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.
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.
The moms, for the most part, went back to their stories.
The dilemma is nothing new. From health care to hate crimes, many issues in recent years have been debated at the anecdotal level. The brutal murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, for instance, became proof positive that the nation needed stiffer hate crime legislation-never mind that the killers received life sentences without the new laws. (They might have gotten the death penalty had the victim's own father not requested leniency.) Again and again the Shepard story was told in grisly detail, swamping many of the logical and constitutional arguments against criminalizing so-called hate speech.
Likewise, the Becky Bell story became a cautionary tale against the evils of laws requiring parental consent for abortion. Miss Bell, an Indiana teen, died in 1988 following a back-alley abortion. She didn't go to a legal clinic because, she told her counselor, she couldn't face telling her parents, as required by state law. Her story, dramatized in an HBO movie, continues to serve as a rallying cry for abortion advocates nationwide. While state legislators wrestle with weighty issues like parental rights, legal precedent, and even interstate commerce, the Becky Bell story is supposed to clear the decks of all rational opposition to abortion-on-demand.
The same logic prevailed at the moms' march. At a pre-rally reception at the White House, Charmaine Jones was asked why she got involved in the gun-control issue. She let her 8-year-old daughter Lashae answer for her: "Because my daddy died," the girl said. "He got killed by a 16-year-old." End of argument.
But several thousand counter-demonstrators didn't want to let the argument end there. Calling themselves the Second Amendment Sisters, they rallied just across the street from the pro-gun control mothers and others. They appealed to logic (gun laws have never reduced crime), history (gun control originated after the Civil War when whites wanted to disarm blacks), and of course the Constitution. Not that it mattered much. When the occasional counter-protester with a sign touting the Second Amendment wandered too close to the larger group, she was often greeted with boos and jeers.
Booing the Constitution? Rep. DeMint said it's not that surprising. "As a nation, we have no point of reference.... We're adrift, and people become frustrated when you try to bring them back to a moral standard or a constitutional standard. They have no patience for that." Even in the Congress, members sometimes forget where their ultimate loyalties are supposed to lie. "We have a framework that we work in," he said. "In our case, it's the Constitution that we make our oath to. It's not an oath to serve the people; it's an oath to uphold the Constitution."
Mr. DeMint said President Clinton has done "particularly well at moving the debate onto the emotional side.... There's some good rationale for that if you're a politician. People tend to accept information emotionally before they weigh it rationally." He believes conservatives could learn from the president's example-but only up to a point. "We have got to communicate in the way that voters have learned to accept, but still be principle-based." It's a delicate balance, he admits.
Not far from his office, the pro-gun conservatives were busy applying that very lesson. Their keynote speaker, Texas state representative Suzanna Gratia Hupp, told her own harrowing story of gun violence. She was eating with her parents at a Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, when an unemployed merchant seaman drove his pickup into the restaurant, jumped out, and opened fire. When her father rushed the gunman, he was shot in the chest. The shooter stopped to reload, and Mrs. Hupp scrambled through a window, thinking her mother was behind her.
Instead, Mrs. Gratia had dropped to the floor beside her husband of 41 years. Witnesses later reported that as she held her husband's head in her lap, she looked up at the gunman. He shot her in the head. Twenty-one other people died in the massacre.
Ten years later, Mrs. Hupp is still haunted by the scene-not just by the carnage that she witnessed, but by her belief that she could have stopped it. When the gunman burst into the restaurant, her first instinct was to reach into her purse for the .38-caliber handgun she'd owned for several years. But Texas, at the time, prohibited carrying concealed weapons. So on the day she needed it most, the gun that could have saved her parents' lives was under the seat of her car, just 150 feet away.
It's a powerful story, passionately told. But it's also one that, apart from careful analysis, should not drive legislation. In any event, press coverage of the stories on the mall and the note cards on the wall pushed it aside. As gun owners find themselves increasingly under attack, they'll probably publicize heavily more stories like Mrs. Hupp's. But if governing is reduced to anecdotes, will the best solutions be found, or just those that reach a critical mass of tears?