Calling All Moms, Again

On Aug. 10, 1999, Donna Dees-Thomases became an activist. That's the day she witnessed on television a shooting at a Jewish community center day camp in Granada Hills, Calif., an incident that left five people wounded, three of them children. Hours later she was online researching gun control and was shocked to find how few gun laws exist in the United States. Those that do have "such giant loopholes that I could drive my minivan through them," Dees-Thomases says in her new book, "Looking for a Few Good Moms" (Rodale).

Dees-Thomases's ensuing obsession with gun control eventually led to her creation of the Million Mom March, a Mother's Day rally against the gun lobby that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters in 2000. A former publicist for Dan Rather and David Letterman and the sister-in-law of a good friend of the Clintons, Dees-Thomases was later accused of misportraying herself as a ordinary mom starting a grass-roots movement. Now, four years after the first march, Dees-Thomases has organized another, this time in response to the assault-weapons ban, a bill that outlaws semiautomatic weapons and was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. The ban is set to expire in September. President Bush has promised to extend the legislation but critics say the pledge doesn't mean much, since the extension is not expected to pass in the Republican-controlled Congress. As she prepared for the May 9 march, Dees-Thomases spoke by phone with NEWSWEEK's Christina B. Gillham.

NEWSWEEK: Why another march now?

Donna Dees-Thomases: This year is more critical than it was four years ago. The assault-weapons ban expires in four months. Our own research shows that the public is not aware of this, so it's a public-awareness campaign to keep AK-47s and Uzis off our streets.

Your book chronicles the difficulties you faced orchestrating the first march. Has it been easier this time?

We don't have the national Mall [this time]. We're going to be on the West Lawn at the Capitol building, the site of the presidential inauguration. It's a more symbolic march this time. We're going right to the place where President Bush took the oath of office. Four years ago after the success of the first Million Mom March, he told us that if he were elected president he would extend the assault-weapons ban.

Some has said the Million Mom March, and the gun-control movement in general, appeals only to emotions and doesn't offer any real solutions to the problem of gun violence. How do you react to that?

I would question the people who make that kind of statement. We're talking about weapons that are designed to go into a McDonald's and kill as many people as possible. These are weapons of choice for drug lords, terrorists and the mentally unstable.

But has anything changed since the first march? Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in the forward to your book says, "Our last real victory came in 1994 with the enactment of the Brady Law and the passage of the assault-weapons ban."

We've had several victories at the state level and we've fought a good hard fight against concealed-carry weapon laws. We got the toughest childproof handgun bill passed in the New Jersey Republican-controlled state senate four days after the Million Mom March. It would take another two years to get that bill signed into law by the governor, but we were very persistent. We were working with a state group called Ceasefire New Jersey that had introduced that bill years before. When we started marching in 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 12 children a day were dying from gun violence. That number was revised down to eight in December of 2003. I would like to think it's because of all those unsung hero volunteers out there who were stuffing backpacks across the country with material on safe gun storage.

Is gun control only a women's issue?

Not at all. The Million Mom March has lots of men. I do think what was missing in the movement were women who had better skills of organizing. [Women] belong to the Junior League, we belong to the PTA, we belong to book clubs. We have a history of organizing. Quite honestly that's probably why most social movements finally take off when women get involved because we organize laterally; men tend to be vertically oriented. The Million Mom March is definitely both genders, all races. We are a very, very diverse group of people.

Most gun owners are men.

Yes, but in the last survey I looked in, 77 percent of gun owners completely support what we support--extending the assault-weapons ban.

While you were organizing the last march, the gun lobby accused you of having powerful political connections, particularly to Hillary Clinton, and thus falsely portraying yourself as an "ordinary" mom starting a grass-roots movement. You go to great lengths to refute that in your book.

What disturbed me was that the credit was being taken away from the real people who put this march together. I just got back from Philadelphia. From the inner city of Philadelphia to Bryn Mawr, these are the kinds of women who put the march together. Granted, there's been no better president on this issue than President Clinton, but I had trouble reaching the Clintons [in 2000], quite frankly, and they won't be attending this march either. But President Clinton is a true champion of the assault-weapons ban that we are trying to get renewed. Other than having a distant marital relation, I have absolutely no connection to the Clintons.

The NRA teaches children not to handle guns. Why isn't that enough?

[The NRA's CEO] Wayne La Pierre says that all we really need to do is teach children not to touch guns, and that will solve the gun violence epidemic, just like we teach children to look both ways before they cross the street. Yes, I teach my children to look both ways before they cross the street but I also expect the driver of the car to be licensed and to know how to drive the car and get a safety lesson beforehand, and also that the car be registered, so that if they run over my kid because they don't know to stop at a red light their car can be traced. So La Pierre just wants half the solution. The responsibility comes back to the adults. We're going to teach our kids "don't touch the AK-47, dear"? Please.

After shootings in Scotland and Australia, those countries changed their gun laws. That never happens here. Why?

Because the gun lobby in this country is strong. There's no comparable gun lobby in Australia and Great Britain. But this gun lobby has been in business for more than 100 years. They're very entrenched and they send out hysterical direct-mail campaigns [saying] that Sarah Brady is out to take their guns away, which is blatantly untrue. If they would just deal with the facts we would have no problem solving the gun violence problem in this country. Closing the gun-show loophole is not going to deprive any law-abiding responsible citizen from buying a gun. Oregon and Colorado pushed through their own referendum to close the gun-show loophole and these are gun-loving states. The will of the people prevailed and they passed those referendums in 2000.

Do you think the gun-control issue, like the abortion issue, is one in which both sides will never understand one another?

I can only speak for the Million Mom March and we are not a handgun-banning organization. We advocate responsible gun ownership and sensible legislation. We are a very moderate organization that respects the perceived right of gun [owners] to protect [their] home and property.

But the gun control issue is generally perceived as a liberal or Democratic issue. You don't agree with that?

I would ask Sarah Brady, whose husband was shot when he was the press secretary to Republican President Ronald Reagan. So I think that really answers your question.

What would a Kerry presidency mean for gun control?

We can't wait for a Kerry presidency. George Bush needs to extend the assault-weapons ban in September.