Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts on a decade of taking on the NRA
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In 2012, Shannon Watts was a former communications executive turned stay-at-home mom with 5 children.
Then came the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Even though she didn’t lose a loved one that day, for her — Sandy Hook was the turning point.
“I remember that day very vividly. And I’m sure like you and like so many other people in this country, I was devastated,” she says.
“I was crying. I was glued to my television. I just was in disbelief that 20 children and six educators could be slaughtered in the sanctity of an American elementary school.”
At that moment, she knew she had to do something.
“I thought, I’m just going to create a Facebook page that puts forward this idea of women and moms taking on the NRA and taking on the gun lobby,” she says. And it was like lightening in a bottle, it went viral immediately.”
It became the group Moms Demand Action, now one of the largest anti-gun violence groups in the country.
Today, On Point: Shannon Watts joins us with her story.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, an anti-gun violence group. Author of Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On December 14th, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 26 people. 20 of the victims were six-and seven-year-old children. As the news settled over the nation, President Barack Obama gave a statement from the White House briefing room.
PRES. OBAMA: We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years, and each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would as a parent. And that was especially true today. I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.
The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of five and ten years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams. So our hearts are broken today.
CHAKRABARTI: Obama called for an end to gun violence everywhere, from schools to street corners.
OBAMA: As a country, we have been through this too many times, whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago. These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.
CHAKRABARTI: More than a decade later, very little has changed, according to the Pew Research Center. Per capita gun deaths in the United States have increased markedly since 2012. This includes both murder and suicide. By 2020, guns became the leading cause of death for American children, causing 19% of child deaths in this country. Motor vehicle crashes were second at 18%. And if anything, though, there remains sizable common ground among Americans when it comes to opinions about gun safety. Partisanship about gun politics has only gotten worse.
And yet, amid this gruesome national stasis, Shannon Watts managed to found what since become one of the largest anti-gun violence advocacy groups in the nation. Moms Demand Action has chapters in every U.S. state, more than 10 million supporters, and has recently endorsed and supported successful political candidates at the state, local and national level. Shannon Watts recently announced that she’ll be stepping down this year as the leader of Moms Demand Action, and she joins us in conversation today. Shannon Watts, welcome to On Point.
SHANNON WATTS: Good to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: So I know you’ve been asked this question many, many times, but I think it’s worth reminding all of us. Where were you on December 14th, 2012, when news of what happened in Newtown spread across the nation?
WATTS: I remember it very vividly. I was in my bedroom at the time. I lived in a town just outside of Indianapolis, Indiana. Very cold winter day. You know, I have five kids, so folding laundry was kind of a full-time job. And I just had this huge pile of unfolded clothes on my bed. And suddenly there was breaking news on CNN, which I had on in the background, saying that there was an active shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, a place I’d never heard of.
And the footage of these children and teachers and parents either leaving the school or outside the school terrified for what was happening on the inside. And as that tragedy unfolded, like so many Americans that day, I just sort of stopped what I was doing, sat on the side of my bed and watched this horrific tragedy unfold. And honestly, the idea that 20 children and six educators could be slaughtered in the sanctity of an elementary school was unbelievable. Unbelievable.
WATTS: Had you ever experienced gun violence of any kind in your own life?
CHAKRABARTI: No, I am not a survivor. I’m actually the child of a gun owner, and both of my grandfathers were gun owners and hunters and veterans. I never experienced gun violence, but like so many Americans, I saw the shootings in this country happening unabated with no solution. And I think because of the shooting of Gabby Giffords not that long before the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy, when their own colleague was shot, and they did nothing in Congress. I think we all knew that it was up to everyday Americans to do something because certainly our lawmakers were likely to do nothing.
CHAKRABARTI: And so the thing that you did that same day of December 14th, or very soon thereafter, is you took to Facebook. What did you post?
WATTS: I posted that it was time for mothers and women to take on the gun lobby. You know, I grew up as a teen in the eighties and saw how significant Mothers Against Drunk Driving was. You know, the visceral impact they had on teens like me when they would park cars in the parking lots of our high schools that had been in car accidents because of intoxicated drivers. You know, the progress that they made in under a decade, it just felt to me like I wanted to be part of an army of women to work on this issue.
And when I Googled what was available, it was mostly think tanks run by men or one-off city or state organizations. Again, mostly run by men. And it’s women that I’ve seen get so much done in this country over and over and over again. And so that’s what I wanted to join and never imagined that the Facebook page I was starting would become that.
