Tens of thousands of American women are expected to converge on Washington this Sunday -- Mothers' Day in the U.S. -- for what is called the "Million Mom March," a protest demonstration intended to push the U.S. Congress into enacting stricter controls on handguns. The marchers will collide with the constitutionally guaranteed right to keep and bear arms, a right cherished and supported by great numbers of Americans, including women who plan a counter-demonstration against more gun laws. RFE/RL correspondent Julie Moffett previews the event.
Washington, 12 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The choice of the traditional Mothers' Day commemoration in the U.S. for the "Million Mom March," is significant: Mothers' Day originated during the American Civil War of 1861-65 to remind women to take care of each other's sons during that time of national strife. Sunday's demonstration is expected to draw more than 150,000 people to Washington and thousands more in about 20 other cities across the nation.
Donna Dees-Thomases, the founder of the Million Mom March, says she conceived the idea for the march after witnessing a gunman's attack on a daycare center in California in 1999. She says the march is not about banning guns, but about urging the U.S. Congress to enact "sensible" gun laws such as requiring background investigations of all buyers, as well as licensing, training and registering gun owners. She said:
"We're going to push for this legislation: licensing and registration, because that's really the true focus of this day, May 14."
Jacquie Algee, another march organizer, told reporters that it shouldn't be too much to ask that all gun owners be required to register their weapons.
"We license drivers and register automobiles, and we think that, in terms of gun ownership, we should ask and necessarily require that the same be applied."
Algee's son and only child was shot dead by a group of teenagers. She says her efforts with the Million Mom March are an attempt to keep the memory of her son alive by "helping to save other children and our communities from this horrible, horrible violence."
Gun control is a hotly debated issue in the United States. Guns have long played a prominent role in American history, politics and culture. They were a critical part of America's struggle against Britain during the Revolutionary War -- so important that the right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, just after freedom of speech, press and the right to a peaceful assembly. Some historians say that guns are still considered by many Americans as a way for ordinary citizens to fight back against an oppressive government.
But several high-profile incidents over the past few years, such as the shooting at the daycare in California and a series of school shootings, including the rampage of two gun-carrying students at Columbine High School in Colorado last spring, have mobilized gun control advocates.
According to the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 630 children up to the age of 14 died in firearm incidents in 1997, the most recent year for which data is available. That averages 1.7 deaths a day by guns. The numbers are higher when children aged 15 to 19 are included.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control says that 50 percent of American children age nine to 17 are worried about dying young, and 31 percent of students ages 12 to 17 know someone who carries a gun.
U.S. President Bill Clinton strongly supports the march and has tried on many occasions during his tenure to pass gun control legislation in the Congress without success. He calls the march "profoundly important" and said "it is unconscionable" that the Congress will not enact "sensible" gun control legislation.
"Why is this the only area of our national life where we don't have prevention as our primary strategy?"
Yet many Americans remain fiercely opposed to any more gun control legislation, saying authorities simply need to make more of an effort to enforce current laws.
One such group calls itself the Second Amendment Sisters. It intends to have its own counter-march in Washington on Sunday. The co-founder of the group, Kim Watson, says that she and others like her will march to show Congress that not all moms support additional gun control legislation.
Watson says that research has shown that in jurisdictions where strict gun control measures are in effect, the result is almost always that gun control increases violent crime by shifting the balance of power to favor criminals while disarming helpless victims.
"It is time to start enforcing the existing violent crime laws, rather than wasting taxpayer money on harassment and punishment of non-violent firearms owners," Watson said in a written statement.
On their Internet site, the Sisters accuse the organizers of the Million Mom March of irresponsibly using gun violence statistics to terrify Americans. The group insists that safety programs and firearms training is responsible for a nearly 50 percent decline in the number of children's shooting accidents over the last 25 years, despite increases in population and number of guns in circulation.
Gun control opponents have powerful allies in Congress and other important political offices.
For example, Congressman Tom Delay (R-Texas) whose office in the U.S. Capitol was attacked in 1998 by a gunman who killed two police officers, says there are enough gun laws already in existence, adding that it's a travesty when "politicians use tragedies to advance their political causes."
Suzanna Gratia Hupp, a member of the Texas State Legislature and an opponent of stricter gun control legislation, said she thinks the participants of the Million Mom March are "very well-intentioned, but just terribly misguided." In an interview with CNN she said:
"I have a four-year-old, I have a two-year-old, and I know from personal experience that by the very definition, the only people who obey these laws are the good guys. The bad guys don't obey the law. Those things (gun laws) are an absolute waste of legislative paper."
Hupp's life has also been scarred by gun violence. In 1991, her parents were among 21 people killed when a gunman opened fire in a Texas restaurant. Hupp believes that had she been allowed to carry a concealed weapon, she could have stopped the killer.
Organizers of the Million Mom March insist the political momentum is on their side. They say this will be evident in the large turn-out expected on Sunday. Moreover, the group says it intends to make gun control policy an important issue in the congressional elections scheduled for this fall.
They conclude: "The hope is that this Mother's Day, from every part of the country, a voice of reason will ring out demanding that Congress take action this session."