The "Million Mom March" for gun control brought together thousands at the Washington Mall Sunday.
Moms and their families were out in force Sunday, NBC's John Palmer reports
MSNBC STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON, May 15 — Supported by a strong turnout Sunday, organizers of the "Million Mom March" for gun control hoped to meet with lawmakers Monday. Tens of thousands of mothers, many accompanied by children and husbands, rallied in sight of the Capitol Sunday to demand strict control of handguns while memorializing loved ones and strangers felled by bullets.
Demonstrators gave up the traditional flowers and brunches to spend Mother’s Day on the National Mall. They carried signs that said "Children are Not Bullet Proof," "Guns Don’t Die, People Do," and pointedly, "I Vote."
Some carried pictures of their dead children.
March organizers, whose strategies included a voter registration booth and a place to send "Mother’s Day" cards to Congress, say they hope the protest is the start of a movement to make gun-control sentiments clear to politicians in the next election.
Marchers are demanding what they call "common sense" gun legislation, including the licensing of gun owners and registration of guns, which are common practices in many developed countries.
The march attracted lawmakers and celebrities, but most of the speakers were victims — a teen-age girl who lost her brother, mothers who have buried their children. An art teacher from Columbine High School was on hand, as well as the mother of Kayla Rolland, the 6-year-old killed by a first-grade classmate in Michigan this winter.
Yolanda Reyes, of Washington’s Maryland suburbs, carried a sign saying, "My son is not here this Mother’s Day." Reyes said she moved to the United States from Guatemala 30 years ago to keep her children safe.
Yet one of her six children, Nelson, then 29, was shot to death in 1998 on a Washington, D.C. street by an elderly man who objected to him parking in front of his house.
Organizers estimated the crowd at 750,000, but traditionally such estimates are several times larger than official estimates released by the National Park Service. Park service officials had not announced their estimate Sunday afternoon but said beforehand that they were expecting about 150,000 marchers, in line with most previous major Washington demonstrations.
In addition, 65 companion events were held nationwide.
President Bill Clinton and the first lady kicked off the Million Mom March with a call for gun registration, child safety locks and other gun-safety laws. The president told the rally on the south lawn of the White House not to be swayed by the gun lobby because most of the people side with them and can change America. "Do not be deterred," he said.
Hillary Rodham Clinton said the mothers "have a very simple Mother’s Day message. We don’t want flowers or jewelry. We don’t want a nice card or a fancy meal as much as we want our Congress to do the right thing to protect our children."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32,000 Americans die from gunfire each year through murders, accidents and suicides — or 89 a day. Twelve a day are children and teen-agers.
In addition, a new poll released Sunday by ABC News/The Washington Post found that nearly one in four Americans surveyed say they have been personally threatened with a gun or shot at.
DEFENDING USE OF GUNS
The gun-control advocates didn’t have the day to themselves, however. A considerably smaller group of several thousand counter-demonstrators gathered near the Washington Monument to hold a rally where they argued that guns were needed for protection.
That demonstration, organized by a group called Second Amendment Sisters, Inc., also included mothers who brought their children. The group booed President Clinton’s motorcade as it happened to pass by, returning the president to the White House from church.
"My kids know, if you see a gun, you don’t touch it. You leave the area, you go tell a responsible adult," said Elitza Meyer, from Watchung, N.J.
When opponents of gun control marched toward the Capitol, they came close to "Million Mom March" participants, who jeered and chanted "No NRA, No NRA. Your stupid guns kill."
In response, members of the pro-gun group yelled, "Second Amendment, civil rights. You give up your guns, we’ll give up ours."
Gun-rights advocates say better enforcement and better education is the way to curb gun violence — not more laws.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press" that the NRA is "the Red Cross of firearms safety." He stressed the NRA’s role in gun-safety education, saying, "What makes kids safe — and moms know this — is teaching them to look both ways before they cross the street."
POLITICS OF GUN LEGISLATION
While gun control advocates were hoping the rally was a prod to Congress to act on legislation that has been before it for 10 months, it appears unlikely the congressional standoff on gun control will be resolved this year. Senate-approved gun measures aren’t going anywhere because of strong opposition to controls in the House. Conferees who would work out the differences aren’t even scheduled to meet.
The stalled legislation would require safety locks on weapons and background checks on buyers at gun shows. It also would ban the import of large capacity ammunition clips. Clinton said the legislation would not take guns away from responsible owners or cause anyone to miss a day during the hunting season.
