By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Mary Thompson has her prey in sight. Thompson, a Dallas grandmother of six and co-founder of the women's anti-gun-control group Second Amendment Sisters, is patrolling the hallways of Capitol Hill, looking for targets in her war against gun control. What better place to find her enemy, the gun-control lobbyists and lobby-ees, than in Washington, D.C., where Thompson has traveled for a pro-gun rally? Her first sitting-duck target: Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, as the gun-control advocate steps into the hallway after a Democratic Party hearing.
Thompson begins firing verbal salvos as she tails Boxer down the hall. "I would appreciate it," she says, "if you would keep your hands off my means of protecting myself when the occasion arises." Thompson, a short firebrand, continues shadowing the senator even as Boxer insists she isn't trying to repeal anyone's rights.
"Yes, you are!" a livid Thompson shoots back. "You know it, and I know it!"
Boxer then stages a hasty retreat, losing her pursuer by ducking into the women's restroom.
Eager for another joust, Thompson heads back to the hearing room to confront Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate's minority leader. After waiting in a line of well-wishers, she finally reaches Daschle and offers counsel, arguing that gun control only abets criminals with a knack for finding guns regardless of the law. "Criminals do not obey laws," she scolds him. "You can sit here and pass as many laws as you want, and in the end, the criminals will not obey them either."
Declining to take the bait, Daschle responds with a disarmingly pleasant reassurance, sounding like Chance the Gardener: "I understand," he says. Stunned at her failure to provoke, Thompson follows up with a vaguely threatening promise. "I will not give up my right to arm myself to defend myself," she declares. "I can tell you I am not alone." In reply to that vow of insurrection from the militant grandmother (who lives in a Far North Dallas neighborhood that probably won't rise up anytime soon), Daschle offers a terse rejoinder: "I hear you."
The rattling of Boxer and Daschle all went down when Thompson and another "Sister" crashed a somewhat obscure Democratic Party gathering broadcast on C-SPAN and held on May 15 in a U.S. Senate office building, a day after the pro-gun-control Million Mom March. That morning, representatives of the Million Mom March; a teacher shot during the Columbine massacre; Washington, D.C., police chief Charles Ramsey; and at least three women whose children were killed by firearms testified before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, all calling for tougher firearms laws to abate gun violence.
Thompson wasn't packing heat that day--her concealed-weapons permit is no good in handgun-hostile D.C.--but as evidence from her Capitol Hill skirmishes, she's a loaded pistol regardless. Wearing a plethora of anti-Clinton and anti-gun-control buttons ("No gun control victims," one read), the native Texan and a fellow Sister, Kathy Wood of Burke, Virginia, arrived to agitate. "This was a typical Democrat propaganda production--a one-sided photo-op and sound bite on one volatile issue without anyone to counter the spin," scoffed Wood.
If Wood's statement seems overheated, that may be because the committee she crashed isn't a real deliberative panel but a consensus-building arm allowing Democrats to meet with citizens and political allies in a quasi-official setting. (Republicans hold similar functions.) Senate panels count both Republicans and Democrats as members--and more of the former since the GOP holds a five-member majority. Such distinctions meant little to the gatecrashers; they seethed at the idea of lawmakers' meeting gun-control advocates. "They were just trying to schmooze with the Million Moms and let them tell their sad stories," Thompson says. "I was shaking my head at the blatant lies they were telling."
Under the heading "Basil [Thompson's online identity] FReeps Barbara Boxer, Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy--After-Action Report," the raucous incident is recounted on "Free Republic," a popular Web site (www.freerepublic.org) where conservatives, Libertarians, and other wags dissect the day's news stories and revel in an orgy of Clinton-Gore bashing. "FReeping," a take on the name Free Republic, is slang for the Web collective's variety of protest, which is always outspoken and sometimes ribald, especially where President Clinton is involved.
