Cover Story

The Tales of Tears

At the Million Mom March, speaker after speaker urged that maternal lamentation be turned into gun-control legislation. Now that the public-relations glow of the big event has begun to fade, it's a good time to ask: Does lawmaking by anecdote make for sound public policy

Issue: "Sad stories, bad laws?," May 27, 2000

For a happy occasion like Mother's Day, an awful lot of tears flowed. Flowers and cards cascaded-appropriately, for a Hallmark holiday-but the sentiment was all wrong.

Mothers gave the flowers instead of receiving them. They laid their bouquets at the foot of a wall of death, under photographs of children lost to gun violence. On sheets of blue and orange and pink and purple they wrote love notes to sons and daughters they would never see again. They pinned their notes to the wall, and they cried.

Little moments like these gave the Million Mom March its power. Organizers never reached their million-mom goal, but sheer numbers don't count for much anyway in a city like Washington, which plays host to some march or another nearly every weekend of the spring and summer. Nor were the celebrities especially impressive: Rosie O'Donnell's shrill demands for gun control lacked a certain punch, living as she does in a rarefied world of gated estates and private security guards.

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But the stories from the everyday mothers gathered on the mall-fewer than a million, less famous than their leaders-were undeniably moving. Many had suffered losses that no mother should have to endure, and their stories could melt the hardest hearts.

And, just possibly, undermine the Constitution.

Toni Shirley had one of those stories. Her son, Joseph, was at home in Florida, playing with his own 8- and 9-year-old sons, when three men burst in. They took what little money they found and then, with the boys looking on, shot Joseph dead. It was July 5, 1999. Six months later, Richard Shirley, a cousin who had been especially close to Joseph, still couldn't deal with the murder. Suffering from depression that had only deepened since July, he finally went out to buy a gun. No one asked any questions. He took the gun home and shot himself in the head. He was 21.

Arnice McCoy had a story, too. Her 20-year-old son Reginald had been standing on a sidewalk in southeast Washington, when a boy began taunting him by putting a cat on his back. It was a silly incident, except that the boy, inexplicably, had a gun. When Reginald asked the owner of the cat to stop, the boy pulled out the gun and fired. Three years later, police still haven't found the shooter. The boy had a cat; who'd have thought he had a gun? Mrs. McCoy still can't fathom the senselessness of it all.

The mothers demanded that their voices be heard. Their stories, they said, were proof that Congress must act now to require trigger locks, registration, and licensing of guns. "I stand here before you without any written words," said Patricia Anderson, a mother from New Mexico whose son had survived a gunshot wound. "Mothers, we have shed tears for our children. Let's make our tears a river ... a raging river of votes [to] get our legislators out of office if they do not want stricter gun controls."

But do a mother's tears make for good law? Do sad anecdotes mean more than the Second Amendment? Do they require new legislation or stricter enforcement of existing laws? Lawmakers admit it can be hard to legislate rationally when arguments and testimony are based on emotion.

"If people can express the problems of the day in terms of a personal tragedy, they think the solution is for us to make a law," said Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "It's a simplistic approach. It takes less thought than looking for the root of the problem or asking how our actions might impact us in the long term."

To Mr. DeMint, who owned a market research firm before going to Congress, lawmakers don't understand the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. He tells of marketing clients who would sit in on a single focus group and become convinced of changes to be made in their business. "They'd want to make decisions emotionally, but I'd always tell them they couldn't project the opinions of a few people. You had to do the statistical, quantitative research before you could formulate a plan."

Statistics were certainly downplayed by the moms marching on the Capitol. Early on, organizers trumpeted figures showing that 12 children were killed by guns every day. But then pro-gun researchers pointed out that the vast majority of those deaths were 18- and 19-year-olds killed in drug-related violence, not innocent kindergartners frolicking on the playground. Then they pulled out statistics of their own: For instance, law-abiding Americans use a gun to protect themselves from criminals once every 13 seconds. This year alone, armed citizens have stopped more than 903,000 criminal attacks.


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