CHAKRABARTI: What happened in the following days and weeks? Like what kind of response did you get on the page? What were people saying?
WATTS: Oh, I mean, it went viral immediately. And I think so many women had the same idea that day, which was that it was time to get off the sidelines, that we needed to fight on this issue, that we needed to organize around this issue. And, you know, if you know anything about type-A women, you know that they were direct messaging me and they had found my phone number.
And so they were calling and texting me and they were all saying the same thing, which is how do we do this where we live? And I’m not sure any of us knew what it was that we were doing. I think we thought we were going to hold marches and hold rallies. But in those first weeks and months, it became very clear that what we needed to actually do was to organize like the gun lobby had done for so long. So that we could go toe to toe with them, so that we could be large enough to fight them and to make the same amount of calls and to have the same voice on this issue that they had for years.
CHAKRABARTI: I’m wondering if you could tell me the story then of when all this energy and determination really gelled to form Moms Demand Action, Because as you noted, on the flip side, in the months after the Sandy Hook massacre in Washington, in terms of gun safety policy, very little changed, right? Because it was in April, the end of April of 2013.
… Just four months after Sandy Hook, where there was a Senate amendment of the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have required background checks on all commercial sales of guns. It got 54 votes in the Senate, but because it needed 60 to move forward, it just failed. So, I mean, that was one track of how Americans were dealing with gun violence in this country. What was the Moms Demand Action track at that time?
WATTS: Well, in those first few months, as you said, four months after the shooting tragedy, this vote took place. And so in the interim, we were really organizing on the ground. We were meeting with our lawmakers in district. We were going to Washington, D.C. and fighting for the passage of Manchin-Toomey. This bipartisan bill that would have closed the background check loophole in honor of the shooting tragedy. And that was really our focus for four months.
And I was sitting in the Senate gallery when that vote failed by just a few votes, including Senate Democrats who voted against it. And I thought, okay, well, you know, America isn’t ready for this kind of just pack up our things and go back to our normal lives. And hopefully someday this will get fixed. But our very brilliant volunteers said, wait a minute, you know, my governor, my state legislature is willing to actually act in the aftermath of this tragedy. They want to pass stronger gun laws, but they need our volunteers to show up and support them.
That’s what they’re looking for. And then volunteers in other states, mostly red states, were saying, you know, wait a minute, our governor, our state legislature actually wants to weaken laws because of this shooting tragedy. They want to arm teachers. And we just pivoted and started doing this work in statehouses intuitively. And I think what we realized at that moment was, you know, maybe Congress isn’t where this work begins. It’s where it ends. We have to build momentum in school boards and city councils and statehouses so that eventually we can get Congress to do the right thing.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’re closing in on our first break here in this conversation. Shannon, I wonder if you could quickly tell me, though. It’s been a decade now. And yet, even though with all the work that groups like Moms Demand Action has done. I read that stat at the top of the show that more children die by guns in this country now than in motor vehicle accidents. What do you make of that?
WATTS: That is a statistic that has been slowly creeping up in the last decade. You know, there are states that have passed stronger gun laws. And in those states we see less gun violence and less gun deaths, mostly blue states. But there are red states, mostly where they are weakening gun laws. And we see more gun violence and more gun deaths. And that’s why national gun laws are so incredibly important.
CHAKRABARTI: Shannon Watts joins us. She’s the founder of the anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action. And after ten years at the head of the group, she is stepping down this year. So she’s here to share her story. Shannon, I wonder if you could tell us the story of when you realized that the group had, you know, leapt off the Facebook page and became so much more, that you understood it was the thing that was basically going to take over your life.
WATTS: That was pretty immediate. I mean, right away, and I have been a full-time volunteer for a decade, I realized that this was going to be like drinking from a fire hose for years, because when I got involved, I really knew little to nothing about organizing, about gun violence, about the legislative process. You know, I had had a career in communications, and then I was a stay-at-home mom for about five years. And I just created this organization with perfect strangers from across the country, mostly on Facebook, who felt the same way I did that day.
We started out in the early days with marches and rallies, but then we started organizing so that we could make the same amount of phone calls as the opposition. You know, after the Manchin-Toomey bill failed, Heidi Heitkamp, a U.S. senator, a Democrat, said she voted against that bill because she heard 7 to 1 against the bill from her constituents. And we really said we need to be big enough and strong enough that no lawmaker can ever say that again.
