'Moms' force parties to rethink US gun laws

Democratic and Republican politicians were confronting the possibility of a signal change in the American political landscape yesterday after the massive turnout at Sunday's Million Mom March in favour of tougher gun laws.

Even the fiercest opponents of the gun-control cause conceded that the predominantly suburban crowd on Washington's National Mall probably exceeded half a million, while the organisers claimed a crowd approaching 750,000. Parallel demonstrations by gun advocates were held in Washington and across the United States, but attracted far fewer people.

Responding to the success of Sunday's march, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) said gun registration and licensing - measures demanded by the marchers - would be tantamount to "a controlled burn of the second amendment ... and setting fire to freedom should never be the answer". The NRA, which has 3.5 million members and contributes to the campaign funds of many Republican Congressmen, is expected to make a fuller response at its national convention, which opens in North Carolina on Friday.

Donna Dees-Thomases, who instigated the Million Mom March, urged the marchers to continue their involvement with the gun control movement by forming groups to lobby state and national politicians.

Connie Morella, a Maryland Republican Congresswoman sympathetic to gun control, reiterated the importance of building on the achievements of the march if the anti-gun movement was to become a political force. And the New York Times said in an editorial: "The hands that rock the nation's cradles have the potential to rock its political institutions - but only if they keep rocking hard."

A point repeatedly emphasised by speakers at Sunday's rally was the potential voting power of the protesters, many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to make their voices heard. This overwhelmingly white, middle-class constituency were seen by analysts as key to the election of Bill Clinton, and no presidential candidate can afford to take their loyalty for granted.

Speakers called on mothers to cast or withhold their vote on the single issue of gun control. This opens the prospect of gun control being used by the political left and centre in a similar way to the use of the issue of abortion by the conservative right. Their voting strength may help to explain why the Governor of Texas, George W Bush, announced on the eve of the march that the state would offer free child-proofing trigger locks to anyone who wanted them. Mr Bush said that he would also subsidise a similar measure nationwide should he become president.

Capitalising on the support for gun control as shown in Sunday's march, President Clinton yesterday renewed his call for Congress to pass the gun-control legislation that has been stalled since its defeat in the House last year.

One notable absentee, both yesterday and from the march, was the Vice-President, Al Gore, whose casting vote had ensured passage of the legislation through the Senate. One explanation for his low profile on the issue could be a poll last week which suggested he was unexpectedly losing support among male voters, most of whom support gun ownership.

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