Just days before the US Senate begins debating new gun control measures proposed by US President Barack Obama, thousands of people, many holding signs with the names of gun violence victims and messages such as “Ban assault weapons now,” joined a rally for gun control in the US capital.
Leading the crowd on Saturday were marchers with “We Are Sandy Hook” signs, paying tribute to victims of elementary-school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, last month. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and other city officials marched alongside them. The crowd stretched for at least two blocks along Constitution Avenue.
About 100 residents from Newtown, where a man killed 20 students and six educators, went to Washington, organizers said.
Participant Kara Baekey from nearby Norwalk, Connecticut, said that when she heard about the shooting, she immediately thought of her two young children. Baekey decided she had to take action and traveled to Washington for the march.
“I wanted to make sure this never happens at my kids’ school or any other school,” Baekey said. “It just can’t happen again.”
Once the crowd arrived at the monument, speakers expressed support for Obama’s proposals for a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and for universal background checks on gun sales.
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the crowd it is not about taking away gun rights guaranteed by the US Constitution’s Second Amendment, but about gun safety and saving lives. He said he and Obama would do everything they could to enact gun control policies.
However, in the Senate, some of Obama’s fellow Democrats may frustrate his efforts to enact the most sweeping gun control measures in decades. These Democrats from largely rural states with strong gun cultures view Obama’s proposals warily and have not committed to supporting them.
“There’s a core group of Democratic senators — most, but not all, from the west — who represent states with a higher-than-average rate of gun ownership, but an equally strong desire to feel their kids are safe,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns director Mark Glaze said.
“They’re having hard, but good conversations with people back home to identify the middle ground solutions that respect the Second Amendment, but make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on guns,” Glaze said.
All eyes are on these dozen or so Democrats, some of whom face re-election next year. That includes senators Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings on Wednesday.
Interest groups, lobbyists, lawmakers, crime victims and others with a stake in the outcome will be watching these senators closely for signals about what measures they might support.
Leading the charge against those ideas is the National Rifle Association. The gun rights lobbying group wields enormous power to rally public sentiment and is a particular threat to Democrats in pro-gun states who face re-election.
At Saturday’s rally, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s non-voting representative in Congress, said the gun lobby can be stopped and the crowd replied: “Yes, we can.”
Molly Smith, the artistic director of Washington’s Arena Stage, and her partner organized the march. Organizers said that buses of participants traveled from New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. Others flew in from Seattle, San Francisco and Alaska, they said.
While she has never organized a political march before, Smith said she was compelled to press for a change in gun laws.
“With the drum roll, the consistency of the mass murders and the shock of it, it is always something that is moving and devastating to me, and then it’s as if I move on,” Smith said. “And in this moment, I can’t move on. I can’t move on.
“I think it’s because it was children, babies,” she said.
After the Connecticut shootings, Smith began organizing on Facebook and the group One Million Moms for Gun Control, the Washington National Cathedral and two other churches signed on to co-sponsor the march. Organizers have raised more than US$50,000 for the rally, Smith said.