The Volokh Conspiracy
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On Mother's Day 2000, record-setting demonstrations for gun control were held in Washington, D.C., and in 73 other cities. Organized by the "Million Mom March," these demonstrations were hailed by much of the media at the decisive turning point in the political battle over gun ownership. This article takes a look at the history of the march, and some of the similarities and differences from 2018 anti-gun rallies.
After growing up in Louisiana and graduating from Louisiana State University with a major in journalism, Donna Dees-Thomases began her career as a local television news reporter. Then she moved to Washington, as a staffer first for Democratic Sen. Bennett Johnston, then with Sen. Russell Long, both of Louisiana. Her autobiography makes no mention of her having any opinion on the gun control issues that those senators addressed during her time with them. (Her autobiography is Donna Dees-Thomases & Alison Hendrie, Looking for a Few Good Moms: How One Mother Rallied a Million Others Against the Gun Lobby (Emmaus, Penn.: Rodale, 2004).) After that, she became the publicist for CBS News anchor Dan Rather. By 1999, she had transitioned to a one-day-per-week job as a publicist for David Letterman, living in suburban New Jersey and devoting most of her attention to her two young children, as well as older children from a previous marriage of her husband.
On August 7, 1999, a racist, mentally ill man loaded seven guns into his car in order to attack Jews in Los Angeles. He went to the Skirball Cultural Center, then to American Jewish University, and finally to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. As he scouted each location, he realized that all of them had armed security, so he did not attack.
On August 10, he found an undefended target: North Valley Jewish Community Center. He opened fire on the playground, fired 70 shots, wounding one adult and three children. After fleeing, he murdered a mailman. Eventually, he was apprehended in Las Vegas. To avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Back in New Jersey, Mrs. Dees-Thomases watched the coverage of the attack with horror. Her husband and in-laws were Jewish, and her children attended a Jewish Community Center nursery school. She started reading about gun control and tried to reach out the leading anti-gun lobby of the time (Handgun Control, Inc., now known as the Brady Campaign), but without much response. So she decided to take the reins herself, and applied for a permit to hold a demonstration in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 2000—Mother's Day.
She noticed an article in the New York Post about the controversy of a permit for a "Million Youth March," in New York City. The 1999 march was a follow-up to a 1998 event of the same name, organized by Khalid Abdul Muhammad. A notorious racist, anti-Semite, and hater of homosexuals, he had been expelled from the Nation of Islam and censured by both houses of the U.S. Congress. The 1998 rally had turned into a melee between the 6,000 demonstrators and the police, with Muhammad exhorting the crowd to take the officers' guns and kill them. Mayor Giuliani said that the Million Youth March was "filled with hatred, horrible, awful, vicious, anti-Semitic and other anti-white rhetoric, as well as exhortations to kill people, murder people."
As Dees-Thomases read about the planned 1999 Million Youth March, "I realized that this 'Million March' brand had built-in news value. So I decided to borrow the name" (p. 11).
This was a controversial borrowing. It reminded many people of the "Million Man March" that Louis Farrakhan had organized on the National Mall in D.C. in 1995. Indeed, the name for Muhammad's "Million Youth March" seemed to be derived from Farrakhan's "Million Man March." Dees-Thomases was surprised that people thought her similarly-named march might "echo or condone the alleged anti-Semitic stance of Louis Farrakhan, the founder of the Million Man March." She felt that "adopting this name was akin to 'turning the other cheek'" (p. 66).
It is not clear why Dees-Thomases called Farrakhan's anti-Semitism "alleged."
Beginning to organize
Mrs. Dees-Thomases called her sister-in-law, Susan Thomases, for advice. Mrs. Thomases was a longtime friend and political advisor of Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Thomases told her sister-in-law to hire a good lawyer and a good accountant, and recommended an individual for the job of event planner. According to Mrs. Dees-Thomases, that was the only help she ever solicited or received from Mrs. Thomases (p. 13).
Mrs. Dees-Thomases used her publicity skills and network of media contacts to garner media attention, and that helped lead to the formation of some local chapters of the Million Mom March. But she was still paying most of the expenses herself, feeling overwhelmed—and also undersupported by the established gun control groups.
Part of the problem was that the older groups were not interested in letting a newcomer horn in on two new lucrative sources of funding. First, there was the Bell Campaign, a new gun control group in San Francisco. It had four million dollars from the Richard and Rhonda Goldman Foundation. Second, there was a $10 million fund that had been established by George Soros and Irene Diamond to promote gun control.
