RED BANK, S.C. - She was only 2 when it happened, and Dianne Sawyer does not remember the night her father chased her mother into the yard and killed her with a baseball bat.
She knows from yellowed trial clippings that the bat was splintered by repeated impact. She knows from the coroner's report that her mother's skull was shattered, exposing a swollen brain. She knows from experience that life for herself and four other children also was fractured - they grew up in four separate homes and did not know each other until after they were grown.
She wishes, 45 years later, that her mother could have defended herself. If only she'd had a gun.
"I always knew, since I was a little girl, that I would one day speak out about this. I had no idea it would be in this forum," she said, explaining one of the deep-seated reasons she and four other women, who met on the Internet, founded the Second Amendment Sisters to preserve women's constitutional right to bear arms, to defend themselves and their children.
"This is something that is very personal to me, and something about which I am extremely passionate," Mrs. Sawyer said. "My entire life has been affected by my mother's inability to ward off her attacker."
Now much of it is devoted to preventing that pain for others.
With no money, no slick public relations, no professional help and no movie stars on their bandwagon, she and the women whom she says "really are my sisters" pulled together a counter-rally to show lawmakers that the Million Mom March for gun control did not represent them. The feisty five were up against a well-oiled, well-funded machine with star power and plenty of press. They called it a "cat fight."
The others first knew Mrs. Sawyer as "PistolPacknMama," on the Internet and grew to know there were three passions about which she would never compromise - her grandchildren, her Southern heritage and culture, and her "God-given right to defend myself and my family."
Her beliefs stem as much from how she did grow up, adopted by the Dooley family, as how she did not. And Mrs. Sawyer can shoot an assailant if push comes to shove, as they say in Red Bank, where she put down deep roots.
Amid relatives, living on land Dooleys owned before the Civil War, she shoots on a backyard firing range.
The targets remind her of a truth: Defenseless women can die.
The Dooley family values loomed large for Mrs. Sawyer, who sat at her computer last December logging onto the Free Republic conservative Web site. The birth of her first grandchild had made her an activist.
"Suddenly, the war for our rights extended into the next generation," she said.
The Million Mom March, which occurred the next Mothers Day, made her angry.
"The Commie Mommies are demanding legislation that infringes on the rights of the law abiding, not the availability of weapons to criminals,` she said.
Parents who worry about children and guns should teach them to respect what guns can do, she said. "I grew up around guns and was taught early in life that guns in careless hands can hurt you. I also learned that if I touched my father's guns without his being present, the punishment was severe. If we still had the same standards of raising children today ... we wouldn't even be having this discussion."
In Tallahassee, Fla., Kim Watson - "Hotline" on the Free Republic forum - asked, "Anyone interested in a counter-group? Say, `Moms With Guns?' I'm game."
She saw it as a women's fight: "Plus, a good, clean cat fight gets more media attention than one broad (or a million) hollering in the wilderness."
The next string of messages was called "Cat Fight Alert."
In Dallas, Mari Thompson had become a "Freeper," as regular participants call themselves, after finally picking a name to use. It came to her as she mixed spaghetti sauce and reached for spices.
The grandmother of six logged on as "Basil," officially a Freeper, "although you read some people's ideas and think their tinfoil hat's too tight," she said.
A PRO-GUN MARCH intrigued the 63-year-old woman who'd bought a gun after a spate of carjackings in Dallas. One day, two men followed her car. She led them to a police station, and they sped away.
She wasn't about to let somebody take her gun away. "I don't intend to call 911 and die waiting for someone to come to my aid," she told one critic. "A gun is like fire insurance. You hope you never have to use it, but it's there if you do."
"OK, Hotline, where do I sign up?" she wrote.
In Red Bank, PistolPacknMama quickly wrote, "Are you kidding? With a name like mine? SIGN ME UP! I'm serious. Let me know if you are, and let's get started."
In Chicago, Juli Bednarzyk, "Technochick," jumped aboard. In Indiana, Deb Wasilewski was recruited by e-mail from Kim Watson. She said yes, furious that children were being used to promote an anti-gun agenda, and that the Million Moms were speaking as if they represented all women.
To her, she said, it was more than a fight over whether people could keep their guns."With every new law and restriction, your choices become fewer, and a little more of your control over destiny slips away."
They were five women from five states, with different ages, diverse motivations and zero clues about how to put together a national event. Much later, John Bender of Dallas, the rally's master of ceremonies, said they succeeded because "nobody told you you couldn't."
Ms. Watson came up with the slogan for their brochure: "Annie, they're comin' to git yer gun."
THE MILLION MOM MARCH was set for May 14, 2000, in Washington. At Christmas, the Second Amendment Sisters gave themselves until late January to decide if a simultaneous Armed Informed Mothers March was feasible.
Response suggested they were striking a chord. Women might not relate to guns, but they understood the fear of being raped or attacked. They understood defending children.
The five kept on. And on the Friday before Mother's Day, they met for the first time.
"We were so nervous," Mrs. Thompson recalled. "We hoped there would be more people in the crowd than on the stage."
"We didn't know if we'd have 40 people or 4,000," Mrs. Sawyer said. "To have gotten 5,000 or more with no big bankroll, no movie stars, no face painting, no first lady was phenomenal, we thought."
The marchers' views were diametrically opposed. The Million Moms wanted "sensible gun laws" - licensing of handgun owners, registration of handguns, consumer product safety standards for firearms, an end to gun-show sales with no background checks and a limit on gun purchases. The Second Amendment Sisters wanted tougher sentencing for criminals and more responsible parenting, but an absolute right to self-defense.
And there was some tension. The Second Amendment Sisters handed out pink carnations, each with the name of a woman who had died violently and defenseless. The women said some opponents took the carnations and crushed them.
Initial news accounts assumed the Sisters were funded by the National Rifle Association until Fox News Network reported that the group was "little known" and most people in the NRA had never had heard of them. The entire operation was funded by donations from sympathizers.
AFTER THE MARCH, the focus changed to education and political pressure. The group is looking for a state coordinator in South Carolina, but in Georgia, LadyAnn Williams of Thomasville is going great guns with pro-gun rallies and educational programs. Ms. Williams also monitors bills to make sure gun rights aren't eroded in the fine print, she said.
The original five also are still plugging away. Mrs. Thompson handles mail, which makes the organization "Dallas-based." And last week in South Carolina, Mrs. Sawyer downloaded thousands of petitions on her home computer. She had about 100,000 to be delivered this week to Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr, who plans to use them when gun legislation comes up.
And Saturday, the Gun Rights Policy Council devoted a segment of its agenda to SAS.
They get love letters and hate mail alike, answering one each week on a Web site that features research about guns and self-defense.
Ms. Wasilewski sums up the cause:
"I value my independence. I have confidence in my ability to make sound decisions for myself, and I believe others will do the same if given the chance. ...
"I'm not going to force anyone to carry a sidearm if they don't want to, but I don't want to be denied that choice."
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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