Amillion moms — give or take a few hundred thousand — spent a sunny Mother’s Day last Sunday on the Mall in Washington, D.C. demonstrating in support of stricter gun-control laws in the United States. The event was predictably marked by equal parts media gush and public yawns. The question is, was it just another ephemeral, made-for-TV moment or, as organizers claimed, the kind of genuine grass-roots stirring that is needed if the U.S. is ever going to beat its gun problem?
The moms’ cause seems clear and unexceptionable: reducing the number of deaths and injuries caused in the U.S. by guns. No one disputes the magnitude of the problem. What is in dispute, to the point of complete political stalemate, is the solution. The massacre at Columbine High School occurred just over a year ago and was widely expected to prove a watershed in the history of Americans’ love affair with firearms. It didn’t. In the past year, the flood of fatal shootings has continued unabated. A disgruntled day trader mows down 12 people in Georgia. A 6-year-old shoots and kills a classmate in Michigan. A teenage boy opens fire on a group of children on a Sunday outing at the Washington Zoo, wounding seven. The slaughter seems unstoppable. Only last Tuesday, a man shot his ex-wife and her boyfriend to death at a Little League baseball game in Alabama.
The response, as always, has been hand wringing and resignation in equal measure. Repeated exposure to school shootings, workplace massacres and armed-hostage situations, not to mention gang killings and at-home accidents, numbs the capacity for grief and outrage. Such incidents — and the packaged emotion disseminated by the vulture media after each one — have become a cliche of contemporary American life, even, grotesquely, a form of entertainment. Meanwhile, proposed legislative solutions go nowhere: The latest, a post-Columbine bill requiring safety locks on guns and tighter restrictions on purchases, is hopelessly stalled in Congress, where the National Rifle Association has unrivaled clout.
This is where the moms come in — although to what long-term effect is anyone’s guess. Not everyone, they want to say, is indifferent to the mayhem. Since the politicians are gridlocked on the issue, perhaps it is time to try to jolt them out of it — and what more time-honored way than with a march on Washington? At least since the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. thrilled the nation in 1963 with his great, Moses-like plea for civil rights, the grassy space between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial has seen numerous crowds rallying in support of this, that or the other cause. Antiwar protesters. A million black men. The Promise Keepers (who remembers them today?). Earth Day enthusiasts. Gays and lesbians. People against globalization. And now, a million mothers echoing Peter Finch’s character in the movie “Sunday Bloody Sunday”: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more.”
The risk, of course, is that crowd politics, deployed too often, can run into the problem of diminishing returns. When mad-as-hell people flock to the Mall every other month, they generate the same kind of issue fatigue that undermines interest in their causes. They become boring, as the Rev. King never was. To many Americans — especially the large middle group of those who neither own a gun themselves nor have ever been touched by gun-related violence — Sunday’s event was boring before it
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