Marching moms come from all walks of life

Cheryl Reynolds has never lost a friend to gun violence. A lifelong Republican in a middle-class neighborhood of Boise, Idaho, she lives in some of the most gun-friendly territory in the nation. She has never protested anything in her life.

But for weeks, Mrs. Reynolds has been eating peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch at work, saving up for a plane ticket to Washington for Sunday's Million Mom March (MMM) for gun control. "I am doing what I am doing in thanksgiving to God for the lives of my three children," she says quietly.

In a working-class neighborhood of Landover, Md., retired postal worker Bernadette Trowell will march, too. One spring evening in 1987, she was in her kitchen cooking dinner when gunfire erupted down the street. Her 22-year-old son, Kevin, was accidentally shot and killed by her younger son as the two prepared for a high-school graduation party.

After months of grieving, Mrs. Trowell founded a church-based support group for families of shooting victims. But Trowell, a Democrat, has longed for a broader movement to rein in firearms. "This [march] is a dream we've always had," she says. "We just never had the resources. We don't want no guns."

The stories of Reynolds and Trowell illustrate perhaps the most striking feature of the Million Mom March: How the desire for greater gun safety has mobilized American women across the spectrum of class, race, and political persuasion - both those galvanized by a personal gun tragedy and those never directly affected by gunfire.

More than 150,000 people are expected to march on Washington's Mall on Mother's Day, with hundreds of thousands more participating in local marches in more than 65 cities nationwide.

Supporters say the march's broad appeal reflects a sea change in national attitudes on gun control, brought about in part by the spate of shootings at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., and other schools around the country.

"These last two years of shootings have turned the corner," says Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women in New York.

A powerful coalition

Most important, the march is laying the groundwork for a potentially powerful coalition of two broad groups: hard-pressed urban mothers such as Trowell - who have struggled for years against the immediate, daily threat of guns - and suburban moms, newly alarmed by the gun violence problem, who have greater time and resources to spend lobbying on the issue.

"I think it's a unifying issue," says Claudette Perry, a Washington march organizer, whose godson was shot and killed last year. "If someone on your street gets killed, you've got a new reality. I think that is happening to a lot of suburban moms."

Reynolds, who learned of the event while watching the Today Show, is marching despite hostility from local gun promoters that has left her afraid to put a MMM sign in her yard or let her children mention it at school. Only a handful of Idahoans will join her.

"I feel that God put this in moms," she says, her voice cracking with emotion.

Spurred to activism

Donna Dees-Thomases, the founder of the march, is one of those moms.

Watching footage of the Granada Hills day-camp shooting in California last August, "the images of terrified children being led in a line from the carnage ... were too much to bear," she says. Feeling ashamed for sitting back while others battled the gun lobby, the mother of two applied a week later for a permit to march on the Mall. (Ms. Dees-Thomases denies that her sister-in-law's friendship with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was a factor in starting the march, and stresses she has worked to keep it nonpartisan.)

For many mothers like Bethany Karn, the march tapped a deep, pent-up outrage over the escalation of school shootings in America - and presented a way to channel that anger into concrete activism.

"Columbine was the last straw. It was such an egregious stain on the American character. We felt we had to do something," says Ms. Karn. "But we were spinning our wheels. We would call [gun-control organizations] and they would tell us: 'Send us a check. Write your representative.' "

Then Karn read in a newspaper that Maryland's second-largest seller of guns used in crimes was located near her Takoma Park neighborhood. She and a friend organized an impromptu protest and 53 people showed up.

When she heard about the Million Mom March, Karn volunteered immediately. "It just felt like there was a minority of people - people who were paranoid and felt everyone should have a gun - who were going to take over the country if we didn't stop them. We knew the rational majority had to be heard."

Back to the '60s

Strikingly, most of the marchers interviewed have no past history of activism, although many, like Reynolds, grew up during the heady days of 1960s demonstrations.

Joan Gold, a New York City mom and march organizer, remembers as a child being shocked by the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and moved by anti-Vietnam War protests - but never taking action. "This is the peace march I missed out on in the 1960s," she says.

While the majority of marchers have not lost loved ones to gun abuse - to suicide, to accidental shootings, or to homicides with illegally obtained firearms - a large contingent of the women gathering Sunday carry with them unimaginable personal pain.

Felicia Velotta will never forget June 16, 1994, the day her sister - the mother of two young boys - was killed with an illegally purchased revolver by her ex-husband, despite restraining orders against him.

"The worst thing I ever had to do in my life was to sit down in front of a little five-year-old boy and tell him: 'Mommy is never going to come back,' " she says. "He said, 'If I pray hard enough will she come back?' I didn't have an answer."

Ms. Velotta, now a victims advocate with Women in Distress in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recalls noticing how her sister had carefully hung her son's kindergarten cap and gown in the closet. She was buried the night before his graduation. "I carry that with me, and it empowers me," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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