A throng of American mothers and supporters rallied on Washington's Mall yesterday for a day of tears and pep talks, folk music, and calls to action for stricter gun-control laws.
The emotional gathering dwarfed a countermarch organized by the pro-gun rights group Second Amendment Sisters, which emphasized self-defense and the constitutional right to bear arms.
Yet the Million Mom March's overwhelming outcry for "sensible gun laws, safe children" leaves organizers with the task of channeling the fledgling movement into political action in Congress, statehouses, and - most challenging - at the ballot box.
Indeed, with Congress gridlocked over the passage of new laws restraining firearms and with states adopting an uneven patchwork of legislation, the November election will offer the first major test of whether gun-control advocates are winning the battle for public support.
Many marchers interviewed Sunday vowed to vote in November for whichever local and national candidates backed stronger gun-control measures, regardless of their stances on dominant issues such as education and Social Security.
"I have voted for everybody who says they are against guns," says Laurie Cohen, a Maryland mother of two. "I think we should ban guns," she added. "We are not at war, we are a civilized society."
Gun control will be "a major issue" in determining who Kate Mytron of New Orleans votes for. Ms. Mytron, worked with a nine-year-old girl who tried to commit suicide after her mother was shot to death, says, "Like the bumper sticker says, if the people lead, the leaders will follow. The politicians want to be reelected. They will realize the NRA [National Rifle Association] is a small group."
Organizers said about 150,000 marchers converged in Washington on Mother's Day, many wearing T-shirts and waving banners with slogans like "don't hesitate, legislate." Satellite marches were held in 70 cities in 35 states around the US.
Stressing the need to get out the vote, march organizers held a voter-registration drive on the Mall yesterday, and are busy compiling master e-mail lists of participants as a tool for mobilizing in November.
Pat Morris, a Boston-area teacher brandishing a sign attached to a broom that read "Mothers sweep out pro-gun pols," says she's going to begin networking after she gets back to Massachusetts.
Bullets on the ballot
Both the pro-gun-rights National Rifle Association and opponents such as Handgun Control Inc. say the 2000 election will be crucial for their aims.
The NRA, with more than 3 million members, raised $4.5 million last year for its Political Victory Fund and expects to take in more than that this year. Handgun Control, with 450,000 members, hopes to spend $2 million this year on candidates and related ads, far more than the $150,000 spent in 1998.
Around the country, gun control is emerging as a key issue in some hotly contested congressional races, such as for the seats of NRA-ally Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado and Rep. James Rogan (R) of California.
"To me, it's a litmus test of their character as politicians and leaders," says Jane Goetti of Blacksburg, Va.
Polls indicate that the public is broadly supportive of better enforcement of existing laws, as well as of specific gun control measures such as trigger locks, licensing, and background checks for buyers at gun shows - all measures endorsed by Sunday's march.
"We have lawmakers that are responding to an industry ... instead of the people," says Sundae Horn of Ocacroke, N.C. She and her daughter Caroline were sporting matching purple dresses as they waited outside the diaper-changing tent.
Yet even if many candidates who support stricter gun control win the day in November, they will face hurdles in Congress to reaching a quick consensus over which measures to adopt.
The House last year rejected Senate-passed measures to require child-safety locks and gun show background checks, and to ban high-capacity ammunition clips and gun ownership by serious juvenile offenders. A conference committee has failed to break the deadlock.
Only last week, to coincide with the march, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California introduced a bill that would require anyone buying a handgun or semiautomatic weapon with detachable ammunition clip to register it, pass a safety test, and get a license. Most hunting rifles and shotguns would be exempt.
But Senator Feinstein acknowledged the bill would not pass this year, but rather was a starting point for future congressional debate.
With gun control stymied in Congress, much of the recent legislative action has been on the state level.
In recent months, Maryland passed a law requiring built-in gun locks and Massachusetts decided to subject guns to state consumer product-safety regulations.
Advocates are pushing so-called smart-gun technology in New Jersey, and a referendum in Colorado to require background checks for buyers at all gun shows.
Ultimately, however, experienced advocates stressed that the best place for mothers marching on Sunday to have a lasting impact is at the grass roots, on election day.
Test of endurance
"It's going to come down to the ballot box in November," says Bill Bronrott, a Maryland legislator who has worked closely with the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving since its founding in 1980.
He underscored the importance of sustained activism. "This is a marathon, not a one-day event," he said.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society