WASHINGTON -- In this weekend's Million Mom March, the images will be formidable: Mothers weeping over children lost to gun violence, mothers pushing strollers up Capitol Hill in a call for action, mothers flooding the National Mall in a show of organizational strength.
Tens of thousands of women expected to gather here Sunday for the Mother's Day rally will brandish their maternal instincts like weapons as they call for tougher gun control laws, presenting a powerful public relations threat to the gun lobby and mommifying an old Washington war over gun laws.
"Who can attack it?" asks Andrew McGuire, who heads the Bell Campaign, a national anti-gun group sponsoring the Million Moms. "No authority is unassailable in America anymore except mothers."
The mothers are trying to take the gun debate out of Congress and onto the streets. Nine months ago, Donna Dees-Thomases, a mother from Short Hills, N.J., was horrified by shootings at a Jewish community center in California.. Envisioning a march with women who lost children to gun violence, she declared, "If Congress thinks the gun lobby is scary, wait until they come up against angry mothers."
Protesters in this rally - which, contrary to its title, organizers anticipate will involve an estimated 100,000 gun control advocates - will not have the field completely to themselves. A far smaller group called the Second Amendment Sisters, perhaps several thousand, also will rally that day to argue that strict gun laws put mothers and children at risk.
The spokeswomen on both sides will be mothers.
"We have a tradition of maternalist politics, of women reformers using their status as mothers to argue that we need to take care of society," says Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin.
Historians note that over the years, women have led powerful protests using the argument that they are the nation's nurturers - although they have not always been on the side of the angels. After all, the scholars say, while mothers-only groups lobbied for abolition, they also rallied for the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most notable examples of maternal power is Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has grown to 600 chapters nationwide.
Dees-Thomases sees a new mother's movement in the making.
"Mothers are usually the ones who know their kid is going to fall off the swing before the child does. The mother has an instinct for when her child is in danger," says Dees-Thomases, who adds that she and her friends dreamed up the march as they sat around her kitchen table. "We're the ones who look around and say, 'How are all these people getting guns? How can our children be safe?'"
Organizers promote the march as a grass-roots event - Dees-Thomases is calling on mothers to just "gas up the minivans" and come to D.C. - but it's clear this rally was not just thrown together during nap time. The event carries a price tag of nearly $2 million for organization, promotion, and the costs of renting equipment such as sound stages. It enjoys the backing of prominent gun-control groups and corporate sponsors such as Viacom Inc. and Guess jeans.
The goals are ambitious. While Maryland's successful battle to enact a trigger-lock law was hard-fought, the mothers look at such legislation as only a starting point. They are demanding federal laws requiring gun registration and licensing of all handgun owners.
The event is making savvy use of public relations - with celebrity emcee Rosie O'Donnell and appearances by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Raffi. To generate a crowd, the moms took to the Internet, with a Web site promoting "action packets" and offering public relations tips to help get the Million Mom message out. (The address: www.millionmommarch.com.)
At the center of Sunday's activities will be testimonials by the mothers themselves. Some are battle-tested spokeswomen, delivering their stories as though reading a press release. Others are more recent survivors of gun violence, coming to Washington in search of comfort.
Like Carolyn Lusby. Two weeks ago, she buried her son, Russell, a 14-year-old freshman at Bowie High School. Russell died in his brother's arms, allegedly shot by the uncle of a friend whom police say was showing off a gun. At her son's funeral, some mothers told Lusby about the rally.
As she marches, Lusby will argue that if guns were harder to acquire, her youngest boy might be alive. She will ask how he was harmed in a place she assumed was safe, a suburb of ranch-style houses she chose after her old neighborhood, also in Prince George's, grew too rough.
"Why would you be scared there?" she asks, teary-eyed, sitting in her living room near a picture of her son. "But our children are safe nowhere."
The Million Mom March has attracted powerful backers, including President Clinton, who - accompanied by the first lady - will speak at the event. The group has turned down an offer to speak from Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, hoping to avoid the appearance of a partisan campaign event. Nonetheless, most of the group's marquee supporters are Democrats. The best-known GOP participant will be Rep. Constance Morella, of Montgomery County.
Wary of appearing anti-mom if it gets in a war of words with the mothers, the National Rifle Association is arguing a different issue. Instead of debating gun registration, it has challenged the mothers to raise $1 million for the NRA's gun safety education program - an ongoing campaign to which the pro-gun group this week added $1 million.
"We all want safe kids," reads a new, full-page NRA advertisement that appeared in USA Today this week. The ad includes a plea to put the organization's gun-safety course in every school in the country.
Other groups reject the Million Mom reasoning.
"If I see somebody stabbed, I don't go throw out my Chicago Cutlery knives," said Juli Bednarzyk, 33, a founder of the Second Amendment Sisters, which organized in response to the Million Mom March. "You can't be swayed by the emotions and the pictures. It's just responsible (to own a gun) - 200,000 sexual assaults per year are fought off with the use of a firearm."
Some Million Mom organizers wonder if they couldn't have made a stronger case for themselves by widening the recruiting targets. With leaders drawn mostly from affluent white suburbs, those activists worry the event may fail to draw attention to losses in poor, largely black urban neighborhoods.
"A lot of (the recruiting) was done through the Internet and there are a lot of inner-city folks who don't have computers," said Claudette Perry, a Washington, D.C., organizer. "If we had more time, and if African-Americans did know about it nationally, there would be more involved."
The test of the rally's lasting effectiveness will lie in what its members do once they get home. The Bell Campaign, a grass-roots organization, hopes to survey every elected official, from city council member to U.S. senator, and organize mothers at campaign rallies. For now, many simply hope this march brings a measure of closure.
Christine Todd, 51, of Northern Virginia, has only begun to talk publicly about the day in 1996 when her brother-in-law shot and killed her younger sister, leaving Todd to raise her 12-year-old niece. For years, she has been haunted by a dream. "I was watching my sister and she was falling down this black hole and she had this infant in her arms and she threw it to me," she recalls.
Now Todd is ready to fight back.
"I'm at the point now where I'm angry," she says. "And I won't be quiet about it. They're going to hear my voice loud and clear."