Gun control emerged as a major issue in this year’s presidential and congressional elections after a series of sensational shootings, including the death of 15 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a year ago.
President Clinton has renewed attention on gun control, urging Congress to pass new restrictions, several aimed at keeping guns away from kids. Clinton also wants licensing of gun owners as a "next step." Below are some basics about the debate as viewed by Clinton and the NRA.
ISSUE: In an attempt to curb gun deaths among children, provisions in both houses have called for mandatory child safety locks on all new firearm purchases.
CLINTON: A substantial number of gun owners improperly store their firearms, allowing children easy access that results in hundreds of deaths each month. Trigger locks are a cheap and readily available solution. NRA: Most gunmakers already provide locks and legislating it is just politics. Moreover, requiring locks could potentially cost lives because many owners trying to defend themselves against attackers might not be able to react quickly enough.
ISSUE: In most states it's legal for people to gather at gun shows and sell weapons from their personal collections to anyone without the background check licensed gun dealers must run under the Brady Law. An amendment requiring background checks on gun show purchases passed the Senate, but its future is unclear.
CLINTON: The administration contends that gun shows are bazaars where criminals can buy firepower without leaving a paper trail. Many of the collectors selling the guns make a living as gun dealers, avoiding federal gun laws, according to the White House. NRA: Instant criminal background checks on gun show purchases are reasonable, but the government's scrupulous practice of record keeping on those who pass the check is not. Losing this battle would usher in more gun show restrictions.
ISSUE: Congress outlawed domestically made ammunition clips of more than 10 rounds in 1993. Clips manufactured before that time and many foreign made clips are still in use. The Senate has advanced legislation to ban those imports.
CLINTON: Criminals favor the tens of thousands of high-capacity clips remaining in circulation. Taking that amount of firepower away is essential for safety. NRA: Argues the possession of clips holding more than 10 rounds is a Second Amendment right.
ISSUE: Legislation would require licensing citizens who purchase or receive any handgun or ammunition. Registration would track the transfer or ownership of a specific handgun. Like drivers' licenses, these would be issued by state governments.
CLINTON: Minimum national standards will help to stop interstate gun trafficking and ensure that everyone who buys a handgun in this country is qualified to own one. NRA: Such a system unnecessarily scrutinizes law-abiding citizens while criminals who do not comply escape detection. The government should not license a Second Amendment right.
ISSUE: Bills in both houses seek fines on gun owners if a child gains access to a loaded firearm, and criminal penalties if that gun is used in an act of violence.
CLINTON: Guns in the home increase the chances that they'll be used against family members, often by intruders or children. Parents must be held liable for children's actions resulting from irresponsible storage. NRA: Responsible gun owners already store firearms safely. Government-mandated standards are an invasion of privacy and a step toward abolishing gun ownership for home protection.
Source: NRA; Handgun Control, Inc.; MSNBC research
Organizers say the march has helped meld a loose alliance of gun control supporters into a cohesive unit capable of waging battle with the NRA, the leading lobbyist for gun rights.
And they see gun control emerging as a key election year issue, one that could be — for women of this decade — what equal rights was for women in the 1970s or abortion rights in the 1980s.
March founder Donna Dees-Thomases, a public relations consultant from New Jersey, said her new grass-roots movement will transform itself after the rally into a political organization that will endorse and oppose political candidates.
The likely Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Al Gore, is embracing an ambitious gun control agenda, and his likely Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is offering much more modest steps such as distributing trigger locks to handgun owners.
NRA ON THE DEFENSIVE
Facing the unprecedented anti-gun demonstration just a week before its annual convention gets under way, the NRA has started airing mom-friendly TV and print ads nationwide and announced a $1 million matching grant to pay for firearms safety courses for schoolchildren.
"Can we talk woman to woman?" actress Susan Howard asks in the commercial. "We all want safe kids. And the NRA knows how to make kids safe."
The NRA has fended off new gun laws in Congress even after the Columbine killings stunned the nation and prompted Clinton to step up his campaign for tougher measures.
Whether the Million Moms weaken the NRA’s power depends in part on how politicians react to the throng of stroller-pushing women a few blocks from the Capitol and whether the march leads to grass-roots follow-up in this election year, analysts said.
"After the march is over, the important political question is: ‘What next?’ If nothing happens, it’s just an interesting historical footnote," said Robert Spitzer, who studies gun politics at the State University of New York at Cortland.
MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson, APBNews’ Amy Worden and The Associated Press contributed to this report.