In the milieu of right-wing Web sites, the Boxer and Daschle "FReeps" amounted to bagging big game. But the day's crowning moment occurred minutes later when Thompson stumbled upon the office of Sen. Teddy Kennedy, the king of congressional liberals and a longtime gun-control proponent. On paper provided by Kennedy's office, she left a nasty note for the nation's most famous lawmaker, referencing the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which a young campaign worker was killed after Kennedy drove off a bridge near Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. It read:
Mr. Kennedy: My guns have killed fewer people than your car. Keep your hands off my right to defend myself. I think you will find that right enumerated in the Second Amendment of our beloved Constitution. You have read that document, haven't you? Sincerely, Mary Thompson
A receptionist made a dubious promise that Kennedy senator would personally receive the note. Meanwhile, Wood, who earlier chased one of Daschle's aides down a staircase in a fit of anti-gun-control vexation, was eager to bag one last "FReeping" victim. All available senators had dispersed; the office staff would have to do. "I don't know how people who work for these guys can sleep at night," she bellowed as they left Kennedy's office.
After that last salvo, the Sisters left the building to lunch at nearby Union Station. The amusing episode begs the question: Why would two older women invade a Democratic Party gathering to mock elected officials and threaten armed revolution? The incident could be dismissed as the doings of a pair of harmless fringe characters running amok for the day.
But the "fringe" part of that assessment would be off base. That's because Thompson is a leader of the latest grassroots right-to-bear-arms group to make a splash in the American scene for some time, reaping national media attention and clearly demonstrating that gun advocacy is no longer a male-dominated concern. On May 14, the Second Amendment Sisters gathered thousands of women to effectively protest the much larger Million Mom March, an unprecedented protest in its own right that challenged the legendary power of the gun lobby. The Sisters--"pro-gun mamas," as the New York Daily News labeled them--are increasingly ready to challenge the notion that women and families are safer when gun access is restricted. "I believe so firmly in the Second Amendment," says Thompson, an admittedly paranoid absolutist who sees all gun-control laws as steps toward eventual confiscation of firearms, pointing to Stalin's Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Pol Pot's Cambodia as tyrannies that murdered citizens after disarming them. "There is a war on our rights," she says, "and we have to stop it."
Right or wrong, Thompson's uncompromising message is resonating nationwide, bringing a whole new constituency into the right-to-bear-arms fold--and creating a grassroots group with more credibility than the faceless "gun lobby" supposedly embodied by the NRA. (All of the founding Sisters are NRA members, Thompson says, but the group has avoided donations from the larger organization because it has been "demonized" in the press.)
As word circulates, gun-friendly women are flocking to join the Sisters and voice their belief that (largely unregulated) firearm ownership is crucial to protection of their families. They say media hype over school shootings has eclipsed the positives of guns. "You never hear stories about self-defense in the paper," says Dianne Sawyer, a founding Sister from Lexington, South Carolina.
Arming herself only three years ago after strange men tailed her car and she felt threatened, Thompson now sees herself as a defender of Constitutional liberties. Alluding to the Second Amendment, she asks: "What part of 'shall not be infringed' don't you understand?"
Men, young people, and even a blue-haired punk show up to support the Sisters. Adding to the patriotic fervor of the event, a man wanders through the crowd dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier, carrying a powder horn and wearing a tricornered hat. Identifying himself only as "an American citizen," he tells reporters that he came to the rally "because we have some people on the other side who want to destroy the Bill of Rights because some mothers don't control their children properly."
Texas state Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, a Republican crucial in securing passage of Texas' concealed carry law, gives the rally's keynote speech. "That pesky old Second Amendment, that darned archaic document always gets in the way of reasonable, common-sense legislation," she says, mocking rhetoric of gun-control advocates.
Hupp is an animated spokeswoman for the cause because of personal experience. Nine years ago at a crowded cafeteria in Killeen, Hupp was enjoying a meal with her parents when a lunatic gunman rammed a truck through the window and began shooting people, methodically pumping rounds into diners cowering under tables. Hupp somehow escaped, but her parents were not so lucky. They were among 24 victims of one of the nation's deadliest mass shootings ever.
Since then, Hupp has been haunted by her certainty that she could have saved them if she hadn't left her then-illegal handgun in the car. As she sees it, the government legislated away her right to defend her family. "I refuse to ever be an easy victim again," says Hupp, who has campaigned nationwide for concealed carry laws. "Why don't they concentrate on the criminals and leave law-abiding citizens alone?" (On the other hand, many survivors of gun violence, such as Handgun Control's Sarah Brady, have gone the other way to support more restrictions.)
