By Jill Smolowe
June 19, 2000 12:00 PM

Twelve days after she ignited a firefight following a report that her son’s bodyguard had applied for a gun license, Rosie O’Donnell remains under siege. The popular talk show diva, still in stage makeup, rattles off gun statistics as she conducts an interview in her sports utility vehicle. “You know, 30,000 people are shot dead in America every year,” O’Donnell says, as the chauffeured SUV pulls into a gated community in Greenwich, Conn., passes a security checkpoint and winds through a series of private roads. She’s still talking when the car rolls toward the plastic basketball hoop at the top of her driveway and pulls up in front of her white Victorian home, where plastic cars and gyms dot a yard: “It’s a $6 billion industry, yet the gun industry is unregulated. If you have a toy chain saw, you have to make sure it does not hurt anyone!”

Beyond the foyer, where three low shelves hold munchkin-size tennis shoes and sandals, O’Donnell, 38, enters the kitchen, opens one of the two refrigerators, where the shelves are neatly lined with bottled water, juices and sodas, and offers her guest a drink. After she pops open a Diet Coke for herself, O’Donnell props her elbows on the huge wooden island and resumes. “When I do a pediatric AIDS event, it’s all, ‘Isn’t she nice, helping kids,’ ” she says. “You know, more kids die from gunshots than pediatric AIDS. But if you stand up for gun safety and legislation and responsibility, you are considered to be un-American!”

It’s not easy being Rosie these days. A single working mom of three, who since 1996 has enjoyed a love affair with the public as the Queen of Nice, O’Donnell has during the past year acquired the mantle of the country’s leading celebrity advocate of gun control. “She has humanized this issue for us,” says Donna Dees-Thomases, who founded the Million Mom March at which O’Donnell served as emcee in Washington, D.C., on May 14, Mother’s Day. “She has made it easier for people to get involved.” The flip side is that O’Donnell’s outspoken push for what she calls “sensible gun legislation” has made her a target of the powerful National Rifle Association, whose president, actor Charlton Heston, calls her “Tokyo Rosie.”

Now the NRA and other critics are having a field day after her local paper, Greenwich Time, reported on May 25 that the bodyguard whom O’Donnell hired to keep an eye on her oldest child, Parker, 5, has applied for a license to carry a concealed firearm. Since Parker has signed up to attend public kindergarten, the report touched a nerve in posh Greenwich. “I don’t think a gun should be brought into a grade school,” says local selectman Peter Crumbine. Elsewhere the report has become a cudgel with which to bludgeon O’Donnell. “People can spot a hypocrite,” says Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president. “She’s not carrying the firearm herself, but she’s paying someone to guard her. What about people who can’t afford armed bodyguards?”

O’Donnell has hardly been ducking the controversy. During a tough grilling by Katie Couric on the Today show on June 1, O’Donnell said she had known nothing about the bodyguard’s firearm application and had insisted, “Please, let’s have one unarmed,” when security firms persuaded her to hire a guard for her children, Parker, Chelsea, 2½, and Blake, 6 months. When Couric asked, “Are you going to insist now that this individual not carry a gun?” O’Donnell opened herself to more bashing by answering, “My family’s security will be discussed with the people who are hired to ensure that they are, in fact, safe.”

O’Donnell charges indignantly that the Greenwich police released information about the bodyguard’s application. She’s also angry that police came onto her son’s preschool property and searched the bodyguard, whom she identifies only as Marcos. “That there was no gun was, I’m sure, disappointing to them.” Stressing that her goal isn’t to outlaw guns but to make sure they’re licensed and registered, O’Donnell says, “Whether or not my family is in need of armed guards, that doesn’t change my position on gun control. It’s not inconsistent.”

Fans see no reason why Rosie should apologize for taking precautions to keep her children safe. “She’s not being a hypocrite,” says singer Melissa Manchester, who performed at the May march. “The Million Mom March is not to take away guns, it’s to regulate guns.” Actress and fellow activist Susan Sarandon is appalled that the effort to discredit O’Donnell involved her children. “You just don’t go after somebody’s kids,” she says, adding, “That’s the way they are going to harass her.” Sarah Brady, chairwoman of Handgun Control and wife of former Reagan press secretary James Brady, who suffered permanent brain damage after John Hinckley Jr. shot him in 1981, warns, “Rosie’s courage has made her a target for extremists.”

Being out-front on so politically charged an issue as gun control exacts a price. O’Donnell, who went through the public school system in Commack, N.Y., had hoped to send her children to public school. “After all the publicity, I don’t think Parker will be going there,” she says with a sigh. “My friends and siblings say that sometimes I don’t take the fame part into account enough.” This isn’t the first time, however, that O’Donnell has been forced to confront her celebrity. Her move to Greenwich last spring, she says, was precipitated by “some security issues at my other house” in Nyack, N.Y.

There is also a toll on her work. “It hurts my career more than it helps,” she says. “I realize that I alienate a lot of people.” In December she allowed her contract as a pitch-woman with Kmart to expire after she checked out press reports that the chain sells rifles and shotguns. “I didn’t know Kmart sold guns,” she says. The real losers have proved to be the various charities to which O’Donnell has been donating her $10 million Kmart salary since she began the gig in 1995. “But you know what?” she says. “I don’t want to take money from the sale of guns and then give it to charities that help people whose kids were killed.”

