Published on Wednesday, March 29, 2000 in the Boston Globe
'Million Mom March' Against Guns On Mothers Day, May 14
by Mary Leonard
WASHINGTON - The recollection of 21-year-old Gayla Tyler's unsolved murder on Easter Sunday 1985 still makes her mother cry. All Catherine Tyler knows is that her daughter was shot four times in a Jamaica Plain apartment, and for all these years, she has been pretty helpless in waging a one-woman war against gun violence.

''The pain is almost indescribable, to tell the truth,'' said Tyler, a retiree and grandmother who works with Roxbury's Living After Murder program, comforting surviving parents. ''And it can happen to anyone.''

And anywhere. At Columbine High School. At an elementary school near Flint, Mich. At a day camp in Granada Hills, Calif. Donna Dees-Thomases was so shaken last August by the televised images of those little children, hand in hand, being led from the Jewish Community Center where a gunman with a semiautomatic weapon shot and wounded five people, including four youngsters, that she hatched the idea for a Million Mom March for gun control on Mother's Day in Washington.

The goal of the Million Mom March is to send Congress the message that women stand together for stronger national gun-control laws, Dees-Thomases said. Fashioned after the 1995 Million Man March that bonded black men, the Million Mom March is expected to be the nation's first large-scale demonstration against guns. Specifically, the marchers will demand the licensing of handgun owners and registration of handguns, tougher background checks and ''cooling off'' periods prior to handgun purchases, mandatory childproof safety locks on handguns, and limiting buyers to one handgun purchase a month.

Dees-Thomases, a Short Hills, N.J., mother of two girls, admits it took shootings in ''safe'' middle-class suburbs to jar mothers into joining forces with city women like Catherine Tyler, who long have agonized over gun violence. Awakened and worried, women are registering for the march via a Web site - - at the rate of two per minute, Dees-Thomases said.

''It's almost been too easy,'' said Dees-Thomases, a part-time publicist for David Letterman who started her crusade by calling friends and now has coordinators in every state. In Massachusetts, mothers from Dorchester, where Tyler is organizing, are joining mothers from Springfield to Cambridge, where Greta Hardina's store, the Cambridge Toy Box, is a Million Mom March headquarters. They are planning to send dozens of busloads of marchers to Washington.

''Mothers are terrified and frustrated. We see security guards in our schools and every day read another story about some child bringing a gun to school,'' Dees-Thomases said.

''My real beef is with Congress,'' continued Dees-Thomases, who said the march will turn from a rally to a protest if the Capitol Hill stalemate over gun control hasn't ended by Mother's Day, May 14. ''Tom DeLay, the majority whip, beats his chest and says the House is `progun.' That's obscene. We thought it belonged to the people.''

Congress has been stalled for eight months over gun control. The Senate's version of a juvenile-justice bill has a requirement for gun safety locks, but the House version does not. After the Feb. 29 shooting of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland in Michigan, allegedly by one of her first-grade classmates, President Clinton lobbied Congress to break the logjam. But besides a war of words between the president and the National Rifle Association, nothing has happened, leading gun-control advocates to believe legislators won't act this election year.

Pollsters say Republicans, who tend to favor owner rights over gun control, could be vulnerable on the issue, particularly because of what Andrew Kohut at the Pew Research Center calls ''a whopping gender gap'' over gun control and a growing fear among suburban voters that gun violence is too close to home. In a Pew poll last year, respondents were asked what was more important: protecting the right of Americans to own guns or controlling gun ownership. Men were split evenly in their answers, while 75 percent of the women polled said it was more important to control guns.

''Women put a much higher priority on gun control as an issue, and they are stronger backers of all kinds of gun-control measures,'' Kohut said. ''It is as simple as this: Men have a greater affinity for guns, and they use them more than women. Women are concerned about the consequences of too many guns in the United States.''

The impetus for the Million Mom March is mainly grass roots. While it is getting financial support from national groups, some gun-control advocates in Washington fear the march may divert attention and resources from their goal, which is defeating gun-rights legislators in November. ''The perception is that the march is going to change the landscape overnight,'' said a gun-control advocate in Washington who asked not to be identified. ''It can't and won't do that, and when it doesn't, it will put a tougher burden on those of us who work the issue every day.''

The NRA, the progun lobby, is keeping an unusually low profile about the rally, perhaps so it won't be singled out as the villain or put in the ''time out chair'' on the Web site of the Million Mom March. Clinton gets the group's ''Apple Pie Award'' for his proposal to license gun owners. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Senate candidate in New York, has agreed to take part in the march.

But a rival group of women, the Second Amendment Sisters, has formed in cyberspace - - challenging the Million Mom group over the right to bear arms and countering with its own Armed Informed Mothers' March on the Washington Mall on Mother's Day. Since January, 22,000 people have signed its petition urging Congress to oppose new gun control measures, said Juli Bednarzyk of Plainfield, Ill., a founder.

Debra Collins, who held off her abusive former husband with a 12-gauge shotgun until the police arrived at her Aurora, Colo., home, said guns save the lives of women and children. ''Mothers are best able to protect their children by educating them about firearm safety and being educated themselves about handling a firearm,'' said Collins, who has been invited to talk about guns and self-defense at the AIM March.

The dueling female forces are energetically spreading the word. Bednarzyk is distributing literature about the AIM March at gun shows and to gun-owner groups. Melinda Lee, of Longmeadow, home to some executives of Smith & Wesson, the nation's largest handgun maker, is publicizing the Million Mom March through local schools, churches, and a community forum on gun violence.

''After that shooting in Michigan, I had had it,'' said Lee, who is taking her husband and two children along on her Washington trip. ''It was the wake-up call that said, `You can't sit around in your safe, little suburban town anymore.'''

Hardina, owner of the Cambridge Toy Box, said: ''I haven't been active in anything since college, but now I have a child and it hits home that kids are dying every day from guns,'' Hardina said. ''I say, `Thank you, and go girl,' to Donna Dees-Thomases. To our legislators, I say, `Moms are going to remember you on voting day.'''

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company