Later in the morning, the Sisters march to the Capitol past the Million Mom protest, attracting boos and jeers from the gun-control crowd. Kim Watson, a co-founder from Tallahassee, Florida, says she saw a Mom give her the finger and a child yell, "You should be shot." Gun supporters later professed shock that some Moms treated them with derision; they say they didn't respond in kind.
Along the way to the Capitol, the Sisters also sing lively chants, including "Second Amendment: A civil right" and "Guns save lives." When the procession passes the National Archives, another call-and-response begins. "The Constitution is in that building. Read it," the marchers chant.
It's about a week after the "Armed Informed Mothers March," and Thompson is still recuperating. "This activism stuff is hard work," she says with a grin. Never fear; she's still committed to the cause. "Its getting so we might need a Second American Revolution," she exclaims when the subject of gun control is broached. "I don't think this country can survive Al Gore. When you see these Supreme Court nominees coming up, we'll be a police state in four years."
I ask to see her gun, and she discreetly takes her Kel-Tec P-32, out of her purse. It's a small, lightweight handgun obviously designed for "concealed carry" purposes. She tucks it in a special pocket of her handbag so she can walk into public places with her hand on her gun, just in case she's threatened.
The shocking murder of a 75-year-old woman during a botched robbery in the parking lot of a nearby department store last July reaffirmed her decision to pack heat, she says. There's a little more to the story, though. Tragically, the elderly woman was murdered after struggling with a man who tried to take her purse. Pushed to the ground, she was run over--accidentally, it seems--by the escaping con, a depraved crack-cocaine addict who needed cash for a fix.
But is Thompson drawing the wrong lesson from this incident? If you are held up, why not just hand over the loot and avoid possible death? To Thompson, it's a matter of pride not to be victimized. "They touch me, I shoot them," she says. "It's as simple as that. In a heartbeat."
Bender, who argues that gun-rights groups are akin to civil rights groups such as the ACLU or NAACP, complains of a certain local daily newspaper's failure to do a story on the locally rooted Second Amendment Sisters. Yet whether the Sisters are "Dallas-based," as newspapers across the country have reported in accounts of the Washington protests, is up for debate. That's because Thompson is the only Dallas Sister out of the group's five founders (the other four live in New Jersey, Illinois, South Carolina, and Florida).
If you count the box Thompson has rented at the nearby Mr. Parcel location to collect the group's mail, the Sisters are indeed "Dallas-based." On a good day, Thompson says, the group receives about 80 letters from across the country, although that figure has dropped off as the Million Mom March receded from the news. Sister Thompson's duties are to reply to the piles of mail and perform needed bookkeeping of donations mailed in by supportive citizens. So far, after only six months of existence, the group has reaped $40,000, she says; the average person donates $20 to $25.
A still-fiery redhead at 63, Thompson is a staunch right-winger, whether one calls it social conservatism (she's against abortion) or Libertarianism (hands off my gun, buster). She has magnetic anti-Bill and -Hillary Clinton bumper stickers on the back of her white Lexus (one advertises HillaryNo.com), as well as a Keyes 2000 sticker. Thompson admits that she's more outspoken politically than some other Sisters. That's why she wasn't picked for the media-liaison job. "I am not a good subject to interview because I say what I think," she says.
She's visited Washington nine times in 18 months to participate in protests organized by Free Republic comrades and has organized local rallies to razz Clinton's motorcade when he comes to town. "We stand in front of the White House and yell the guy in there is a sexual predator on the loose," she says.
Despite her napalm-strength politics, Thompson is grandmotherly in other aspects. Her heart goes out to letter-writers (she has several bags full of epistles) who pour out their life stories on learning to hunt and shoot as children and tell why they think gun rights are crucial. People of modest means who send in a few bucks to the Sisters also move her tremendously. "A lot of people send $5 and apologize because that's all they can send," she says.
