Published on Sunday, December 10, 2000 in the Sunday Times of London
Yoko Ono May Help Lead New US Gun Control Campaign
by Tom Rhodes
EVER since John Lennon was shot dead, Yoko Ono has privately advocated measures to curb the millions of guns owned by Americans. But after marking the 20th anniversary of his murder last week with a poster to spread her message, she has been asked to become a figurehead for the nation's most influential gun control campaign.
Ono, 67, watched from her penthouse in New York on Friday as thousands of mourners gathered around the part of Central Park dedicated to the former Beatle, many of them in tears.
She commemorated his murder with a poignant display of her own photograph of the bloodstained spectacles he had been wearing when Mark Chapman pumped five bullets into his back.
Handgun Control Inc, a campaign that attracts many well-known supporters, wants the notoriously media-shy Ono to step further into the spotlight. It has invited her to join its board, which includes the actors Gregory Peck, Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon, with the aim of thwarting the gun lobby as soon as a new president is installed in the White House.
"Yoko Ono suffered a horrifying private tragedy," said Naomi Paiss, a spokesman for the group. "We think she would be the best voice to get our message out to a whole generation of baby boomers who continue to venerate her husband."
Ono, rarely seen outside the apartment where she feels closest to Lennon, entered the charged public debate with her comments on the poster of her husband's spectacles.
"It may be a shocking image but it's very important that people realise that we must not waste life," she said.
"The number of people who have died by gunshot since John's death is 10 times larger than the total number of American soldiers lost in the Vietnam war. It's like we are living in a war zone."
Although the rate of violent crime is now falling sharply - murders in New York are down by two-thirds in a decade - the figures for gun deaths remain startling. Since Lennon's assassination some 676,000 Americans have been shot dead, compared with 33,651 Korean war casualties and the 58,148 who died in Vietnam.
Since the late 1960s, when Lennon started preaching peace and love, the number of guns in America has leapt from 75m to 230m, including up to 80m handguns. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the gun lobby led by the actor Charlton Heston, continues to promote the constitutional right of every American to "bear arms" and has joked that it will have its own office in the White House if George W Bush wins the election.
However, the NRA is not the force it was. Following a series of shootings in schools, public opinion has started to turn against it. Earlier this year thousands of women in Washington DC took part in a "Million Mom March" against guns, led by Hillary Clinton and the mothers of several children shot dead at Dunblane. Electors were urged to vote against politicians who backed guns.
Their efforts were evident in the results of the November 7 election. Eight out of 12 senators and congressmen deemed to be the staunchest advocates of the gun lobby were resoundingly defeated. Bush failed to win states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan where he had promoted gun ownership as a pillar of his campaign.
Thomas Mauser, 48, whose son Daniel was among 12 teenagers murdered by two teenage gunmen at Columbine high school in Colorado last year, led a successful referendum campaign in his state to stop people buying guns at shows without a background check. Like Ono, he chose a stark symbol to reinforce his message: on election night he wore Daniel's bloodstained trainers.
The debate over gun control is unlikely to fade after the presidential election is resolved. Antipathy to guns is still rising, particularly among women.
Ono already appears to be allied to them. "John, who was the king of the world and had everything any man could ever want, came back to me in a brown paper bag in the end," she said. "I want to show how many people have gone through similar tragedies because of gun violence."
Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.