I remember I met him in the kitchen. He told me he was going to work. I said 'OK.' I gave him a hug, gave him a kiss, said 'I love you, Jamie.' He said, 'I love you, Mom.' I told him, 'Please drive carefully.' I didn't say, 'Don't get shot tonight.'"
As Jean Knight recalls the last moment she shared with her son, hours before he was shot and killed during a 1997 robbery attempt in the West End, it seems as if the entire room is holding its breath. Barbara Egwim, who knows firsthand the pain and grief and anger of losing a child to violence, reaches out to give Knight's hand a strengthening squeeze. In that instant of joined hands and pain lies a powerful image: Transcending racial lines, social lines and economic lines, their connection is on the most basic level. They are two mothers.
In six weeks, they plan to be two of a million other mothers marching to the nation's capital in a call for what they describe as "common sense gun laws."
"It's a safety issue," says Teresa Dayrit, the coordinator of Richmond's grassroots Million Mom March. "We're not trying to take away anyone's rights. We're mothers doing what we mothers do nurturing and protecting our children."
Dayrit, who is the first to say she has not lost a child to violence, says she has something more at stake. "The future of my son. He's 2«," she says pointing to the happy little boy playing at the end of the table.
"What better reason could she have than Alexander?" asks Jean's husband, David Knight, also a member of the organizing effort. Interestingly, the Million Mom March is not discriminating against those without wombs or offspring.
"We call them honorary moms," says Dayrit, "and they are more than welcome to join us. That's really what this is all about. Coming together to let Congress know that something needs to be done to protect our children."
David Knight, Jamie's father and a priest at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, is one of two men who are part of Richmond's core group. The other is Mike Sarahan, whose involvement began as an academic pursuit. He speaks to another side of gun violence: the alarming rate of suicide. "And the method of choice in Virginia," says Sarahan, "is a gun."
Egwim is committed to spreading the word about the March through the African-American community. Today, she's picking up another 500 fliers, her second batch. "I hand them out personally," she says, "to anyone who will listen." Ever since her son Koron Stewart was shot and killed in 1996, Egwim has worked tirelessly. "I want to stop the cycle of violence."
There is an undercurrent of excitement at this gathering. It comes just a day after Smith & Wesson won a promised dismissal of the lawsuits by the federal, state and local governments that were suing the company and a promise from the parties not to file new suits. In return, it has announced it will install safety triggers on all of its guns as well as a second, hidden identification system for tracking each weapon.
"That's one of the Million Mom March goals, safety locks," says Dayrit. According to the March's Web site, they also endorse "sensible cooling off periods and background checks, limiting purchases to one handgun per month, and call for the enforcement of existing gun laws."
Their meeting also coincides with what would have been Egwim's son's 28th birthday.
Could they be about to make a difference? Although the National Rifle Association's Web site proclaimed Smith & Wesson's move as "surrendering," NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said on "Meet The Press" that they too support safety locks and measures. LaPierre also said they have no problem with a 24-hour cooling off period for background checks. The bill before Congress, which the NRA is not supporting, calls for a 72-hour cooling off time.
The NRA's endorsement of Richmond's groundbreaking "Project Exile" is fine, says Sarahan, "But that program has no impact on suicides. Safety locks do."
Just as with the NRA, the Million Mom March has its own statistics, but numbers make Jean Knight mad. "I get angry," she says, "when people talk numbers. Those aren't numbers. They are our children. That's my son."
Dayrit nods her head in agreement, saying people are fed up with competing numbers. That's why she's so hopeful about the march to Washington on Mother's Day, May 14th.
"I think this will work. Too many people are tired of the debate and tired of hearing about another child dying. We want to be able to send our children to school and know they are safe. Alexander is too young yet, but when the time comes and Alexander has a play date planned, I will ask if there is a gun in that house. If there is, then Alexander and his friend will play at my house."
Mobilizing moms is not a new strategy by any means. Near the turn of the last century, a very wise man by the name of William Ross Wallace became famous for putting into words a universal but overlooked truth: "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."
On May 14th, of this very important election year, Dayrit and the others hope to be among a million who are set on showing the nation's leaders that they also pull the levers in voting booths.
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