Shannon Watts started Moms Demand Action as a Facebook group in December 2012. It was the day after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, and Watts wanted to create a space where people could channel their sadness and rage over gun violence into activism.
She envisioned an organization of parents — not unlike Mothers Against Drunk Driving — that could force political and cultural change on a society that treated gun violence as an intractable problem. At the time, the National Rifle Association was the dominant voice for gun manufacturers and enthusiasts, while the constituency pushing to reform gun laws in the United States was much smaller and less powerful.
As Moms Demand Action approaches its 10th year, I spoke with Watts about the progress they (and others, like former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s organization to prevent gun violence) have made establishing a counterweight to the pro-gun lobby and pushing for legal changes on state and local levels. On the federal level, they celebrated the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in Congress this summer, which strengthens background checks for gun buyers under 21, makes it harder for convicted domestic abusers to obtain weapons, and provides money to states implementing red flag laws.
We talked about how the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, was not the end of the gun control debate. “I would say it’s exactly the opposite: It marked the beginning,” Watts says. “The Sandy Hook school shooting was actually a galvanizing moment, particularly for moms and women, because now we are almost 10 million supporters — we’re twice as large as the NRA, one decade later.”
We also spoke about what the next decade of Moms Demand Action will look like in a country still plagued by gun violence, where the gun lobby is still outspending its opponents.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Every time there’s a horrific national shooting tragedy like Buffalo, like Uvalde, like Highland Park, there is a Klieg light on the fact that we have too many guns and too few gun laws in this country. Any time that happens, we are ready to absorb people who want to get off the sidelines. And it’s frustrating because those are the shootings that get the attention, but as we were just discussing, over 110 Americans are shot and killed every day, and hundreds more are wounded. When people are paying attention, that’s when we need to educate them about these shooting tragedies that are the result of lax gun laws. But it’s not just mass shootings and school shootings. It’s the daily gun violence, whether it’s gun homicide or gun suicides or domestic gun violence.
Just weeks after these horrific tragedies, we were able to break a nearly 30-year logjam in Congress. We broke the dam of cynicism. This idea that nothing can change and nothing will ever happen — we proved that’s not true. I understand people who were like, well, that’s not enough. No, it’s not, but it is a step forward on a longer path.
Our theory of change has been that this progress is going to be incremental because of the way the system is set up. It is incrementalism that leads to revolutions. We have shown that over and over again. If you go back to 2012, when I started doing this work, about a quarter of all Democrats in Congress had an A rating from the NRA. Today, none do. Now we have to do that for Republicans. We want all lawmakers to be on the right side of this issue.
You mentioned the federal legislation — the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — that Congress just passed, but most of your organization’s work, and success, has been on the state and local level. How did that happen?
I started Moms Demand Action as a Facebook page on December 15, 2012. We had marches and rallies for about two months. I was very naive and I thought, oh, we’re going to pass this federal legislation in a few months at a maximum, and we’ll all go back to our normal lives. Then the Manchin-Toomey bill surfaced, and we put all our energy into that. I was sitting in the Senate gallery when it failed by just a handful of votes in the spring of 2013.
I thought, okay, well, clearly this isn’t going to happen. America is not ready for this. I guess we will go back to our normal lives. Our brilliant volunteers said, no, we’ve created the beginning of this army — we’ll just pivot and start doing this work in the school boards and city councils and statehouses where we live. That’s exactly what they did. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a governor thank Moms Demand Action. I just thought, oh, wow, we have something here. We’re creating political power. We realized we could pass good bills, that there were governors who were willing to do that.
At the same time, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, there were a whole lot of states that did the opposite. We did not predict how much time we would spend playing defense. So in addition to passing hundreds of good gun bills in the last decade, things like universal background checks and red flag laws and disarming domestic abusers and secure storage bills, we’ve also stopped the NRA’s agenda on bills like arming teachers, forcing guns onto college campuses, and expanding shoot-first laws. It’s not just about passing good laws, it’s also about undoing the damage that bad laws have caused.
We saw again in the wake of these shooting tragedies this year that there were governors who were willing to do the right thing. I was standing with the governor of Rhode Island when he passed sweeping gun reform legislation wearing a Moms Demand Action shirt. In Delaware we passed the first assault weapons ban in a state since we started doing this work. New York, Delaware, Rhode Island, California, New Jersey — there are many states this year that have acted.
How are you feeling about both the candidates and the issues that are going to be on the ballot this fall? What’s the most important objective for Moms Demand Action this year?
Everything we’re seeing in the states around gun safety raises the stakes for November. The NRA is hellbent on passing permitless carry laws everywhere. At the same time, we have small majorities that we need to protect. We have states where we’re in the minority and we just need to flip a few seats before we can actually pass good gun laws. Lives are on the line in this election. Our safety is on the ballot.
There’s a reason that [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell voted for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and that’s because he saw swing voters were gun safety voters. Swing voters are also women. They’re suburban women. I know sometimes the words “suburban women” can be a racist dog whistle, but suburban women are an increasingly diverse community.
We know those suburban women supported Joe Biden in the last election. We know they support gun safety. We know they’re worried about sending their kids into the streets, into public places, into their schools. And look, if I’ve learned anything over the last decade, it is that there is nothing more powerful than an army of angry mothers.
You started this right after the Sandy Hook tragedy. You’ve seen it grow into this network of millions of people. What does that tell you about where the reform movement is at in this country? And what will the next 10 years of Moms Demand Action look like?
When I look back on the last 10 years, I’m incredibly proud, first of all, of the fact that we exist. There were so many times and ways this fledgling, faltering organization could have dissolved in the early days, but we didn’t. We never gave up. It’s miraculous that we’re here.
And not just that we’re here, but that we are larger than the NRA, that we have this incredible brand that empowers women and not only encourages them to be active politically, but to run for office. We have over 120 volunteers running this election cycle. That’s really a testament to the brilliance of our volunteers. We never gave up. We always call it “losing forward.” When we’ve lost, we’ve learned and we’ve pivoted and figured out how to win the next time. I think we’ve really changed the political calculus.