Her Rosie O’Donnell Show has also been hit by three cancellations from celebrities whom she declines to identify. “I think they were concerned that I would put them in a bad light,” she says. It was O’Donnell’s dustup with Tom Selleck on her show in May ’99 that catapulted her to the forefront of the gun-control movement. Barely a month after the rampage at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., which left 15 dead, O’Donnell belittled Selleck as “Mr. NRA” for appearing in an NRA ad. She still smarts from charges that she “ambushed” Selleck (who declined to comment) and says that he knew the plan was to discuss his film, then talk about the NRA. She also says that she should have dealt with the subject in a less confrontational manner. “It could have been done in a more civil way, and I wish that I had handled myself differently,” she says. “The intent was not to vilify him, because he’s not a villain.”

Unlike most prominent gun-safety advocates, O’Donnell was not spurred to action by personal tragedy. “It shouldn’t take your husband dying on the Long Island Rail Road in order to get people to stand up for the cause,” she says. Her own brush with guns is confined to a single day, perhaps a dozen years ago, when she asked a comedy club owner who collected guns, “What’s the deal? I don’t get the fascination.” He took her to his farm, lined up tomato cans on a fence and had her shoot. “It was old tomato paste, so to me, it looked very scary,” she recalls. “I kept thinking, ‘That’s the back of someone’s skull!’ ”

But it took the Columbine tragedy to ignite O’Donnell’s formidable passion. “It just made her feel enough is enough,” recalls Rob Dauber, a producer on Rosie. “She has always looked at her show as an amazing opportunity to draw attention to important issues.” Although she has started a reading program called Rosie’s Readers and waged a successful one-woman campaign to revive interest in Broadway theater, until now O’Donnell had been most closely associated with her campaign to make women aware of breast cancer (which killed her mother when Rosie was 10) and her work on behalf of children, which has included raising $40 million through her For All Kids Foundation. She says that her gun-control efforts are, by extension, part of her children’s work.

With all the recent excitement, O’Donnell’s greatest passion plainly remains her own three children. Turn the conversation to the family that she has built through adoption, and suddenly the Rosie whom audiences revere, the relaxed and joking Rosie who talks in exclamation points, shines through. So, how are her three kids? “Parker is constantly in trouble for saying, ‘Butt-wiener!’ ” she says. “The joy he has in saying it is unparalleled. I mean, literally 20 times a day.” Chelsea, she says, is having a hard time sleeping, “so I love at 3 in the morning crawling into bed with her.” And Blake? “I am powerless over him!”

O’Donnell says that after she brought Blake home in December, Chelsea wrestled with some jealousy issues. “She started peeing in her pants again. When Parker was that age and making mistakes, he would go, ‘Mama, pee-pee.’ But Chelsea is so articulate, like, ‘Mother I just urinated in the room adjacent to the den.’ She’s so articulate, you forget she’s only 2½!”

Asked if she sees herself reflected in any of her children, she pauses thoughtfully. “It’s interesting being an adoptive mother,” she says. “I wonder if you are more open to however they turn out and don’t try to mold them because there’s not a genetic component to it. I don’t know.” She does see some of the values she espouses reflected back at her. “Like, they strive to be funny,” she says. Helping Parker understand how you make a joke, for instance, she explained, “You take something that has nothing to do with something and you relate them. He was like, ‘How?’ and I go, ‘Did ya ever see a rooster…eating spaghetti?’ and he goes, ‘Oh! I get it.’ Now he’ll run in and go, ‘Mom, I thought of a good one!’ ”

A hands-on parent, O’Donnell gave up her movie career for her kids and has designed sections of her TV office to replicate their house so that they literally feel at home on her Manhattan set. “Nobody else is allowed to give them baths,” says her pal Linda Richman (comic Mike Myers’s mother-in-law). “That’s her time alone with them.” Richman is so close to O’Donnell that she is known as Grandma in Rosie’s home. “Rosie makes a concerted and conscious effort every single day to let those kids know that they are numero uno,” Richman adds. “It’s her children, then her career, and neither one is suffering.”

O’Donnell, who says she’d like to have five or six kids, is the third of five children (Edward, 40; Daniel, 39; Maureen, 37; and Timothy, 34) born to Edward O’Donnell, an Irish-born electrical engineer, with whom she is minimally involved, and Roseann, a homemaker. “When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot, you know?” she says. Not only was money tight; so were kisses and hugs. After Roseann died, the O’Donnell kids were largely left to fend for themselves. “My father would drop us off at Foodtown with a $100 bill, then pick us up an hour later,” she told Redbook last winter. She says the ensuing diet of Ring Dings and Devil Dogs helped lead to her weight problems.

Now she is giving her own kids all the hugs, kisses and love that she lacked. “I think that in all of us there is a need to take from those bad experiences and create non-bad ones,” says her brother Daniel O’Donnell, a lawyer. “She derives great joy from providing a stable home life to these children.”

O’Donnell describes motherhood as transformative. “Before Parker arrived, my life was divided into before and after my mother died,” she says. “After my son arrived, my whole life is divided into before and after he arrived, because my life is so different. I just think it gets better and better.” Though she clearly has her hands full, O’Donnell refuses to complain. “I think that every celebrity who takes credit for juggling is full of it,” she told McCall’s last fall. “Look, I am very well-off. I have people who help me.” Her four siblings also lend support, as do a steadfast group of friends, among them Rita Wilson and Madonna.

When she looks forward, O’Donnell sees more children—not more time on the Rosie set. “I’m really ready to be done,” she says of the talk show that has won her seven daytime Emmys. Instead she envisions herself directing and producing. “I am sort of done with the performing part of it,” she says. “People don’t believe that because there is a tremendous amount of money in this and a certain amount of power.” For now O’Donnell plans to use that power to push for tighter gun laws. “Most celebrities don’t have the kind of pulpit I have,” she says. “All I can say is that my intent is good: to use celebrity for a positive force in society.”

Jill Smolowe

Cynthia Wang and Marianne Stochmal in Greenwich, Jane Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Eve Heyn in New York City