March organizers hope to get 50,000 women to attend Washington rally for stiffer gun laws.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It began with the image of preschoolers fleeing a gunman at the Jewish Community Center in the San Fernando Valley last summer.

And it has evolved into the Million Mom March, a campaign by mothers from New Jersey to Hawaii to stage the largest rally in U.S. history in support of stronger gun laws.

In the process, they hope to do what President Clinton, public opinion polls and a spate of high-profile shootings have failed to do: spur new action on gun-control legislation and keep the issue in the forefront of this year's presidential and congressional campaigns.

The name of the march--set for May 14--is a bit of a misnomer. Organizers hope to draw at least 50,000 women to Washington. And it is not a single march but many, planned in more than a dozen cities across the country.

But the political reality is clear. Women--particularly, women with young children--are among the highest-turnout voting groups in the U.S., and they are judging candidates based on their response to this issue.

"The moms of this country have had it," said U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was shot and killed on a Long Island commuter train in 1993.

A pro-gun rights group, the Second Amendment Sisters, plans a counter march in Washington on the same day.

"I've used a firearm to defend myself," said Debra Collins, the group's Colorado coordinator, adding that she isn't sure that she would have survived if she had to "fumble around with a trigger lock at 4 o'clock in the morning."

The opposing marches--and daily rhetorical war in Congress and between President Clinton and the National Rifle Assn.--is certain to keep gun control a marquee issue in the presidential campaign and a number of tight congressional races. A separate gun control advocacy group, the Silent March, plans to display at the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer hundreds of empty shoes representing gunshot victims.

"It's remarkable how much attention the candidates themselves are paying to gun control," said Jon Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "Certainly, the candidates themselves seem to think that's going to be a major factor distinguishing them."

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans support tougher gun laws. And women favor gun control more strongly than men.

"There's as great, if not greater, gender difference on gun control as there is on any issue I've ever seen," said Tom W. Smith, a social scientist at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

The moms march organizers--which include women without children and men--avoid using the hot-button term "gun control," preferring to frame the issue in child safety terms. Still, their objectives include a litany of the key items sought by gun-control groups: licensing of gun owners, registration of weapons, background checks on all gun sales, safety locks on handguns and a limit of one handgun purchase a month per customer.

March founder Donna Dees-Thomases, a New Jersey mother of two girls, said that last item has provoked the most reaction from mothers who ask: "Isn't one [handgun] a lifetime enough?"

John Price, a Maryland father whose son was accidentally shot by a 9-year-old neighbor, found out how strong feelings run on the other side of the issue while answering phones at the Washington office of the march.

"We're not against the 2nd Amendment," he told the caller. "I respect your opinion. But we have a different opinion."

The moms are receiving support from gun-control groups, including $300,000 from the Funders Collaborative for Gun Violence Prevention, set up by billionaire George Soros and philanthropist Irene Diamond.

Congress has not approved any major gun control bill since Republicans took control of the House and Senate in the 1994 election. A handful of modest measures were passed last year by the Senate shortly after the April shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado that claimed 15 lives, including those of the two teen gunmen. But the legislation was derailed in the House and has been bottled up in a congressional committee that has not met since August.

The key measure would expand regulation of firearm sales at gun shows. Currently, only those who make purchases from federally licensed gun dealers at such shows are subject to the checks. The Senate bill would extend to unlicensed gun dealers the responsibility for such checks.

Other provisions would mandate trigger locks on handguns and ban the import of high-capacity ammunition clips.

Although the march is billed as a nonpartisan event, "it's going to make a lot of Republicans real uncomfortable," said one GOP strategist, who declined to be named.

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick added, "Obviously, candidates take polls, and they see gun control really resonates with pockets of swing voters."

Presumed Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore has stressed gun control as a campaign issue, and he is hoping it will emerge as a clear factor for swing voters--especially women--in distinguishing him from his presumed Republican rival, George W. Bush.

But U.S. Rep. Steve Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes), who has broken with the GOP majority to support gun control, expressed doubt that voters would cast their vote on a single issue, "even on an issue as hot as gun control. The vast majority of voters are going to weigh that with other issues," he said.

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NRA chief lobbyist James Jay Baker predicted that the rally will mobilize gun control opponents.

"When we're under attack . . . our membership goes up," he said, noting that the NRA now has 3.4 million members, an all-time high.

The NRA has no plans to stage its own event on Mother's Day and, instead, is looking to Election Day, recruiting thousands of volunteers to rally support for NRA-backed candidates and conducting a voter registration drive among people who hold hunting licenses, subscribe to outdoor magazines and own pickup trucks. But he won't say which congressional races the organization will target.

"I don't like to telegraph punches before we deliver them," Baker said.

Among those planning to march in Washington are Democratic moms, including first lady and Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, Republican moms, including U.S. Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland, and even gun-owning moms.

Janet Hoffman, a Florida gun owner who plans to march in Washington with her teenage sons, said, "Opponents of gun control believe that we are trying to take guns away. We're trying to control whose hands they're in."

Carol Ann Taylor, an Inglewood resident whose 17-year-old son and only child was shot to death in 1993, also plans to be in D.C.

"I can't bring Willie back, but I'll be damned if I just sit here and watch [the violence]," she said. A group of mothers from Los Angeles' Eastside is also planning to come to Washington, raising nearly $2,000 for the trip from the sale of tamales.

"I have a year-old baby, and I want him to be safe," said Victoria Ballesteros, a Los Feliz mother who was an aide to former U.S. Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera). Ballesteros is helping to plan the downtown Los Angeles rally. "I don't want to have to worry about him when he goes to school."

Dees-Thomases said she is encouraged about the march, noting that when she first applied for a permit to march in Washington, police officers said that her estimate of 10,000 was too low.

When she asked why, she said, the officers told her their moms planned to be there too.

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