WASHINGTON - Saying there is no political force more powerful than a mother's wrath, hundreds of thousands of mothers made an emotional call yesterday for tighter gun laws to help protect their children.
At times with rage and tears, the mothers promised that this event would be more than a one-day outcry on a sunny Mother's Day afternoon. They pledged to build a grass-roots movement for tough new gun laws that would continue its work in their hometowns and at the polls. "It does my heart good to look out and see all these people -- all with the same goal, all with so much voting power," said Maisha Enaharo, 48, a mother from Rochester, N.Y., as she stared into a sea of signs and strollers. "All I can think is, it's about time, thank God. And it's only the beginning."
Under a cobalt sky, mothers piled their families on the National Mall as they mixed pleas for safer streets with chilling tales of gun tragedy. Drawing on what they called their moral authority as mothers, they lobbied for "sensible gun laws" and demanded that U.S. lawmakers require the registration of all guns and the licensing of all gun owners.
Victims of gun violence - from gun-control activist Sarah Brady, the wife of wounded White House press secretary James Brady, to rock star Courtney Love - blamed the more than 32,000 gun-related deaths in the United States each year on current laws surrounding the sale and regulation of guns.
Throughout the crowd, demonstrators told their own stories of loss and held signs with pictures of their murdered loved ones, such as the one that simply read, "In Memory - Dustin - Age 10."
Again and again, the National Rifle Association was their target.
Of the NRA, celebrity emcee Rosie O'Donnell intoned, "They are organized and they are scary. Do not be afraid of them. They say we cannot defeat the gun lobby. They are wrong."
Addressing the crowd, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the American Hebrew Congregations, called the NRA "the real criminals' lobby in this country ... drenched in the blood of murdered children. " A mother in the crowd called NRA supporters "devils."
Just down the Mall, several hundred people gathered for a gun-rights rally by the Second Amendment Sisters, a freshly minted organization that grew out of response to the Million Mom rally. "Do you think I should remain passive when there are criminals out there with guns?" argued Jeff Erycole, a gun-rights demonstrator from Indiana.
For many, the day was as much about painful memories as politics. "It's Mother's Day and my son's not with me and I guess it's just bittersweet," said Fran Block, 47, the Reisterstown mother of 18-year-old Aaron David Goodrich, who was killed in the triple-murder at a Washington, D.C., Starbucks three years ago. "Maybe if the gun was registered, it might not have taken two years to find the career criminal that killed him."
The event was considered the largest-ever demonstration against gun violence in Washington. March organizers offered an optimistic crowd count of about 750,000 people.
The National Park Service - whose crowd counts of Washington demonstrations were usually more conservative than those of event organizers - no longer issues such estimates.
Politics at the core
Politics was at the day's heart. Speakers used the day for personal reflection on gun violence and vowed to make it a national turning-point in the battle against the gun industry. "I am not a great believer that good always comes out of tragedy," said Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, referring to the assassination of her father, Robert F. Kennedy. She vowed: "We cannot reverse the loss but we can remember the victims and we can make certain that they did not die in vain."
In the crowd, mothers from Columbine High School talked of their recurring nightmares. From the stage, the march's Maryland coordinator, Carole Price, cried out to her slain 13-year-old son, "This is for you, John Boy."
The charged emotions of the day bubbled over in the afternoon, when three men migrated up the Mall from the Second Amendment Sisters rally. The men held high signs that read, "Crooks Don't Register Their Guns" and "Fight Crime With Self-Defense"
In response, mothers' shouts of "Shame on you!" "Boo!" and "NRA Go Away!" grew so loud they threatened to drown out the speakers.
A woman with a photograph rushed Erycole, the gun-rights activist from Indiana. "A gun killed my friend!" she yelled, in tears, shoving the picture of the friend at him. Two mothers shoved the men. A few demonstrators tried to trap the men with a human blockade, to keep them from moving deeper into the rally. The men eventually were led out of the crowd by Million Mom volunteers.
The day had its lighter moments. Mothers, many of them demonstrating in Washington for the first time in their lives, blew bubbles with their kids, bought them Popsicles and took them to see a man in a giant Gumby suit.
Eyes on elections
March organizers hope gun-control will become the deciding issue in the upcoming congressional and presidential elections, and are trying to reach across party lines to make it happen. While many marchers were Democrats - the party that traditionally supports gun-control - some GOP moms turned out as well. "I think the NRA is taking control - they have more political power than anyone," said Diane Gregory, 39, a mother from Allentown, Pa., who said she would not vote for likely Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush because he does not favor the sweeping gun laws she supports. "I am so frightened for my kids. This issue is so important to me, it is the only thing that matters when I vote now."
The event had a decidedly Democratic cast, with some mothers holding signs for Democratic presidential contender Al Gore. Earlier in the day, President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton led a preliminary rally for the moms outside the White House.
The president countered arguments that gun control violates the Second Amendment. "We license car owners and we register cars and we have speed limits and we have child safety restraint laws and we have seat belt laws, and you don't hear people talk about car control," Clinton told the gathering. "When is the last time you heard somebody stand up and give a speech about the imminent evils of car control?"
The Secret Service had dashed any plans to bring the Clintons to the march, deciding it would be too disruptive.
The Million Mom March was launched by Donna Dees-Thomases, a mother from suburban New Jersey who mobilized a savvy public relations machine. Dees-Thomases - on leave from CBS News and a sister-in-law of the first lady's good friend Susan Thomases - secured the backing and financial contributions from Washington gun-control organizations.
Dees-Thomases hopes to keep the movement alive by working with the Bell Campaign, a national anti-gun group that intends to survey all federal, state and local lawmakers on the gun issue. Armed with a long list of names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses - and a well-traveled Million Mom Web site - the Bell Campaign plans to recruit Million Mom participants to work for anti-gun candidates.
But yesterday, it was unclear how the participants would stay organized beyond the march. Some demonstrators, such as Enaharo, sounded a little mystified about what comes next. "I don't know if there are any plans for us," she said.
But others were certain theirs would be a lasting voice in the gun debate. "This is about waking people up - it's about the power of mothers," said Mary Jane Abrahamson, 51, of Morristown, N.J., whose teen-age niece committed suicide with a gun. "We're here to ignite a movement."