WASHINGTON — At an early learning center in Eatonville, Wash., on Sunday, mourners will light candles to honor Margaret Anderson, the 34-year-old ranger and mother of two toddlers who was shot and killed on New Year's Day while she tried to set up a roadblock in Mount Rainier National Park.
That same evening, at the mall of the University of Arizona in her hometown of Tucson, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will hold a glow stick and listen to a symphony orchestra at a vigil to recognize the one-year anniversary of the shooting that critically wounded her and killed six others.
In ceremonies from New York to Seattle, candlelight vigils are planned in more than 30 cities to remember the thousands of Americans who are murdered in the United States each year, most of them with guns. For gun-control advocates, it will be a day to "light a candle against the darkness of gun violence" and to demand that Congress tighten the nation's gun laws.
Congress did nothing of the sort after the Giffords shooting last year, and the odds are good that nothing will happen this year.
Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state, a gun-control proponent who gets failing grades from the National Rifle Association, said it's just a matter of political reality on Capitol Hill. He wants Congress to overturn a law that took effect in 2010 that allows loaded guns in national parks, but he's not optimistic.
"The problem is the NRA's got a majority in the House and Senate — that's the reality of it," said Dicks, an 18th-term congressman.
John Velleco, director of federal affairs for the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America, said that Congress should instead loosen existing gun-control laws to make it easier for citizens to defend themselves with firearms.
"I think the vigils completely miss the point because they're assuming that more gun-control laws will lead to fewer crimes, but we find that the opposite is true," he said. "The more gun-control laws you have, the easier it is for criminals to commit crimes."
Gun-control proponents say the vigils come after a particularly bloody holiday season: On Christmas Day in Texas, a man dressed as Santa Claus shot and killed his estranged wife, two teenage children and three other family members before killing himself; in southern California, a soldier wounded in Afghanistan was shot and paralyzed during an argument over football teams; in Colorado, a 3-year-old accidentally shot and killed a 5-year-old boy; and in Gary, Ind., a 7-year-old boy was shot in the head by a drive-by shooter during a Christmas celebration with his family.
While homicide statistics vary each year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said that 12,996 Americans were murdered in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Of those, more than two-thirds — or 8,775 — were killed by guns, according to the FBI.
"Our gun homicide rate is 20 times the combined rates of other western industrialized nations," said Dennis Henigan, acting president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which is organizing many of the weekend vigils. "This is a uniquely American problem. It is time for Americans to insist that the time for action has come."
In a report released Friday, the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.,-based gun-control organization, said the nation's homicide statistics do not reflect the growing number of Americans who are shot each year but survive because of advanced trauma care. From 2000 to 2008, more than 617,000 Americans suffered nonfatal gunshot injuries, the study found. In 2008, the number of fatal and non-fatal gunshot wounds hit 110,215, the highest total during the nine-year period surveyed.
"America is paying a very high price for policy decisions made on the local, state and national levels that make increasingly lethal firearms readily available," said Kristen Rand, the center's legislative director. "These numbers make clear that denying America's gun crisis will not make it go away."
The Brady campaign's "Too Many Victims National Candlelight Vigil" will include events in Washington, where Jim Brady, the former press secretary to Ronald Reagan who was wounded in an assassination attempt against the president in 1981, will light a candle with his wife, Sarah Brady.
Other vigils are planned across the country, including in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Ore., Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Topeka, Kan., Columbus, Ohio, Austin, Texas, Dallas, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Raleigh, N.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston and Vancouver, Wash.
The vigil to honor Anderson will take place at 5 p.m. (PST) at the Eatonville Early Learning Center, where her two daughters — ages 1 and 3 — attend day care. Her husband, Eric, is also a ranger at Mount Rainier.
Anderson died when she was shot by a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran as she tried to stop him at a roadblock aimed at preventing cars without snow chains from traveling on mountain roads.
Until February 2010, loaded guns were not allowed in national parks. Under intense pressure from gun-rights groups, Congress voted to allow loaded guns as long as they were permitted by state law.
Park rangers objected furiously to the change, saying their safety would be jeopardized.
John Waterman, who served as president of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, warned in 2010 that the change was "an invitation to disaster," putting both rangers and the public at increased risk.
But this week, Waterman, now the group's past president and a park ranger in Pennsylvania, said he doubted that the law would have made any difference in preventing Anderson's death.
"The law itself is totally unrelated to the slaughter of Ranger Margaret Anderson by a disturbed man," he said. "They're two separate incidents. .... Whether you said guns are allowed or not, it wouldn't have mattered. He would have had them anyway. I don't think he would have read the sign and said, 'Oh, I'm not supposed to have a gun.'"
Velleco said the Washington state shooting "just proves the point that we need to allow the law-abiding citizen to have the ability to defend themselves," particularly in remote national parks where help can be hundreds of miles away.
"The criminals are intruding on these lands, so it would be ridiculous to restrict people's rights to defend themselves with firearms in the places where they might need them and be helpless otherwise," he said.
Anderson was the ninth ranger in the history of the National Park Service to be murdered in the line of duty, according to National Park Service records. The last murder came in 2002, when ranger Kris Eggle, who worked at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, was killed by a Mexican drug dealer.
Dicks called the Mount Rainier shooting "a terrible tragedy and a great loss to the Park Service.
"The last thing you think in a park is that you're going to get shot," he said, adding that changing the law in 2010 was "just unnecessary."
"I'm not sure that would have prevented this incident, but it makes me worried about the future and other possible tragedies," Dicks said. "I hope this will at least garner some attention and remind people that there are victims and tragedies like this where somebody loses their mother, and a man loses his wife, and parents lose their daughter — and it's because of violence and guns."
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