Thompson, who grew up in Beaumont, Texas, and met her husband as a nurse in Baltimore, hasn't worked since she was much younger and unashamedly offers the term "kept woman" to describe herself. Her husband, a businessman nearing retirement, is not political and sometimes gets peeved with his wife's activism. "He's not thrilled this has taken so much of my time," she says, "but he's known me long enough to not mess with a red-hair."
The kids aren't happy either. "I've been stuck here since January," she admits. "The kids get upset that I don't baby-sit for them." So why keep on with the Sisters--and the hours of paperwork activism demands? "I love my country," she says, "but I don't like the way it's going. I cannot stand to sit back as our Constitution gets trashed."
Thompson resides in an upper-middle-class neighborhood a few blocks north of Frankford Road, where most homes are valued in the $200,000-to-$300,000 range. Even so, the neighbors are probably the kind of "pubbie" that people on the Free Republic site call RINOS--short for "Republicans In Name Only"--since gun control, as Thompson tells it, is highly desired here.
"'But Mary, don't you want to save the children?'" she says in a mock whimper, imitating a neighbor not hip on guns. "I gently try to say, 'You need to think about this from all the angles.'"
From that, Second Amendment Sisters was born, announcing its presence to the world this January. With little more than a shoestring Web site (http://www.sas-aim.org/), word-of-mouth, and press from talk-radio outlets, the Sisters attracted an estimated 1,500 to 5,000 people to their Armed Informed Mothers March. Through the Internet, the women found more than 120 volunteers and 45 state chairwomen (and men). "We are five women who didn't meet each other before the rally," Thompson says of the group's five founders. "We organized in cyberspace with no experience and no money."
Nearly two months later, those efforts have paid off considerably. The group has won real estate in the gun debate. The name Second Amendment Sisters is now memorable to casual CNN viewers. Still, Thompson admits the whole thing was a crapshoot up until the morning of the march. "We were praying there would be more people in front than on stage," she recalls.
While supporters are clamoring for membership cards and volunteer duties, the Sisters haven't yet set up a formal membership. But they vow to continue the momentum started at the Armed Informed Mothers March. To plot a post-Million Mom course for the group, the five founders recently met at Thompson's house in Dallas. They also used the occasion to go to a local firing range together and polish their target skills.
Renewed activism on both sides of the gun-control debate arrives as the issue gains traction in the current presidential race. Last year, the mighty National Rifle Association smashed a strong gun-control push in Congress, an amazing feat in the wake of last spring's Columbine bloodbath.
Despite that victory, gun-control opponents know there's no time to rest. A second attempt at gun control is gestating in Congress, championed by lawmakers who sense a public still appalled by mass killings. The latest call to arms for gun advocates came at the 3.6 million-member NRA's recent annual convention when actor and NRA President Charlton Heston held a musket high in the air, defiantly declared, "From my cold, dead hands," and pledged that his organization would fight to derail Vice President Al Gore's candidacy. (Despite his strong gun-control stance, Gore insists he doesn't want to "disarm America.")
The Million Mom March was the first recent attempt by gun-control supporters to counter NRA clout with equal mettle. The march was also notable for bringing suburbanites together with less wealthy inner-city moms, long estranged politically, to fight together. The group packed its crowd into six blocks of grass between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol for a daylong rally. It also sponsored well-attended rallies in at least 70 other cities, including Fort Worth.
The Sisters argue the Moms couldn't have attracted 750,000 pilgrims by any stretch: They peg attendance, at most, to 150,000 Moms. A page on their Web site titled "Million Mom Math" features an aerial photo of the rally that looks quite spare compared with a jam-packed photo of the Promise Keepers' 1997 rally in Washington. Debate over attendance will never be settled, however, because U.S. Park Police officials stopped making estimates after the Nation of Islam attacked them as racist for counting only 400,000 sojourners at 1995's Million Man March.
The Sisters and other pan-bangers also point to the background of the Million Mom March's founder, Donna Dees-Thomases. Originally billing herself as a regular "soccer mom" from New Jersey, Dees-Thomases said the idea for a march was born after she watched news footage last year of children fleeing from a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles after a psychotic racist gunman opened fire, wounding five children. Enough, Dees-Thomases said she recalled thinking. A week later, she applied for a permit for 10,000 people to march on the Capitol.