At an October event in Tulsa, Mrs. Dees-Thomases met Mary Leigh Blek, president of the Bell Campaign. A little while later, she managed to meet with Rebecca Peters, who was in charge of the Soros-Diamond money.
An Australian, Peters had helped lead the successful campaign for gun confiscation in Australia. The confiscation program had been long-planned and was rolled out immediately after a mass shooting in which 35 people were murdered. New laws prohibited gun ownership for self-defense and confiscated about 20–25 percent of Australian firearms—including semiautomatic and pump action long guns, plus handguns over .38 caliber. The confiscation was facilitated by comprehensive gun registration laws, which had existed in some Australian states for decades and in others for only a few years. Later, in 2002, Peters would become head of an international gun prohibition lobby, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). It advocated for outlawing defensive gun ownership, banning all handguns, and banning any rifle that can shoot 100 meters (that is, almost all of them).
Peters was impressed with what Dees-Thomases had done so far. Eight weeks after Dees-Thomases had invented the MMM, it received a Bell $100,000 starting grant (which later grew to $300,000), plus access to the Peters/Soros/et al. fundraising network.
Even so, the MMM was still on shaky ground. The Violence Policy Center refused any cooperation, labeling MMM and other groups "enablers" because they refused to publicly endorse VPC's demand to ban all handguns. Worse, the biggest of the gun control groups, Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), was worried that the MMM wouldn't attract a big enough crowd in D.C., and the media would portray the event as a failure for gun control advocates.
Dees-Thomases disagreed: "The Million Mom March was something that the media would love. In fact, they were already loving it" (p. 82). She was absolutely right, but the rest of the gun control movement remained skeptical. Peters warned that Bell might have to pull its funding.
In despair in December 1999, Dees-Thomases asked God for a sign that she should keep at it. The next day, the National PTA announced that it was endorsing the MMM. That was the sign she needed, and it was also the sign that her funders needed.
Peters became "our MMM fairy godmother." Peters made it clear to the older gun control groups that "if each group shared their resources with the Million Mom March, there would be a nice Soros-Diamond treat for everybody at the end of the day, in the form of a grant" (p. 114). Andrew McKelvey, the CEO of Monster.com and a board member of HCI, would eventually pay for about a third of the cost of the D.C. march (pp. 145–46).
Bell took over organizing all the marches outside of D.C., leaving Dees-Thomases free to concentrate on the main event at the National Mall (p. 136).
The difference between 1999 and 2018 could not be starker. It took Mrs. Dees-Thomases five months of work—from August to December—before she finally got full buy-in from the gun control groups, their allies (starting with National PTA), and their wealthy funders. In contrast, it took only a few hours for the anti-gun students from Parkland, Florida, to be funded, publicized, and absorbed into the vast network of Michael Bloomberg's public relations staff, Hollywood celebrities, and other leading organizations, such as the American Federation of Teachers. It's a lot easier to be the face of a grassroots movement when large groups with paid staff all over the country will do the organizing for you.
The agenda Dees-Thomases's original manifesto for the MMM had claimed that the group respected Second Amendment rights. That was excised by Bell, which believed that the Second Amendment does not protect an individual right.
While some MMM members wanted to call for banning all guns, Dees-Thomases refused to go so far, partly because she knew her supporters in the South would bolt. Instead, the MMM stated: "While we acknowledge that guns may be necessary for hunting, law enforcement and national security, the proliferation of firearms is out of control."
Notably, the group refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of defensive gun ownership. Such refusal was the common position of gun control groups at the time. Since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 Heller decision, the same groups now purport to support the Second Amendment individual right, including self-defense.
Thanks to Peters' arm-twisting (backed by her control over grants that everyone wanted), almost all the gun control groups, including MMM, coalesced around a common platform of licensing and registration. (p. 115). Bill Clinton had endorsed that agenda in his 2000 State of the Union, and Vice President Al Gore was making it part of his presidential campaign.
Media coverage Mrs. Dees-Thomases had already been skilled at publicity, but the now-united coalitions of allies made the MMM a publicity powerhouse. Media coverage was rarely critical, and often fawning. Frequently she was portrayed as an ordinary housewife from New Jersey, as the media omitted her impressive resume of work on Capitol Hill and as a publicist near at the top of the media food chain.
As the crescendo of favorable media coverage built in April and early May, more doors began to open. U.S. Airways gave free tickets to people who wanted to fly to D.C. for the march. The MMM finally got onto The Rosie O'Donnell Show. Thomases wondered if that might have happened sooner, but for Dan Rather's repeated refusal of invitations (when Thomases was his publicist) to go on the O'Donnell program.
