Can mothers take on gun violence with the same impact as drunk driving?
By Petula Dvorak,
Laura Wallace’s first reaction was anger.
When a whole class of first-graders was slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month, Wallace felt 13 years drain from her soul.
“I was cussing at the television when I saw it. This didn’t have to happen,” she told me, right after she clicked off President Obama’s speech on gun control, tired from her late-night shift as a cook at a halfway house, tired from hearing America grieve again.
Thirteen years ago, she was that grieving mother, crying into her pillow at night, waking up feeling her universe tilted, then realizing it was because she just buried a son.
Her son, Andre Wallace, and his girlfriend Natasha Marsh — both 17 — were gunned down after a fight in their school spilled into D.C.’s streets on a cold, February night.
Wallace, now 50, found a purpose in trying to prevent other mothers from having to walk her path.
On her first Mother’s Day without her son in 2000, she stood on a stage in front of the Capitol, in front of hundreds of thousands of women participating in the Million Mom March, and begged America’s leaders to do more to control access to guns in our country.
The public activism energized, but also haunted her.
“When I was a child, I wished I could grow up to be like Martin Luther King, standing up in front of crowds, fighting for justice. I guess you better be careful what you wish for. Never thought I’d have to lose a child to be in front of those crowds,” she said.
Wallace and other moms worked with schools to get more security. “Not armed guards walking around with their guns out, but we wanted counselors. Counselors who would know that fight that killed Andre started in school. And it should’ve ended in school, with people talkin’ it out,” she said. “It’s always about communication.”
The Million Mom March was fueled by the shooting at Columbine High School outside of Denver, not the daily, one-by-one deaths of kids in America's inner cities. It took a suburban school and a horrific spree for the rest of America to care about gun control. But Wallace could live with that; at least America was listening.
And then Sept. 11 happened, and suddenly the county’s focus on gun violence disappeared. America was fixated on a new demon.
So Wallace gave up on activism and concentrated on raising her two daughters, even as kids kept dying from gunfire.
In 2008 and 2009, 5,740 children were killed by gunfire in America, according to a report by the Children’s Defense Fund that analyzed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 2,500 kids per year, a lot of classrooms full of kids.
Then Newtown happened, and suddenly the country cared about guns again. Hours after the Connecticut shooting, an Indianapolis mom founded One Million Moms for Gun Control. Wallace will check out their Jan. 26 march on the Mall. But she probably won’t get on stage.
She agrees with the proposals that Obama outlined Wednesday, flanked by children who wrote to him asking him to help stop gun violence.
The president is asking for universal background checks for all gun buyers, a crackdown on gun trafficking, a ban on military-style assault weapons and a ban on ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets.
To Wallace, that is all so reasonable and common-sense that she couldn’t believe there would be a fight. But there will be, a bitter one.
Shannon Watts, the founder of the new Million Moms movement, said the nation’s mothers are up for it.
“Like Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped change lax laws in the 1980s, One Million Moms for Gun Control will not rest until common-sense gun laws are put in place at both the national and state levels. We are the wave of change,” she said in a statement Wednesday.
Yes, Mothers Against Drunk Driving didn’t take away your martinis or Manhattans. You are still free to pursue happiness with a highball. It’s just a lot less likely these days that you’ll kill someone on your way home, thanks to common-sense crackdowns and legislation against those who made a night out deadly.
These mothers don’t want to take away all the guns. Hunters who can take down a buck with less than 10 rounds will be free to do so. Homeowners can have the handgun they believe will ward off burglars. And my dad can keep my old air rifle and someday use it teach my boys how to shoot tin cans, just like I did growing up.
Wallace said she wishes all those first-graders didn’t have to die to finally make other mothers take up her fight.
“But in the end, it’s mothers and their kids getting slammed down in all this," she said. “So it’ll be mothers who get the job done.”
Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read earlier columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.