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'If We Are Silent, We Lose Our Children': The Moms Fighting Gun Violence

On the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, we talked to Shannon Watts, the founder of the grassroots organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, about why she refuses to be intimidated by the NRA.

by Lauren Oyler
Dec 14 2015, 9:25pm

Photo by John Moore via Getty

On December 14, 2012, a gunman opened fire on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, killing 20 children and six adult staff members. The months and years before and since have seen a slew of devastating mass shootings, but this one was particularly horrific: As details emerged about the shooter (he had a history of violence and easy access to guns in his home) and the victims, many said that the brutal massacre of a first-grade classroom should signify the true last straw in the American battle over gun reform.

Immediately after she'd heard the news, Shannon Watts, a stay-at-home mother of five living in Indianapolis, knew that she had to do something. But when she went online searching for a Mothers Against Drunk Driving–type of organization, she found nothing. Wasting no time, she started one herself: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The group began as a Facebook page but quickly expanded offline into a multi-pronged campaign that involves "both offense and defense": lobbying for gun reform, lobbying against dangerous laws that attempt to eliminate safety regulations such as background checks, and several education initiatives. In the three years since the Sandy Hook shooting, Moms Demand Action has transformed women's role in the fight against gun violence from silent, worrying bystanders to active campaigners; it has become one of the leading grassroots organizations fighting for gun reform. In order to understand exactly what that means, we talked to Watts about how she started the organization, challenges and setbacks the gun control movement faces, and why women refuse to be intimidated when it comes to fighting gun violence.

A memorial on Berkshire Road in Sandy Hook. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Can you tell me how Moms Demand Action started?
Shannon Watts: I was a stay-at-home mom living in Indianapolis when Sandy Hook happened. I was devastated, but more than that I was outraged. I wanted to join something like a Mothers Against Drunk Driving for gun safety, but I couldn't find anything online, so I started a Facebook page.

What was intended to be sort of an online conversation about gun violence in this country very quickly became an offline movement. All these moms joined me, and we started building out chapters and created this infrastructure for the first ever grassroots movement for gun violence prevention. We now have a chapter in every single state in the country and 3.5 million members; the NRA has been around for decades, and they only have about five million members, so we're catching up rapidly. What people don't realize is that so much has happened since Sandy Hook. In many ways [this issue] like marriage equality; we have all of these advocates fighting in the states, and eventually Washington, DC, will see the direction the country is headed in and do the right thing.

Read More: What American Women Really Think of Gun Control

What are your goals?
First of all, our priority is passing background checks—closing the loophole that allows nearly 40 percent of all gun sales without a background check. Congress has failed to close that loophole, so we are getting states to do that. Since Sandy Hook, we've helped to get six states to close background check loopholes—that's 18 states altogether that have done what Congress won't do. We're getting ready to do the same thing in Nevada and in Maine next year, so that'll be 20 states—we're getting close to half the country. We're creating momentum.

The other thing we're doing is passing laws to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. In a dozen states—both red and blue—we've gotten governors to sign laws that prohibit domestic abusers from having guns, and to broaden the definition of what a domestic abuser is. Federal law says it's basically your spouse or ex-spouse, but we also know that [domestic violence] can be [committed by] dating partners or stalkers. It's really important that these laws are passed, because when you look at the 18 states that have closed their background-check loopholes so far, you see police homicides with guns, domestic homicides with guns, and mass shootings all almost cut in half. We know these laws work.

We're also playing defense. For example, last year we were able to defeat the gun lobby's agenda of [putting] guns in schools in 14 out of 15 states. We've also defeated bills that are trying to take away the permitting system for guns—so-called "constitutional carry"—just really dangerous laws that they've really had no opposition for in the past.

When I got involved in this, the death threats started day one.

Can you talk about your campaigns to get businesses to enact policies for gun violence prevention?
We've gotten several companies to change their policies around guns. Our first campaign was Starbucks; they decided to ban electronic cigarettes and smoking 25 feet outside of their stores despite state law, but they were still following state law when it came to guns. I'm much more worried as a mother about secondhand bullets than I am [about] secondhand smoke, so we went after Starbucks. Within three months Howard Schultz [the CEO of Starbucks] came on television and said, "Guns are no longer welcome in our stores." We've done the same thing with Target and Chipotle and Sonic and others. We also got Facebook and Instagram to change their policies around how they advertise gun sales. We've been very successful in building momentum.