Then came the biggest prize of all: Oprah on May 2. Oprah's interview with her was very friendly. The only downside was having the share the hour with Attorney General Janet Reno, who wanted to talk about the Elian Gonzalez case (p. 156).
Reno had recently supervized the gunpoint abduction of a six-year-old Cuban refugee. After breaking into the Florida home where Gonzalez was staying, federal employees had found Gonzalez in a closet, held and protected by a young man who had rescued the boy from the sea, after the boy's mother drowned when their boat sank. "Give me the fucking kid!" one of Reno's employees screamed, as he pointed an automatic rifle at the two. An Associated Press photographer, who was also hiding in the house, won the Pulitzer Prize for his photo of the abduction.
Reno told Oprah that there was no problem, since the man pointing the gun at the child didn't have his finger on the trigger.
Mrs. Dees-Thomases' book does not say whether or not it felt odd to be denouncing gun violence against children while appearing on the same program as General Reno.
In any case, the MMM was on a roll. President Clinton wanted to address the MMM D.C. rally in person. Dees-Thomases had to reluctantly refuse his offer, because the necessary security screening for everyone on the Mall would have been a logistical nightmare. Other politicians, including Mrs. Clinton (then running for U.S. Senate from New York) and Vice President Gore were also turned down, as Dees-Thomases wisely decided to keep the focus on mothers rather than politicians.
There were no hard feelings. Mrs. Clinton delivered a recorded address to the march. President Clinton hosted a pre-march White House event for the MMM group from Michigan (p. 166).
The central theme of the MMM was often articulated by Bell Campaign President Mary Leigh Blek: "We love our children more than you love your damn guns." (p. 175). When she delivered the line at the march itself, it seemed to be directed at a nearby group of counter-protesters (p. 189). The "Second Amendment Sisters" was a pro-gun group of mothers and other women who had organized to provide an alternative perspective on the gun debate.
If you spend any time talking with "anti-gun" or "pro-gun" women, it is readily apparent that both types of women love children, even though they have very different ideas about best to protect them. Yet to the MMM, the Second Amendment Sisters, and anybody who agreed with them, were "gun nuts" who only loved guns, not children.
How could the MMM believe that people who disagree with it on gun policy don't love children?
One reason is willful ignorance. Responsible adults who participate in public affairs take the time to learn the arguments of the other side. When they understand the other side's best arguments, they are better able to make a thoughtful case for their own position. Sometimes they may revise their position based on new information.
Childish adults wall themselves off from contrary views. They imagine that the worst people on the other side (such as the jerks who sent Dees-Thomases torrents of hate mail) represent everyone on the other side. Some people are too intellectually timid to read or listen to advocates of contrary views. Instead, they learn about other views only through sources that are sure to twist those views to make them appear foolish. Today, there are many people whose main exposure to non-leftist ideas is through the distorted lens of comedians such as John Oliver.
Even in her 2004 book, Mrs. Dees-Thomases remained oblivious to the pro/con evidence on various gun control measures. She apparently still thought that automatic guns (a.k.a. "machine guns") can be bought at retail under the same rules as ordinary guns. Actually, ever since the National Firearms Act of 1934, such guns require a months-long registration and tax process with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Automatics manufactured after 1986 may be sold only to the government.
As for gun registration, according to Mrs. Dees-Thomases, "if registration becomes law, all guns will be registered before they leave the manufacturers, and they would be more easily traceable as a result" (p. 75). Supposedly, manufacturers object because of the "added cost plus diminished demand by criminals" (p. 173). In fact, manufacturer-based registration has been federal law since the Gun Control Act of 1968. When a manufacturer ships a firearm to a wholesaler or retailer, the manufacturer must create a permanent record of the transaction, including the gun's make, model, and serial number. The wholesaler or retail must create a similar permanent record upon receipt of the gun. The ATF can examine these records during compliance inspections and can use the records to trace guns. Today, most of the large manufacturers and wholesalers participate in the ATF eTrace program that allows ATF electronic access to the records, so that ATF can conduct in a few seconds a trace of any gun the manufacturer made.
It's easier to hate gun manufacturers if you don't know the laws they already obey and don't know how they already go far beyond their legal obligations, by allowing ATF remote access to their electronic records, even though the law only requires on-site access to paper records.
Mrs. Dees-Thomases' book is riddled with many similar errors, all of which accumulate in only one direction.
These days, thanks in part to Twitter and Facebook, it's even easier for anti-gun groups to spread disinformation—such as the lie that federal law prohibits gun research, even though the National Institutes for Health have funded over $11 million of gun research in the last several years.
