WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands of mothers, many accompanied by children and husbands, rallied in sight of the Capitol Sunday to demand strict control of handguns while memorializing loved ones and strangers felled by bullets.
Through personal stories of tragedy, songs, banners, posters, T-shirts and tears, participants in the ''Million Mom March'' aimed to send Congress a ''Mother's Day'' message: A new movement of mainstream Americans is getting politically active, ready to battle the gun lobby and to work against lawmakers who oppose gun control.
''Politicians, take heed. We are watching you. The hands that rock the cradles rule the world,'' said Dawn Anna, mother of Lauren Townsend, a student killed in the Columbine High School shootings last year.
Huge crowds thronged to the National Mall, the blocks-long grass and gravel terrain that has been host to many Washington demonstrations, under a brilliant spring sun. Though there were no official crowd estimates, participants filled half a dozen blocks on the mall framed by the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, Congress and the Washington Monument.
Crowds ranging from a few hundred to an estimated 4,000 in Chicago showed up at similar rallies in dozens of cities across the country - from Maine to Michigan to Oregon.
''We are Columbine,'' exclaimed a banner carried by Coloradans who traveled here in remembrance of Columbine.
The gun-control advocates didn't have the day to themselves, however. A considerably smaller group of several thousand counter-demonstrators gathered near the Washington Monument to hold a rally where they argued that guns were needed for self-protection.
That demonstration, organized by a group called Second Amendment Sisters, Inc., also included mothers who brought their children. The group booed President Clinton's motorcade as it happened to pass by, returning the president to the White House from church.
''My kids know, if you see a gun, you don't touch it. You leave the area, you go tell a responsible adult,'' said Elitza Meyer, from Watchung, N.J.
When opponents of gun control marched toward the Capitol, they came close to ''Million Mom March'' participants, who jeered and chanted ''No NRA, No NRA. Your stupid guns kill.''
In response, members of the pro-gun group yelled, ''Second Amendment, civil rights. You give up your guns, we'll give up ours.''
Clinton remained at the White House, encouraging several hundred rally figures to surmount ''the political mountain'' they had to climb. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, running for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, joined the demonstration. Neither she nor the president appeared on the dais, although their messages carried on jumbo television screens.
Mrs. Clinton did join the march for a time, but the crush of onlookers forced her to a nearby road where she slowly made her way to the Capitol on her own, shaking hands with well-wishers who lined the streets.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Maryland Democrat and a daughter of the slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said: ''You know, Mothers Against Drunk Driving had an enormous impact against traffic deaths and I think we can have the same impact here.''
But for the most part, elected officials stood in the background; the day was reserved instead for supportive entertainers, including mistress of ceremonies Rosie O'Donnell, a television talk show host, and for women who told painful, personal stories of losing loved ones to gun violence.
''The gun that killed my daughter in her classroom was one that could be loaded by a 6-year-old, carried by a 6-year-old, and fired by a 6-year-old,'' said Veronica McQueen, who was transformed into a public figure when her daughter, Kayla Rolland, was shot and killed in her first grade classroom in Flint, Mich., last Feb. 29.
For the gun-control rally, thousands of Mother's Day cards were printed with the message: ''Forget the flowers ... forget the chocolate ... forget breakfast in bed. This Mother's Day, give us a present that lasts: common sense gun laws.''
There was room for personal notes to members of Congress, and the cards were deposited in a letter slot beneath a model of the Capitol Dome.
Charles Payne, of Woodbridge, Va., said he was a competitive shooter and life member of the National Rifle Association but still supported the rally.
''I don't like Handgun Control Incorporated and I don't like the hard line of the NRA,'' he said. ''People misuse guns and give my guns a bad name. What I resent is handguns in the hands of unsupervised kids, and parents who don't take time to control their own weapons.''
The ''Million Mom March'' principally wants trigger locks to protect children and a national system that would register handguns and license their owners. All major gun control legislation before Congress has been stalled for a year.
But blocks from the House and Senate chambers, Erika Heilbrink, 9, of Falls Church, Va., carried a poster with a toy gun stapled to it. ''This gun has the same childproofing as a real gun. None,'' the poster said.
Yolanda Reyes, of Washington's Maryland suburbs, carried a sign saying, ''My son is not here this Mother's Day.'' Reyes said she moved to the United States from Guatemala 30 years ago to keep her children safe.
Yet one of her six children, Nelson, then 29, was shot to death in 1998 on a Washington, D.C. street by an elderly man who objected to him parking in front of his house.