BOSTON — The country's biggest billboard is a local landmark: a familiar sight each day for 200,000 drivers on the Massachusetts Turnpike--and even a tourist attraction of sorts that became a favorite for former President Clinton.
Normally, owner John Rosenthal changes the sign's arresting image once each year, selecting a dramatic message about the human toll of handguns.
But these are not normal times.
For the first time since the 252-foot-long billboard went up in 1995, Rosenthal is installing a special edition. Not surprisingly, the sign will be keyed to the events of Sept. 11.
Until it is unveiled later this month, Rosenthal will not say exactly what will appear on the huge display space on the back of a building he owns near Fenway Park. But it is certain that the co-founder (along with the late Michael Kennedy) of a nonprofit group called Stop Handgun Violence will use his drive-by pulpit to link terrorism with preventable deaths and injuries caused by handguns.
The wealthy land developer said that, though appalled, he was unsurprised by the ferocity of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last month.
"The only thing that was surprising was that it took this long and that the terrorists used restraint. They didn't choose nuclear targets, which would have killed tens of thousands," Rosenthal said. "They flew past 12 operating reactors that would have set off a holocaust."
Moreover, he said, "we are the largest exporter of conventional weapons in the world. Our national leaders have contempt for any national laws which might limit the sale and possession of these weapons. There are a lot of connections between the arming of the youth of America and criminals; the lack of national gun laws, and the proliferation of weapons internationally."
This, from an unrepentant gun owner.
Licensed, he stressed. Locked and used only in safe settings for recreational skeet shooting.
Still, Rosenthal's twin status as a respected businessman and a gun owner helps defang opponents who seek to paint him as a lefty loony hellbent on banning firearms. Rather, he is a 44-year-old congenital activist who has built coalitions between business and government to oppose nuclear power, support empowerment initiatives for the homeless and strengthen laws that reduce handgun violence.
The latter became Rosenthal's passion when "in 1995 I learned that 15 kids under 19 died every day in this country from the only consumer product in America that is not regulated." Rosenthal, childless and unmarried, said: "I wanted to do something. I needed to do something."
The organization he and his late best friend launched has lobbied and pushed to help Massachusetts enact the country's toughest gun laws. The results since 1994 in the state are measurable: gun injuries reduced by 50%; gun homicides by 56%; gun accidents by 58%. Massachusetts is the only state to require gun licensing and registration. Firearms sold in the state also are subject to tight consumer protection regulations.
"Toy guns are more regulated than actual guns," Rosenthal said. "It's harder to get a driver's license in most states than a gun license." In his wallet he carries a crumpled-up newspaper article about a 3-year-old girl who accidentally shot herself to death.
"Shame on us for allowing kids under 10 to have access to firearms," Rosenthal said.
Traditionally, his billboard has focused on how guns kill and maim children. One message, in bold block letters about 12 feet tall, said: "It's easier to child-proof your gun than bulletproof your child."
Rosenthal said the value of the space became clear to him when a financial institution offered a hefty sum to rent space on the roof of his building. With the goal of "putting up a message that might have a positive impact on a problem that we all face," he approached friends in advertising as well as a major billboard company.
"That's when we came up with this idea of beautiful images of kids who had been killed by handguns," he said.
His track record as a developer and with social issues gave him easy access to the mayor's office, as well as to the city's redevelopment agency. Rosenthal marched right in, said he wanted to build the biggest billboard in America, and by the way, its subject would be handgun violence. City officials gave him instant approval.
Along with public awareness, Rosenthal said he sought to remove the polarity from a subject that often comes down to us versus them: gun owners versus people who don't own guns. The billboard, he said, became an educational tool.
"The whole motive was to personalize the discussion, and bring it home that these are not someone else's kids," Rosenthal said. "We wanted people to realize there are guns in 40% of American homes. You face the same threat that the mother of the kids who will die today face."
Jennifer Palmieri, a former Clinton aide, said her ex-boss loved the billboard, and often asked his motorcade to drive by it.
"He would always comment on what an effective message it was, and commend Massachusetts for being a leader in galvanizing the public that way," Palmieri said. "He thought it was great that John approached it from a different way, that he tried to come in from the center of the debate, not to alienate either side. He thought it was something we should do all across the country."
Maybe someday, but for now, Rosenthal is waiting to approve a design for a billboard that will honor "over 5,000 people who died, as well as the heroes in the search-and-rescue effort. I want the billboard to become a memorial."