And in fact, when the bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed this summer, Senator Todd Young from Indiana, a Republican, said he voted for the bill because he heard 10 to 1 from his constituents, that they supported it. So, you know, that’s a sea change in American politics and it was only made possible by organizing.
CHAKRABARTI: We’re going to come back to that because as I mentioned at the beginning of the show, there is common ground when it comes to gun safety. What is it that you … would describe as the mission of Moms Demand Action? What does the group stand for?
WATTS: Well, we really work on this issue in three ways. We work on it legislatively, as we’ve been discussing, passing good gun laws, stopping bad bills like Stand your Ground and arming teachers, forcing guns onto college campuses. We have a 90% track record of stopping the NRA’s agenda every year for the last seven years. We also work on this electorally, so we get involved in every single election cycle, including electing our own volunteers to office, and then we work on it culturally.
So an example of that would be responsible gun storage, talking to gun owners and non-gun owners alike about how guns should be stored and how to ask the question if someone’s guns are stored responsibly, when we send kids to friends and family homes.
The goal is obviously reduced gun violence. But this issue is so complicated, and it has been so intractable that what we have done for the last decade is to create that foundation. And as I said, in blue states where there are stronger gun laws, we are seeing less gun deaths. But the point here is that we’re all only as safe as the closest state with the weakest gun laws, which is why we have been appealing to Congress to act.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, the Moms Demand Action website says clearly. Right on its front page that it’s a nonpartisan group. But I hear you identifying the differences between red and blue states a lot, even in just this conversation. Why do you do that?
WATTS: Well, because there is this divide. And look, I don’t believe gun safety is partisan. The vast majority of Americans, including Republicans and gun owners, support stronger gun laws like a background check on every gun sale, like requiring safety training, like keeping guns away from domestic abusers. It is only polarizing among essentially gun extremists.
This small but vocal group of people who believe that the Second Amendment means that anyone, including criminals, can have unfettered, easy access to guns. And unfortunately, some of those gun extremists are lawmakers, particularly in red states. And they don’t listen to law enforcement. They don’t follow data. They don’t listen to their constituents when it comes to passing laws, for example, something called permit list carry that is passed in 25 states now in this country.
Permit list carry allows people to carry hidden, loaded handguns in public, and they are no longer required to have a background check, a permit or safety training. These laws are adamantly opposed, for example, by police, and yet they’re passing in red states. And it is just important to point out that who we elect determines what our gun laws are. And some of those lawmakers allow gun lobbyists to have a seat at the table when it comes to writing those laws.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, some of those same people who would, you know, hear how you describe what the mission of Moms Demand Action is. You know, they would, and have asked, are you anti-gun? Are you anti-Second Amendment?
WATTS: No, not at all. In fact, many of our volunteers are gun owners or their partners are gun owners. Our mission is simply to restore the responsibility that should go along with gun rights again, something that’s supported by Republicans and gun owners as well. But it’s really, really important that we understand where people stand when we elect them on this issue. Are they aligned with the gun lobby, or will they listen to constituents? Will they let the data guide them when they make laws?
You know, you really can’t argue with the data that exists that shows stronger gun laws save lives. And so that is why we work on this electorally, legislative, culturally, because that is how you move the needle and get people to understand the rhetoric of the gun lobby is actually costing Americans lives. It’s not making us safer. If more guns and fewer gun laws made us safer, we’d be the safest country in the world with 400 million guns and too few gun laws. Instead, we have a 25 times higher gun homicide rate than any other nation.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let me bring it closer to home here for just a moment, because you talked a little earlier, Shannon, about the fact that your grandfathers were gun owners as well. I believe your father, too. I mean, what does your family think about the work you’ve been doing over the past decade?
WATTS: I come from a pretty conservative family who grew up in the Midwest. And when I started this work, my dad, who is a very conservative Catholic, voted for Donald Trump in 2016. You know, he was not happy with what I was doing. I think he thought he made the assumption that I was anti-gun or that we were trying to undo the Second Amendment or to confiscate people’s weapons.
And the more we had conversations about it, the more we realized we had common ground. I think that happens so often in this country. That once you actually talk about the goals of gun safety, that there’s very little that you disagree on that, that the rhetoric is what polarizes us. It separates us. And now my dad and my stepmom, they show up at Moms Demand Action events, wearing red shirts supportive of the work that we’re doing.
