The Million Mom March: Continuing its Legacy 19 Years Later

The Million Mom March, held on the National Mall on Mother’s Day 2000 and in 77 communities across the country, was the largest protest against gun violence in U.S. history. At close to a million participants, the Million Mom March would hold that record for 18 years until the March for Our Lives.

I was there there with my own mother. I remember the feeling of standing united with so many other women and girls who were inspired to join the movement to end gun violence. Today, my commitment has redoubled — not only as a mother to two daughters, but also as the first woman to serve as president of Brady, the nation’s oldest gun violence prevention organization. I follow in the footsteps of Sarah Brady, an inspirational leader for this movement who crossed every bridge and shook every hand to make real legislative change happen in enacting the Brady Background Check System.

Sen. Betty Holzendorf (D-FL) at the 2001 Million Mom March. The organization merged with Brady that year.

I feel a special responsibility during Women’s History Month to honor the women behind the monumental Million Mom March. These are the women who introduced the world to a national gun violence prevention movement. Powerful women leaders you might may or may not have never heard of — such as founder Donna Dees-Thomases, Mary Leigh Blek in California, Dana Sanchez-Quist in Florida, Asyah Aquil in New Jersey, and Madalyn Schenk in Louisiana, to name just a few — were all Million Mom March organizers. They went on to form the first national chapter-based gun violence prevention, which ultimately became part of Brady a year later in 2001.

They started this grassroots movement with little more than a website and a dream that their children and grandchildren would grow up in a safer America. Trying to list all of their accomplishments over the last 19 years is a daunting and impossible task. But we must ensure that their stories are remembered, told and retold, so we remember that anything is possible with committed and passionate leaders fueled by a desire for truth and justice.

How the Million Moms March Helped Build Today’s Movement

The Million Mom March was announced on Labor Day 1999 by a group of 25 moms. Nine months later on Mother’s Day 2000, nearly a million marchers across the country — including 77 sister marches — joined the movement. The mothers who organized the grassroots Million Mom March ranged from the women of the Oregon State PTA to the women of Detroit’s NAACP to the National Council of Jewish Women to our own retired Brady staffer Connie Rucker. Connie, during her off hours, managed the volunteers of the Million Mom March national office.

The ASK (Asking Saves Kids) Campaign was officially launched on the National Mall at the Million Mom March. The ASK Campaign promotes a simple idea that parents should ASK if there is an unlocked gun in homes where their children play. Every day, 8 children and teens are unintentionally injured or killed due to this tragedy, called “family fire.” On that national stage, Carole Price, the Maryland organizer for the Million Mom March, told her heartbreaking story of how her 13-year-old son was fatally shot by a playmate at a neighbor’s house. Carole implored the marchers to go home and ask if there was a gun in the home(s) where their child play and if so, was it unloaded and locked up.

Harnessing the Power Toward Today’s Movement to End Gun Violence

Many mothers (my own included) left the National Mall that Mother’s Day pledging to meet with elected officials. Much like the March for Our Lives, the impact of the Million Mom March was felt almost immediately. Stalled gun safety legislation started to sail through state houses. That November, organizers led thousands on another march — to the polls. Through their advocacy, several NRA stalwarts were voted out of Congress during the 2000 election, and two states passed referendum to close the gun show loophole. President Bill Clinton praised the Million Mom March for “put[ting] stronger laws in place” in states across the country and for “letting the gun lobby know it is no match for America’s moms.”

A year later in 2001, Brady was proud to merge with the Million Mom March and its 236 grassroots chapters. In fact, many of the Million Mom March’s inspiring leaders went on to help create the backbone of Brady’s grassroots chapters. Amanda Wilcox and Mattie Scott in California. Carole Stiller in New Jersey. Delphine Cherry in Illinois — just to name just a few. On Mother’s Day 2004, with Essence Magazine as its lead sponsor, mothers rallied again to call attention to the 10-year federal Assault Weapons Ban signed into law in 1994 and set to expire that September. On Capitol Hill, mothers pulled wagons full of the 200,000 constituent postcards they collected, demanding that their elected officials keep these weapons of war off their streets.

Brady’s Jen Reidy, Kris Brown, and Jessica Gerber (l-r) celebrate the House passage of H.R. 8 to expand background checks in February 2019.

Prior to the federal Assault Weapons Ban expiration — and in an effort to recruit more mothers to the cause — Donna Dees-Thomases, the founder of the Million Mom March, co-authored the 2004 book “Looking for a Few Good Moms: How One Mother Organized a Million Others Against the Gun Lobby.” She warned of the harm if lawmakers failed to listen to American mothers. Unfortunately, lawmakers did just that and allowed the federal Assault Weapons Ban to expire. Mass shootings, as a result, have increased. In the year after Parkland, there was nearly one mass shooting a day.

Dees-Thomases asked Brady and its chapters to officially retire the Million Mom March brand to protect its legacy and to give this new wave of mom activists a clean slate to organize anew. While Million Mom Chapters have transitioned to Brady grassroots chapters over the years, the retiring of the “Million Mom” name does not mean these volunteers have retired. Many continue to be dedicated to preventing gun violence and continue to ASK to #EndFamilyFire, unintentional shootings caused by unlocked guns found in the home.

In 2020, amid the 20th anniversary of the Million Mom March, Brady plans to celebrate the contributions of the Million Mom mothers who have dedicated their lives to gun violence prevention. This is more than an exercise in self-congratulations. We want to empower a new generation of activists to #TakeActionNotSides and continue the legacy that the Million Mom March started. Until then, we at Brady thank you — all the women — who have made history by saving lives from gun violence.