Learning about public affairs can be tough work, since it usually requires reading, including reading the best analysis and research from experts with whom one disagrees. For some people, it's more gratifying just to hear one's favorite talking points repeated by people who just repeat talking points—such as a high school student who thinks he is a political expert because he watched House of Cards. After all, that program had episodes demonstrating that Republicans secretly favor gun control but pretend to oppose it only for cynical politics.
The Mother's Day march
The master of ceremonies for the big rally on the National Mall was television host Rosie O'Donnell (p. 187). At the time, she was second only to President and Mrs. Clinton as America's leading anti-gun advocate. Shortly after the Columbine murders, O'Donnell had announced that all guns should be banned, and that anyone who possessed a gun should serve a mandatory sentence.
At a White House event leading up to the March, O'Donnell had met with Suzanna Hupp. Mrs. Hupp, a young mother, had helped lead the successful fight for Texas to enact a concealed handgun permit law in 1995. In 1991, at a Luby's Cafeteria in Texas, Mrs. Hupp had seen her parents and two dozen other people murdered before her eyes by a mass killer. Rosie, "The Queen of Nice," listened to Mrs. Hupp's story, and then announced that Texas was right to have prevented law-abiding citizens from defending themselves or their families; things in the Luby's Cafeteria would have gotten too dangerous if someone had shot at the murderer.
Somewhat inconsistently, in 2001 Ms. O'Donnell had her bodyguard request permission to carry a handgun when he accompanied O'Donnell's children to their "gun-free" school.
Another MMM speaker was actress Susan Sarandon. Shortly beforehand, she had spent the weekend at a Madison Square Garden rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man who used a revolver to murder a policeman.
Also speaking on the Washington Mall was Barbara Graham. A few weeks earlier, she had shot 22-year-old Kikko Smith in the spine and left him paralyzed. She believed, wrongly, that her victim had been involved the murder of her son. Subsequent to the arrest, a search of Graham's home found four handguns were found, including a TEC-9 semi-automatic pistol (a low-quality gun with a 30-round magazine). That didn't disqualify her from the MMM.
In court the next year, "the women from Million Moms are backing her at her trial," reported the Washington Post ("Woman Goes on Trial In Ambush Shooting; Bid to Avenge Slain Son Is Alleged," Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2001).
The jury, however, convicted her of aggravated assault with intent to kill.
One of the fieriest speeches at the MMM rally came from Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union American Hebrew Congregations. He declared that the National Rifle Association "is the real criminals' lobby in this country" and "is drenched in the blood of murdered children."
Said O'Donnell, "We have had enough." Likewise, Mrs. Clinton's videotaped message stated, "It is time to say, 'Enough!'"
Musical performances from Melissa Manchester, Melissa Etheridge, and Emmylou Harris (singing a song composed by Roseanne Cash) entertained the crowd. Celebrities including Tyne Daly, Anna Quindlen, Courtney Love, and Bette Midler made appearances. Schoolchildren sang "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, keep your guns away from me" (pp. 196-97). Probably the favorite song of the event was "Throw These Guns Away," which had become the "anthem" of the MMM (pp. 106, 144, 186).
While the rally in D.C. was going on, 73 parallel rallies were held all over the United States. According to Dees-Thomases, they collectively attracted just under a quarter million people (p. 198).
As for the D.C. rally itself, the MMM claimed 750,000, although even Bill Clinton didn't agree with that Trumpian figure. The crowd was probably about 100,000, which is still impressively large, and double the number that Dees-Thomases had been told would the minimum for a successful rally.
At the end of the rally, Dees-Thomases handed over leadership of the MMM to Mary Blek, who thereafter ran the MMM from San Francisco offices. Within a few days, the Bell Campaign changed its name from "Bell Campaign" to "Million Mom March" (p. 202).
According to the MMM, and to much of the media, the MMM was the grassroots movement that would permanently alter the gun debate in the United States.
White suburban women have long been the holy grail of the gun prohibition movement. Firearms homicides in the United States are heavily concentrated in low-income urban areas. The high homicide rate there generates little political pressure for any remedy, whether than be gun control or early intervention social welfare programs. (My argument for the latter is detailed in my book Guns: Who Should Have Them?) So the gun prohibition lobbies concentrate on terrifying suburban women about dangers to their suburban children.
That is why when 19-year-old gangsters shoot each other, the gun control lobbies classify that as "children" who "killed by guns." And it is why firearms homicides at schools, which have declined by about 75 percent in the last quarter-century, remain the primary subject of discussion by the gun control lobbies. (In 1992–93, 0.55 per million students; in 2014–15, 0.15 per million students, according to Northeastern Univ. Prof. James Alan Fox.)