The "soccer mom" characterization, however, isn't entirely accurate. Minivan or not, Dees-Thomases draws her paycheck from CBS as a publicist for David Letterman; she has also flacked for Dan Rather. On top of that, Dees-Thomases is the sister-in-law of Susan Thomases, the television producer and well-known close friend of the Clintons.
The news media was slow to pick up the Dees-Thomases-Clinton connection, an omission angrily noted in the conservative press. To Thompson and other Clinton bashers, any link to Slick Willie is evidence of treachery. To be sure, however, it seems improbable that any politician's friend could manufacture a movement capable of bringing tens of thousands of people to Washington. It's more likely Dees-Thomases merely tapped a rich vein of Columbine-inspired angst already present in the body politic and adeptly shaped it into relevance.
Treachery or not, many Sisters and their allies hold the Million Mom March in utter contempt. Nicknames for Moms include "The Million Moron March," "The Million Misguided Moms" and the "Commie Mommies." The Sisters admit they feel sorrow for women who have lost relatives to gun violence, but they argue those protesters have been blinded by grief.
The remaining Moms don't get off as easy: Gun defenders see them as unpatriotic rabble. The Sisters are quick to note that their demonstration had considerably more flag-waving than the Moms' confab--hence the "Commie Mommies" tag. "We started with the Pledge of Allegiance, and gave out the American flag," Thompson says. "You didn't see a flag at their march; you didn't see anything."
But the gun-rights group has its own image problem: High-spirited defense of "gun rights" is still seen as suspect in the press and many sectors of the public. Preparing the rally, Sisters tried to dispel the "gun nut" stereotype. "Please don't try to pick fights or be confrontational," said an advisory on the group's Web site. "The simple fact that we are a 'pro-gun' march means that we will be watched extra carefully, and there will be those looking to exploit any 'mistakes' we make.
"And please --no empty holsters."
Just who are these women? They range from young professionals like Bednarzyk to grandmothers like Thompson, and resist being pigeonholed by age, education, or other factors. But all resent the political cartoons and other media characterizations depicting them as uneducated, with "big hair" and married to a cousin. "We are professionals and business people, normal people," says Bednarzyk, a software consultant from Chicago.
The Sisters admit the counterintuitive appeal of the group: women defending guns. "It's almost an enigma," says co-founder Dianne Sawyer. "Why do women care about this?" Sawyer, whose online nickname is "pistol-packin mama," said that despite growing up around firearms, declaring her pro-gun sympathies to some friends was "like coming out of the closet."
But Kim Watson, the group's media spokeswoman and a typesetter, thinks women may be more receptive to the Sisters' message than one might guess. "I have had more people from my work come up to me and say, 'I saw you on TV, and you were great.'" Many letter writers, Thompson says, are glad the group is speaking out from a woman's perspective. The group's Internet site links to several women's self-defense books: One tome is titled Dial 911 and Die.
Meanwhile, the group is contemplating a get-out-the-vote effort. It's unclear whether they would have to form a special political arm for tax purposes to do this, but Sawyer has already thought up one rather biting slogan: "Guns or Gore."
Undisputedly, the Armed Informed Mothers March provided a strong counterpoint to the Million Mom March in the media. They were outnumbered and outspent, but nearly every major media account of the March also contained information and quotes from the Second Amendment Sisters that portrayed them as people with valid opinions, in contrast to usual depictions of the fearsome gun lobby.
One gun-rights advocate sees the Sisters' emergence as a landmark development in the gun debate. "I've been in this battle since 1974, and I've never seen gun owners this organized and energized," says Alan Gottlieb, executive director of the Bellevue, Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation. "I welcome groups like the Second Amendment Sisters because it helps build the movement. To really have a movement you need a lot of groups, and controversies and friction among the groups."
Then there's the public relations value of a group celebrating the virtues of girls and guns. For that reason, Gottlieb hopes the group will stay active for a long time.
"They have a perfect niche," he says, "because every time a woman gets on TV and calls for gun control, they get called for comment."