On a crisp autumn night at a Seattle church, Shannon Watts stands before a crowd of volunteers and thanks them for their contribution. The group has gathered to call registered voters and discuss Initiative 594, proposed legislation that would require background checks on every gun sale in the state and will be decided by voters on Washington state’s ballot this month.
“Today in America, we had two school shootings: one in North Carolina and one in Kentucky. That’s more than 80 since Sandy Hook,” Watts tells the crowd.
Despite her pint-sized frame, Watts is a political powerhouse. In the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 schoolchildren and six staff members were killed, Watts, a suburban Illinois mother of five kids, founded what is known today as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Headlines have described her as a “badass mom” who isn’t afraid to take on the gun lobby. Across the nation, volunteers from her organization boldly face the opposition — which is often armed with guns — to advocate for gun violence prevention legislation and encourage businesses to adopt gun-free policies.
You founded Moms Demand Action by launching a Facebook page. Why did you start this?
After Sandy Hook, I wanted to do something, so I got online and searched. There was nothing out there. I started a Facebook group called “One Million Moms for Gun Control” the morning after the Sandy Hook shootings. We changed our name to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in February 2013.
I was outraged about the fact that this man could use an AR-15, which seemed like a military-grade weapon, and go into an elementary school and wipe out 26 human beings in less than five minutes. Something had to be done.
I had no idea we would become what we are today. We have a Moms Demand Action chapter in all 50 states and together with Everytown for Gun Safety, we have over 2 million supporters.
To what do you attribute the success and growth of Moms Demand Action?
Americans are fed up with the gun violence problem we have in this country. Sandy Hook was a breaking point for so many parents, law enforcement officers, mayors and clergy who realized that gun violence happens everywhere. The growth is in large part due to our amazing volunteers on the ground in each of our chapters. They work tirelessly to speak about our efforts in their communities and bring in new members. We also have something Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) did not have: social media. I think the MADD moms would have accomplished what they did much sooner if they had Facebook and Twitter.
Why do you think mom-based organizations are so powerful?
Because moms want their families and children to be safe when they go to the grocery store, out to eat or to school. I don’t see it as an emotional pull, but rather an innate instinct to do what we must to keep our kids safe. We want our kids learning math and science in school, not “duck and cover.”
What gives you hope that progress can be made on such a polarizing issue?
We focus our work in three places: Congress, state legislatures and corporate America. Earlier this month, Panera’s CEO announced that guns would no longer be welcome in their 1,800 cafes around the country. Our organization is leading the charge on corporate gun policy and, in just the last year, Starbucks, Target, Chipotle, Jack in the Box, Chili’s and Sonic have all taken similar steps. We are currently asking Kroger Family of Foods, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, to prohibit open carry.
In the last 14 months, there have been many good state and local gun laws passed. Since Newtown, four states passed comprehensive background check legislation: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware and New York. And after pressure from moms, state legislatures across the political spectrum — Vermont, Louisiana and Wisconsin, to name a few — enacted stronger laws to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.
Why have you taken on businesses around the open-carry issue?
In a majority of states, it is completely legal to openly carry a loaded gun in public without any training, permit or background check. In some states, there isn’t even an age requirement to open-carry a loaded firearm. The danger created by this lack of regulation is dramatically increased by the fact that an estimated 6.6 million gun transfers occurred in 2012 without the buyers undergoing a criminal background check — despite polling that shows 92 percent of all Americans and 74 percent of NRA members support background checks on all gun sales.
Because of the lax gun laws in place in many states, there’s no way to tell if a shopper with an assault rifle strapped to his back is a good guy with a gun or a bad guy — and the consequences of confusing the two could be fatal. It should never be incumbent upon customers and employees to make that decision. When elected officials fail to protect their communities, it’s the responsibility of business leaders to stand up for public safety.
What do you see as key opportunities or friction points in 2015?
Moms will work to engage more Americans in this fight by going beyond background checks to address domestic violence, child access to guns, guns on campus, suicide and many of the ways that gun violence affects everyday Americans.
What keeps you inspired and continuing to do this work?
The volunteers and survivors on the ground in our chapters all over the country. It’s incredible inspiring and powerful. I also find strength in the survivors we meet and work with so closely. They have experienced something we are all fighting to ensure we do not. Richard Martinez [who lost his son in a mass shooting in California this year] voiced all of our concerns so well when he shouted, “Not one more.”
What is your best advice to busy parents who want to help?
Getting involved is as simple as making a call to your member of Congress while your kids are taking a nap, or sending some emails. Our website and online tools make it incredibly easy to get involved. Also, please commit to vote with gun sense, and ask your family and friends to do the same.