NEW YORK — Four years ago on Mother's Day, Donna Thomases led a gathering in Washington of 750,000 mostly women demanding tougher gun laws. It was a glorious day, as she remembers it, of emotional speeches and sweeping promises followed by a flood of positive news reports about the first "Million Mom March."
Then a New Jersey housewife who had been spurred to action by the horrific 1999 shooting at a Jewish center in Granada Hills, Calif., Thomases was on a broad mission to force America's gun-toting citizenry to change its ways. The march initiated a whole new sorority of moms into the fight.
But since that Mother's Day a lot has changed -- from the political environment in Washington to much about Thomases' life.
And today, when Thomases turns up on the Capitol steps for a second march, there won't be nearly as many moms -- or movie stars or media -- with her. Rather, Thomases is expecting a modest turnout of committed activists focused not on a broad agenda, but on a single piece of legislation: the federal assault weapons ban due to expire on Sept. 13.
It may seem she has gone backward, but Thomases insists she has not.
"That was a wonderful day four years ago," said Thomases, who is now 47, divorced and living with her two daughters in Manhattan, "but I think we've all learned a thing or two, and if we can just get five people in every community inspired to change things, that's how it's going to get done."
Specifically, she's talking about five activists in each House district represented by a member of Congress who opposes the ban.
Although polls show public support for the prohibition adopted in 1994, gun-control advocates are worried it won't be renewed. It is considered especially vulnerable in the House.
The National Rifle Assn., the most powerful gun-rights coalition in the country, maintains that 10 years of restricting semiautomatic weapons has done nothing to stem crime, and that Thomases and her group have a more far-reaching goal than they care to admit. "They're trying to cover up their real agenda -- to ban all firearms," says Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's spokesman. "It's that simple."
Hearing this, Thomases, a native of Louisiana who has lost her drawl and now speaks very fast, slows down. "I am not an expert on the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban. But I have a lot of trust in the police chiefs across the country who have asked the Congress to extend it. I go by their judgment," she says. "As for our real agenda, well, we're a very moderate group, and while all movements have extremist elements, we don't. We're for sensible gun legislation. It's that simple."
Before the Granada Hills shooting, Thomases had little knowledge of or interest in gun laws or Washington political maneuverings. She had long worked as a publicist -- in her last job, promoting top-10 lists for "The Late Show with David Letterman" -- but had gone part-time after moving with her family to Short Hills, N.J.
Looking back to her paid career, Thomases laughs: "I got paid a lot to talk about the top 10 things the president's dog advises him. But then I got a 'volunteer' job that was a lot more complicated and involved a lot of unpaid, hard-working women."
She ticks off their accomplishments: 67 chapters of the group opened across the country and legislation adopted in several states, including New Jersey and Maryland. From 2000 to 2003, the average number of children who died every day from gun fire dropped from 12 to eight.
But the "Million Mom March" organization stumbled. Within a year it lost most of its funding and had to lay off almost all its Washington-based staff at a time when that city was fully turning over to a Republican Party generally opposed to gun control. Thomases is the first to admit the group became too bureaucratic and had to rethink its strategy.
Over the last year, Thomases wrote a book, "Looking for a Few Good Moms" (Rodale Press), which came out last month. While she was writing she came to realize the group's greatest strength was its can-do mom culture. "We weren't good with meetings and paperwork. We just knew how to make phone calls and get things done."
The group merged with two other like-minded organizations and over the last year has focused on the assault weapons ban and getting George Bush, who has said repeatedly that he is behind it, to become an active supporter. In February Thomases spoke at a news conference announcing that, after four years, there would be another march on Mother's Day to get Washington's attention.
"In three short months," she said, "we found our culture again. People were calling, signing up, wanting to do" something.
Thomases' growth as a sophisticated spokeswoman for her cause was evident on Friday during a CNN appearance. A few minutes into the show, Paxton Quigley, author of "Armed and Female," called in and began insisting women should be trained to carry guns.
Instead of the confrontation between the two women the television hosts were expecting, Thomases immediately found a point of agreement with Quigley, and then went back to the assault weapons ban she had come on the show to promote.
"I applaud people who are out there doing training," Thomases said, pausing for a quick breath and giving her long blond hair a quick push off her face. "Now, these are guns of mass destruction, not hunting weapons or handguns, we're talking about banning.... "
She said she's learned a lot in four years. She doesn't get fiery with opponents; she doesn't expect miracles from one march; and, frankly, she doesn't want to head the group after September.
She'd like to see a new president take over every two years. "You need someone new and excited," she said, adding that all she wants is to go back to leading one chapter with four other committed moms -- and maybe also to find a paid job.