Were any of those businesses resistant to your campaigns? It seems crazy that Chipotle would be like, "Oh yeah, we totally want people to have guns in our burrito restaurant."
Again, I'll compare it to marriage equality: Twenty years ago, no business, no celebrity—people did not want to touch this issue. Then it became more culturally acceptable, and celebrities and CEOs got on board. That was about activists in the field changing laws and policies. Fast forward to 2015, and it's the same thing with guns. CEOs don't want to get involved with this issue, so we're working to create a business council in which leaders can get involved and say they support background checks. We recently launched our celebrity council, which has nearly 100 major entertainers and artists. People are starting to say, "Wow, this is a real issue in this country, and I'm going to use my influence to help shift the culture."

Can you explain what you guys have done with Facebook and Instagram? Is the ideal situation that anything with a gun on Instagram is censored?
I think it's a really difficult issue. I think it's something that Facebook is grappling with. What we said is that they have an obligation to make sure that children are not exposed to gun advertisements. [If] people are...promoting guns on Facebook, [Facebook] should require a background check. They've put nine policies in place as a result of our campaigning to get them to be more responsible around guns.

I'm much more worried as a mother about secondhand bullets than I am secondhand smoke.

Do you think it should be companies' responsibility to regulate harmful imagery like gun advertisements or promotions?
I think that in this country there's so little regulation. When lawmakers are not protecting their constituents, I think it becomes incumbent upon companies to protect their consumers. It's difficult; we have such incredibly lax gun laws that there's such easy access to guns—particularly for dangerous people. I think that everyone has a role to play in being vigilant and protecting their communities.

How do you focus on children specifically?
Seven children or teens are shot and killed in this country every single day. Unintentional shootings is a huge issue in America; it's the only developed nation where children get a hold of adults' guns and then shoot themselves or other people. Two million children in the country live in homes with unsecured guns, which is astounding and unacceptable. Only about 28 states in this country have laws in place that hold adults accountable for negligence with their guns, and many of those laws are extremely weak—they're just misdemeanors.

We've done two things: One is to educate the public about this crisis, and the other is to create something called Be SMART, which is a program that educates gun owners and non–gun owners about how to safely store your firearms. We've given more than 450 presentations across the country on it; we've partnered with the PTA; it's becoming a very influential program that really opposes the NRA's Eddie Eagle program, which is basically a cartoon similar to Joe Camel. It's about marketing guns as much as anything else.

There are obviously a lot of setbacks and obstacles, but what are some specific ways the gun lobby resists your efforts?
When I got involved in this, the death threats started day one. I do want to be clear: The majority of NRA members are responsible gun owners; 74 percent support background checks. It's the [NRA] leadership that is extremely radicalized, and they've also radicalized a fringe group of Americans who are gun extremists. They believe in guns for anyone, anywhere, any time, no questions asked.

A lot of these extremists show up at our events. Because we're commemorating the third anniversary of Sandy Hook, we had over 100 of what we call "Orange Walks"—orange is the color for gun violence prevention—in 44 states over the weekend. If you Google the Louisville Moms Demand Action, you'll see the guys with guns who showed up at our rally. Here we are, moms with children, and men with AR-15s were showing up and trying to intimidate and silence us. Very often, whenever we have our Moms events, we are confronted by men who are open carry.

I just don't think that women are intimidated any more, after Sandy Hook.

The NRA is very much opposed to any kind of sensible gun reform; they fight us in every single state; for years they fought efforts to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. It's only for the last years that they've gone silent on the issue because they realized that it was incredibly bad for them in terms of public relations. This is a very well-financed, entrenched lobby—probably the most powerful lobby in the country—but we are going toe-to-toe with them in every single state. What I want people to understand is that we are winning. There is hope on this issue. I am a volunteer; I wouldn't wake up every single day and spend almost every waking hour working on this if I didn't know that we were going to win.

Do you bring your children to the events?
My children are older; my children are 15 to 26. But you know, look: After Sandy Hook, women realized that if we were silent, we could lose our children. We have nothing left to lose if we lose our children. I just don't think that women are intimidated any more, after Sandy Hook; I know we won't ever be silent again. If we live in a country where we can't go out and exercise our right to the First Amendment because we're being held hostage by the Second Amendment, that isn't really a country that any of us want to live in. We feel empowered now. We feel emboldened, as part of this organization, to take on the gun lobby and refuse to be afraid of them.