Pissed-off moms for gun control flex newfound political power

Annette Luther and Kathy Vanderwall of St. Paul have seen Moms Demand Action turn from political poison to a force with which politicians must reckon.

Annette Luther and Kathy Vanderwall of St. Paul have seen Moms Demand Action turn from political poison to a force with which politicians must reckon. Hannah Jones

In the darkened dining room of W.A. Frost, with a murky St. Paul sky drizzling away outside, cameras clicked and whirred. They were all trained on the handful of tables by the window, trying to catch a glimpse of a bunch of moms in red T-shirts having lunch.

Five or six years ago, Moms Demand Action was the “third rail,” says Annette Luther of St. Paul. She’s wearing her red Moms T-shirt and jeans as she stands on the sidelines. She’s been involved with the group, demanding stronger gun control laws, since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 took the lives of 20 young children.

After that, Luther never dropped her kids off at school without wondering if this would be the last time she’d see them.

“I don’t think I’ve had a full night of sleep since then,” she says.

A lot has happened since 2012, including more mass shootings and threats at public schools, churches, and on the street. But here the moms were, dining in the upscale St. Paul restaurant, about to be received by the likes of Melvin Carter and Jacob Frey -- the current mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis -- and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Bloomberg founded and largely finances Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit which includes Moms Demand Action chapters in every state.)

If anything has changed since Sandy Hook, that has.

“Now politicians want to have their pictures taken with us,” co-lead of St. Paul’s Moms chapter Kathy Vanderwall says. They’ve gone from being the third rail to a lightning rod. In a strange reversal of fates, they’ve even seen Republicans snub money from the National Rifle Association for fear of being associated with gun violence. In the 2017 election, every single candidate in the nation with an endorsement from Moms Demand Action and Everytown won their races.

The event on Monday was supposed to be part thank-you and part rallying cry for the Moms, Students Demand Action, and survivors of gun violence as we approach the midterms. There’s a “cautious” optimism in the air, Vanderwall says. “But we’ve all had our hopes dashed before.”

Their journey from political poison to influence hasn’t all been a victory march. Last year, the Moms rallied at the Capitol during the entire legislative session, demanding Minnesota lawmakers do something -- anything -- to regulate firearms. They took off work. They brought their kids.

“We even brought cookies,” state chapter leader Erin Zamoff says. “And they did nothing.”

But they’re watching their representatives carefully, Zamoff says. If they don’t take some steps to make it harder for just anybody to get their hands on a gun, then “we will replace them with leaders who will.”

It’s sad, hard work, volunteer Lori Mertes says, constantly knocking on doors, endlessly being ignored until, one day, they won’t be. It’s work for which the only reward has been incremental progress toward hypothetical change.

But this is what mothers do. They toil, often thanklessly, for the ensured safety of their children.

That, Mertes says, is the bare minimum of what they expect from their elected officials. And if they couldn’t manage that:

“What kind of a country are we?”