On Aug. 10, 1999, Donna Dees-Thomases heard about the shooting. A man entered a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif., and opened fire on a room of Jewish children. At the time, Dees-Thomases' children, ages 4 and 6, attended a JCC daycare near their home in New Jersey. As she watched the breaking news coverage on television, Dees-Thomases shivered at the similarities.
In her new book, Looking For a Few Good Moms: How One Mother Rallied a Million Others Against the Gun Lobby, Dees-Thomases, founder of the Million Mom March, says this was the emotional catalyst that started the revolution.
Watching the scene unfold on live television, Dees-Thomases writes, she realized "this was no daisy chain of happy, innocent children who were blissfully unaware of the evil of the world--this was a string of survivors being led away from a death trap. And those children could have been mine."
At a book signing at the Regulator Bookshop last month, Dees-Thomases talked about how she transformed that emotion into action.
"In 1999, the conventional wisdom was no one cared about gun control," she says. "I found out that moms cared, but just didn't know what to do."
The book chronicles of how Dees-Thomases and five of friends started the Million Mom March movement, which coalesced on Mother's Day 2000 into the largest grassroots march on Washington ever. However, the book is not just a testament to the past movement, but a kickoff to a march against the end of the assault weapons ban planned for this Sunday--Mother's Day.
Seven days after the Granada Hills shooting, Dees-Thomases said she applied for a permit to march on Washington. Nine months later, an estimated 750,000 mothers gathered on the National Mall in Washington and another 250,000 mothers gathered elsewhere around the United States.
"Word spread by e-mail and phone," Dees-Thomases says. "Skills moms do like on a snow day... these scrappy bunch of women who'd never organized anything beyond a carpool."
For the most part, Dees-Thomases said, the women involved were not professional organizers. They were mothers who had experienced personal tragedy as a result of gun violence, or who wanted to avoid tragedy. At the time, Dees-Thomases had the most professional organizing skills. She was working at the Late Show with David Letterman as a publicist, organizing stupid pet tricks and top 10 lists.
"I realized I could use my PR skills to do something good," Dees-Thomases says.
She quit her job and devoted her skills to effect change.
As a result of the march, local Million Mom March chapters emerged. In North Carolina, chapters formed in Raleigh, Durham/Chapel Hill and Winston Salem. Among other things, the chapters have engaged in a door-to-door movement, asking neighbors to lock up their guns and keep them out of the reach of children. These "unsung heroes," Dees-Thomases said, are responsible for the latest CDC statistics that report the number of children dying in the U.S. from gun-related violence each day has declined from 10 to eight. The decrease is the greatest achievement of the first march, Dees-Thomases said.
In addition to working for responsible gun ownership, local chapters are helping to organize the second Million Mom March, called The Mother's Day March to Halt the Assault, on Sunday. The march will protest inaction by Congress that would result in the end of the 10-year assault weapons ban, set to expire Sept. 13. The current ban prevents American gun manufacturers from making semiautomatic assault weapons and ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds for public consumption.
"These aren't hunting weapons," Dees-Thomases says. "You hold them at the hip and spray a room with them."
The march will meet at the West Front of the Capitol where Presidential inaugurations are held. The location is a symbolic reminder to President Bush of the campaign promise he made to renew the assault weapons ban.
"We believe President Bush can pick up the phone and say he made that promise," Dees-Thomases says. "He can get that bill out of Congress."
However, members of the Million Mom March organization are not waiting idly for change. Instead, the group is embarking on a second grassroots revolution.
On a national level, groups are collecting Lobby Day Cards. The small pink cards have bold-faced lettering that state, "Congress, Halt the Assault! Renew and strengthen the assault weapons ban!" Under the message is a space for supporters to sign the card. Following the march, organizers are filling baskets and baby strollers with the pink cards and sending them to Congress as a reminder to renew the ban.
On a local level, Triangle groups are also making plans. Marcia Owen, a member of the Durham Million Mom March chapter, started a banner-making project called "Hands Without Guns."
"Kids handprint banners to try to help children understand that their hands are sacred," says Rachel Smith, a member of the Raleigh Million Mom March chapter. Their hands "can be used in creative and helpful ways and not to hurt others."
The project has visited local schools, and the banners will accompany the North Carolina group to the march in Washington.
In addition to banners, the local groups will carry plaques with the 3,274 names of gun violence victims in North Carolina between 1999 and 2004. Connie Padgett and her husband, both members of Million Mom March organization, have been collecting victims' names and ages, as well as the county of the homicide and type of gun used in the homicide since 1999.
"Moms are the collective memory," Smith says, "so victims of gun violence don't get lost."
The North Carolina chapters are arranging buses to make the one-day trip to Washington. While the group focuses on moms, all community members are invited to participate.
"Moms are symbolic of the type of caring we want the world to have," Smith said. "If you care, you can join."
For more information: www.millionmommarch.org
To join a local chapter call 1-888-989-MOMS; the national line will direct you to a local group. Or e-mail DC04wtcmmm@att.org for the Durham group or email@example.com for the Raleigh group. Also, email if interested in signing a Lobby Day Card or attending the march in Washington. Lobby Day Cards and signed books are available at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.