Having successfully organized rallies, the MMM transitioned to more direct politics. In the 2000 Maryland Governor's race, the MMM and the Brady Campaign ran radio ads against Republican candidate Bob Ehrlich: "Tell him we don't want Uzis, AK-47s and cheap handguns in our neighborhoods." (Ehrlich won.)
In the October 11, 2000, presidential debate, Al Gore emphasized his support for national licensing of gun owners. He also blamed "a flood of cheap handguns." George W. Bush supported some gun control, but focused on character and culture.
Gun control was not as popular in election season as some of the press had thought it was back in May. "Democrats on Defensive over Guns," said the Seattle Times (Oct. 22, 2000). "For Democrats, Gun Issue Is Losing Its Fire," reported the Washington Post (Oct. 20, 2000). Gore's running mate, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, tried to convince crowds that "Al Gore and I respect the Second Amendment right to bear arms" (Duluth News Trib. (Minn.), Nov. 3, 2000).
This was not a credible claim. The Clinton-Gore administration had consistently taken the position that there are no individual Second Amendment rights. Solicitor General Seth Waxman had written that "the Second Amendment does not extend an individual right to keep and bear arms." He explained that the government "could 'take guns away from the public,' and 'restrict ownership of rifles, pistols and shotguns from all people.'" (Letter from Seth Waxman, Aug. 22, 2000.) The NRA put Waxman's "take guns" quote on billboards in swing states.
Let's hypothesize that somewhere between 350,000 and 1,000,000 people attended a MMM rally, that every one of them voted in November, and they all voted for Gore, the candidate who endorsed the MMM agenda. Sincere as the rallygoers were, they represented themselves only and not the entire demographic of mothers, or any other group.
George W. Bush won Florida by a few hundred votes, and thus the election by a single electoral vote. If not for the gun issue, the election would not have been close. The gun issue cost Gore Missouri, West Virginia (voting Republican in a close election for the first time in a century), Gore's home state of Tennessee, Clinton's home state of Arkansas, and Florida.
Shortly after the election, Bill Clinton blamed Gore's defeat on the gun issue and the NRA. He later repeated that analysis in his autobiography. (Bill Clinton, My Life 928 (2004)).
In the summer of 2001, the United Nations held a major conference on gun control. Representing the MMM, Mary Blek received a standing ovation from the delegates. She said that the grouped represented a "billion" mothers worldwide.
But all was not well back in the U.S. The May 2001 MMM rallies drew much smaller crowds. The group laid off 30 of its 35 paid staff. It was evicted from its offices in the San Francisco General Hospital. The MMM had obtained office space from the Trauma Foundation, without SF General's knowledge, and was using the space for lobbying, in violation of the city-owned hospital's rules.
In October 2001, the remnant of the MMM was moved to D.C. and absorbed by its onetime rival, Handgun Control, Inc. Not long before, Handgun Control, Inc., had discovered that many Americans considered "control" to be off-putting. So the group had renamed itself the "Brady Campaign." Its new subdivision was the "Million Mom March United with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence."
The new arrangement freed Mrs. Dees-Thomases to say what she really thinks. In a 2002 MMM op-ed, she called for "common-sense measures": a ban on all pump action guns, gun prohibition for everyone under 21, and psychological testing for all gun owners under 25 (Donna Dees-Thomases & Carolynne Jarvis, "Why wait to tackle gun violence?" Detroit Free Press, Aug. 8, 2002).
The MMUBCPGV still exists, at least in a nominal sense. But by 2013, it was clear that a new "mom" group was needed.
So today, "Moms Demand Action" is part of Michael Bloomberg's "Everytown" gun control organization. It is headed by Shannon Watts, formerly director of global public and corporate affairs for Monsanto, and before that a press relations officer for anti-gun Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan. She too is portrayed in the media an ordinary mom making her first foray into politics.
The days of September 1999, when Mrs. Dees-Thomases was funding the MMM with her Visa card, are long gone. So too are the days when anti-gun activists were fighting over their share of a $4 million grant fund. Single-handedly, Michael Bloomberg and allied billionaires now far outspend the NRA. Bloomberg personally has more money than the combined market capitalization of every U.S. firearm manufacturer. Rhetorically, the antigun rallies of 2018 have much in common with their 2000 predecessors, but the financial infrastructure behind them is different by at least an order of magnitude. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his friends, they will never be short of money.