NEW YORK — Donna Dees-Thomases and Joanne Eisen both feel strongly about guns - so much so that each is determined to turn her passion into political action.
But that's about all the suburban New Jersey mother and the Long Island dentist have in common.
Ms. Thomases, shaken last August by TV images of preschoolers being led out of a Los Angeles day camp after a gunman went on a rampage, took it upon herself to organize a "Million Mom March" in support of gun control.
Ms. Eisen, who can't shake the image of her terrified secretary as a robber held a gun to her head during an office holdup, is on a crusade to ensure her right to bear arms is never infringed upon. The two represent opposing sides in the gun-control debate - an issue that has become increasingly pertinent to women since the Columbine High shootings and one that is expected to play a pivotal role in the coming election. And both parties are looking to women - the vast majority of whom support restrictions on gun ownership.
Vice President Al Gore has made gun control a pillar of his campaign. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has recently distanced himself from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and applauded New York Gov. George Pataki (R) for his surprising endorsement of a package of gun-control measures. In these candidate positions, analysts see an effort to become more appealing to suburban mothers like Thomases.
Delivering the vote
Gun-control supporters may have numbers on their side, but opponents like Eisen have a far better political track record - primarily because they tend to be adamant, single-issue voters.
"Although a majority of US adults and an even bigger majority of women support most gun-control proposals, the unanswered question is, will they vote on their position as fervently as opponents of gun control [do]," says Jon Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
If they do this year what they haven't done in previous elections, the NRA could find itself in real trouble.
A majority of Americans favor trigger locks or other safety devices on all guns, as well as background checks for gun buyers. But the percentage of support is highest among women. For example, 76 percent of men favor trigger locks, compared with 90 percent of women.
Thomases, a mother of two and a part-time publicist, readily admits she was apathetic politically, until August. Then she decided to galvanize mothers across the country. Chapters of the Million Mom March have popped up in 40 states, and she hopes the May 14 rally will prompt tens of thousands of mothers to come out, and then to go to the polls in November.
"We're the ones having to pass the security guards now at nursery schools. This is no way to live," she says. "We're at a crossroads right now."
For Thomases, it is a simple question of working to ensure the safety of her family, home, and community.
While Eisen shares that goal, her means of ensuring security is a Smith & Wesson revolver. She is one of the estimated 12 percent of American women who own a gun. And she keeps it primarily for self-defense. "I'm short and pear-shaped, and I'm just not as strong as a man," she says. "My gun provides a sense of comfort."
She says gun laws already on the books should be better enforced, adding that more gun-control measures would only leave criminals armed and civilians such as herself at a loss.
But gun-control advocates, who argue such concerns are misplaced, have attacked the NRA and gun manufacturers for trying to increase sales to women by appealing to their fears. "But urban women and suburban women aren't buying the NRA's fear tactics," says David Bernstein, spokesman for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington.
A studied dispute
Studies show that the murder of a family member is almost three times more likely to occur in homes with guns than in homes without guns. Risk of suicide of a family member is increased by nearly five times.
Eisen disputes those studies, and points to others showing "that if a woman uses a gun for self-protection, she's much less likely to be hurt than if she sits there and screams."
Eisen is also going to vote, probably for Patrick Buchanan if he runs on the Reform Party ticket. She thinks Mr. Bush is capitulating to the antigun lobby, and she is not impressed with his pro-gun record. As governor of Texas, Bush signed a law that allows individuals to carry concealed weapons and another that forbids Texas cities and towns from suing gunmakers.
That's good enough for most gun owners, who overwhelmingly support the Republican Party.
But Mr. Bernstein says many Republican women support gun control. And many are planning to rally with Thomases' group on Mother's Day.
"We're just asking for common-sense gun policy here, to treat guns like you treat automobiles - you should be licensed and a gun should be registered," says Thomases.
Many gun owners, however, believe guns have become a scapegoat for the larger problems in society, from the decay of moral values and the family to the proliferation of drugs.
"There's something else larger going on here," says Peggy Tartaro, editor of Women and Guns, a magazine for women gun owners, based in Buffalo, N.Y. "When we've got kids - whether they're teenagers, as in Columbine, or six years old as in the recent Michigan case - kids that are in that kind of jeopardy, then obviously, we've got other problems to deal with."
Gun control advocates don't argue with that. But they say the easy availability of guns is too often responsible for turning troubled situations into lethal ones.
"Twenty-five years ago, Barry Goldwater said he was opposed to gun control because there were so many guns in this country that it would take 50 years to get them at a reasonable level," says Thomases. "Well, had we done it 25 years ago, we'd be halfway there."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society