras aren’t around.”
It certainly has been unglamorous most of the time, says Joan Peterson, a Brady Campaign board member and the President of the Minnesota Million Mom Chapters.
“There's nothing glamorous about manning a table outside a grocery store on a cold Duluth winter day, or pulling weeds in a memorial garden, or phone banking members of the state legislature, but that's how we get things done here in Minnesota,” Peterson said. “And I know my fellow Moms all around the country do the same basics, so we can make a difference and reduce gun violence."
Million Mom March founder Donna Dees-Thomases, who once said her band of organizers had “never organized anything more complicated than a car pool,” authored a compelling book about the March called Looking for a Few Good Moms.
“From the beginning, the idea of the Million Mom March was to affect change on gun policy at the local level, in their own communities. More than 800,000 have died or been injured since the March, but there’s no telling how many lives have been saved through the education and advocacy of these volunteers. While we have had many accomplishments over the last 10 years, there is still more to do,” said Dees-Thomases. “Now is the time to exercise the strength of our local Chapters to apply political pressure on local representatives - many of whom they helped elect - to pass strong and effective federal legislation.”
The Million Mom March Chapters successes can be found at the local, state and national levels. At the local level, Chapters across the country have given gun violence victims a voice calling for stronger gun laws, holding candlelight vigils, rallies, and lobbying their elected officials.
At the state level, Chapters have led many successful fights to pass new gun laws:
· In 2001, the New Jersey Million Mom March Chapters helped pass
groundbreaking legislation to require all new handguns to have childproof safety features, and last year worked with state partners to pass a new law to stop large volume purchases of handguns that will help combat illegal gun trafficking.
· In 2005, the Illinois Million Mom March Chapters helped to pass
legislation to close the gun show loophole in that state;
· In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech by a mentally ill
person in 2007, Chapter leaders in Minnesota, Texas, New York, Washington, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina successfully pushed for new laws to ensure that disqualifying mental health records be uploaded to the National Instant Check System for firearm purchases.
· In California, Chapters have helped to pass new gun laws
including a ban on .50 caliber sniper rifles, requiring all new semi-automatic handguns to have “microstamping” technology that will help law enforcement solve gun crimes, and just last year helped pass legislation to require handgun ammunition vendors to keep purchaser records to aid police in tracking down armed criminals;
Chapters have also helped to fend off attempts by the gun lobby to pass legislation forcing colleges and universities to allow virtually anyone to carry loaded hidden guns into classrooms and dormitories. The gun lobby has failed 35 times in 22 states to pass such a law
At the national level, Million Mom March Chapters showcased their power in 2002 when the H&R Block company backed down in the face of a well-publicized, coordinated nationwide protest over H&R Block’s scheme to donate money to the NRA for each NRA member tax preparation.
Blek said at the time “H&R Block’s sweetheart deal with the NRA flies in the face of corporate and social responsibility. Consumers and investors need to know that H&R Block’s contributions are funding a powerful political lobby that fights reasonable gun violence prevention measures at every turn.”
After a barrage of phone calls, e-mails and letters and the threat of nationwide protests by Million Mom March Chapters and state-based gun violence prevention organizations, H&R Block was forced to quickly change its policy.
Currently, Chapters around the country are protesting Starbucks’
decision to allow loaded guns on their premises. Chapters have already participated in protests at coffee shops in Denver; Seattle; Alexandria, Virginia and throughout California to urge Starbucks to adopt a “no guns” policy in their establishments nationwide. More protests are being planned.
Chapter leaders are also getting elected to office. In Missouri, former St. Louis Chapter leaders, Stacey Newman and Jeanne Kirkton won their races for State Representative. And recently, Eileen Filler-Corn was elected in Virginia as a House Delegate.
Million Mom March Chapters are now setting their sights on passing strong federal legislation to close the gun show loophole. Momentum has been building for the pending legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Castle
(R-DE) and Rep. McCarthy (D-NY) in the House and Sen. Frank Lautenberg
(D-NJ) in the Senate. Chapter leaders across the country have been a driving force in securing more than 100 House co-sponsors on the bill that has led to a pledge to hold hearings on the legislation.
The anniversary will receive special recognition at a May 18 Brady Center event at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, where journalist Helen Thomas will also be honored. A number of other events are taking place around the country between Sunday and May
14 to mark the tenth anniversary. (See details,
www.bradycampaign.org/chapters/chapteractivities.) In addition, scores of activists have shared their personal thoughts about the anniversary and the issue at a website called MothersDayProject2010.org.
Not every battle over the last 10 years has had a winning outcome, but the display of conviction and energy produced by these activists has nevertheless been remarkable even when they suffer setbacks. For example, in 2004 Million Mom March activists secured the donation of a 26-foot recreational vehicle, had it painted bright pink (the official Million Mom March color scheme) and drove it more than 8,500 miles around the country, stopping in scores of cities and towns to urge Congress to reauthorize the federal assault weapons ban. The ban, unfortunately, expired in September 2004.
As Dees-Thomases wrote at the conclusion of her book on the March, “at the end of the day, May 14, 2000, 12 mothers would end their Mother’s Day by learning that their child had died at the end of a gun barrel. One of the children who died that day was B.J. Stupak, the teenage son of Congressman Bart Stupak. He committed suicide with a gun.”
“The Million Mom March activists have learned that with efforts to reduce gun violence patience is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity,” said Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign.
“People like Joan Peterson know, though, that even the hardest Minnesota winter gives way to spring. Progress, while slow, will come, and these efforts will be rewarded.”
As Dionne wrote in the Post in 2000, “these mothers have a broader opportunity if they want to take it. A century ago, organized women’s groups, concerned about the effects of industrialization on families and children, let loose a reform spirit that dominated public policy for 50 years*
“The moms can win this one. But a march is only a start.”
The resolve remains, activists promise. “What the gun lobby doesn’t seem to get is that we are in this fight to stay,” said Dana Sanchez Quist, who helped organize the 2000 March and currently serves as President of the Florida Million Mom March Chapters. “We're not going anywhere. We'll never stop fighting for sensible laws to protect our kids.”