One Year After Columbine

She leaves, and I feel the same twinge of fear I have felt every morning since April 20, 1999. She goes gladly. She likes her school, Littleton High, located about 15 miles from Columbine. Her hair is an auburn mantle as she runs into the morning, a clatter of keys, books and backpack. In the 15-year-old world of my youngest daughter, the details are pressing, the larger picture distant.

But Columbine has affected my world, as I suspect it has for many parents. We do not take lightly the hurried goodbye, the last "I love you" tossed across the quiet morning. It even changes my usual Mother’s Day pattern of lounging, planting flowers, enjoying the luxury of a dinner cooked by my four children. Instead, I drive with two daughters to Denver’s civic center, crowded with 12,000 other moms, children and dads. We imagine our gathering repeated around the country, and cheer the figures announced from Washington, D.C.: 500,000 in the Million Mom March there.

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Many gathered here in Denver are veterans of other demonstrations: the civil rights marches, the protests against the war in Vietnam and the School of the Americas in Georgia. Graying liberals, we joke about introducing our kids to the fine subversion of the 60’s. But beneath the banter, we recognize that once again the underdogs are tackling the powerful status quo. For the umpteenth time we wonder what one can do against so many. Weakly, we boo the announcement that the N.R.A. will spend $30 million to influence the fall elections.

N.R.A. members who encircle our protest hardly seem a threat. They accuse us of wanting slavery simply because we advocate gun locks. They shout freedom slogans, apparently unaware how un-nuanced and irrelevant they are to a discussion of background checks for gun buyers. The lettering on their T-shirts, "Tyranny Response Team," stretches taut over bulging beer-guts. Their attempt to drown out the music and dance of the demonstration with bullhorns sounds relentlessly dull. One tries not to think of gorillas thumping their chests. In true protest style, both sides wave the flag.

Yet we cannot dismiss them as thugs throwing testosterone tantrums. While these counter-protestors may not represent the cream of the crop, the gun lobby has a stranglehold on national and state legislatures. Because of their influence, no significant legislation has been passed in the year since Columbine to protect kids from gun violence.

And that makes their mothers mad. If catchy rhetoric is crucial to a cause, this one has some gems: "Woe to you who try to come between a mother and her child." "Take your gun and go to your room!" "The gun lobby is no match for a million moms." "We love our children more than they love their guns." "Our kids are more protected from an aspirin bottle than from a semi-automatic."

But all the slogans fade before the raw pain of Tom and Linda Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine. "Honorary mom" for the day, Tom addresses the group gathered near the capitol where, 10 days after the slaughter, he spoke in public for the first time. His words now echo his words then: "I’m here because Daniel would expect me to be here."

Such a simple statement, yet it snags the breath in the throat. I pause in the act of applying sunscreen to my daughter’s freckled shoulder. Suddenly the gesture is unbearably poignant. I think of all the moms who can no longer do this basic kindness for their children12 a day murdered by guns. In Colorado, the litany of names has become a bracelet of memory: Cassie, Steven, Corey, Kelly, Matthew, Daniel, Rachel, Isaiah, John, Lauren, Dan, Kyle and their teacher Dave.

We know their stories and have memorized their faces. We saw the initial television footage, stunning and stark. The stretchers, the IV’s, the sirens, the long procession of ambulances. In shock we endured the irony of funerals where the mourners, the pallbearers and the deceased were all under 18. Now we see the aftereffects: the wheelchairs, the surgeries, the rehabilitation that never quite restores the ambling lope of a 15-year-old boy, the slender grace of a 16-year-old girl.

Perhaps the N.R.A. has met its match. All the money in the world cannot contend with the rage of a mother torn from her child. They have tampered with some deep and primal instinct, and they cannot win. An initiative in Colorado for the November ballot aims to require background checks and close "the gun-show loophole." If the legislature cannot accomplish it, the people will. Every mom at that march has a voteand as we are frequently reminded, a vote is a terrible thing to waste. We may be political neophytes, but we will master any system we must to protect the vulnerable child.

I know with stinging clarity that Lauren or Daniel could have been my daughter or son. My stomach churned when Dawn Anna, Lauren’s mom, hugged her slain child’s graduation cap and gown and called the valedictorian "a mother’s dream." The gun that fired 11 bullets into Lauren was obtained as easily as "taking cereal off a grocery shelf." Despite a year of grieving, the stories remain heart-wrenching. I suspect we are ready to take the next step now, to make the transition from profound sorrow to vibrant action.

When people feel strongly about an issue, their language becomes direct and dramatic. "Enough," they say. "No more." The gun control measures proposed nationally and locally seem mild compared to those of other civilized nations. The statistics are clear, but the joined voice of the mothers roars even clearer. Listen intently and hear beneath them the tragic moans of students who thought a school library safe. Never again. Never another Columbine.

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