CHAKRABARTI: In 2019 you wrote a book titled “Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World.” And there are a number of really fascinating stories in the book, Shannon. And I was wondering if you could tell us one of them. It happens a bit early on, about when you really first realized what the group and you in particular could potentially be capable of. And this was in 2014 when you were in front of a group of Indiana lawmakers, and they were bullying you. I’d love to hear that story.
WATTS: I had never testified in front of any kind of policymaking body in my life. I was so nervous, and yet I felt it was really important to show up. I looked at this panel of lawmakers facing me. All but one were men. And I was testifying against a bill that would allow guns in school parking lots. There were gun lobbyists in the audience who supported this legislation. And as I sat down to begin my testimony, the lawmaker who was in charge of this panel was reading my resume from LinkedIn, accusing me of being, this being a PR stunt. Because I had a background in public relations.
Accusing me of using an alias because I had recently married, and my last name was different than my name on LinkedIn. But worst of all, accusing me of not loving my country because I supported background checks on all gun sales. I was shocked. I really thought I would just go there, give my testimony and leave. And I realized I was being bullied. When I tried to speak and answer their questions, they told me I was not allowed to speak until I was given permission. And so I really sort of kept my calm. I didn’t argue. I knew that that would be the perfect juxtaposition for their bizarre outbursts, and it would only make them look worse.
And in fact, one of the women who was in the committee hearing tweeted that bullying doesn’t just happen in schools, about what was happening to me. And it ended up being a pretty big local story, the way that these lawmakers were treating me. And they weren’t just trying to get the facts, that clearly they were gun extremists with an agenda.
CHAKRABARTI: What happened to the bill?
WATTS: It passed. Unfortunately. Indiana is one of those states where we’re seeing more and more of the gun lobby’s legislation passing, including permit-less carry, despite the objections of Hoosiers and law enforcement.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re right, there’s common ground about gun safety. There is a perhaps a sort of percentagewise small but extremely vocal and well-funded gun lobby. And so it seems that even with groups such as Moms Demand Action, building more grassroots voices, getting people to express their opinion directly to lawmakers, ultimately, we know those same groups, those same Americans run up against essentially a gun lobby that has, what, a 40-year head start on you.
WATTS: Well, just to give some context, 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. And that is in large part because Moms Demand Action made it acceptable for Democrats to vote their conscience. And also, I think Manchin-Toomey taught Democrats a valuable lesson. The Democrats who voted against background checks that that handful of Democrats, they no longer have their jobs. And that’s because the NRA did not have their back. The NRA went right back in in the next election cycle and invested in Republicans.
And I think that taught Democrats a lesson, which is with friends like the NRA, who needs enemies. You know, we have this newly formed group called Moms Demand Action that shows up in the dozens to support us in their red shirts. And they will have our back and they will help us in the next election cycle. And, you know, I want to be clear that we have racked up so many wins in the past decade. You know, we’ve built this nationwide network.
We have ended up passing hundreds of good gun bills. I mean, just in the last year, right, we passed assault weapons bans in Delaware and in Rhode Island. In this last couple of weeks in Illinois, we limited high capacity magazines. We’ve reformed active shooter drills, We’ve passed bills in Delaware, New Jersey and California that require industry accountability.
We’ve raised the age to buy a long gun in Rhode Island and New York and Delaware. And on top of that, we’ve unlocked hundreds of millions of dollars for community violence intervention programs. So, you know, we have absolutely made sure that there was a seismic shift in American politics, and that only was possible by organizing.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, point well-taken, Shannon. But, you know, when you pointed out the Illinois assault weapons ban, it just reminded me that that conundrum exists, even in at the state level. Right? Because, I mean, you’ve been tweeting and talking about Illinois quite strongly, because I believe that they’re running into a problem of sheriffs in the state saying that they’re just going to be unwilling to enforce the ban.
WATTS: Well, it’s interesting because sheriffs are in an elected position and the NRA a long time ago made a bet that by investing in sheriff’s races, they would be able to control the way that laws were overseen. And they’ve been correct on that assumption that most sheriffs do the bidding, unfortunately, of the gun lobby. But thankfully, Governor Pritzker has said he has no tolerance for sheriffs who do not follow the law. You know, they are not lawmakers, they are not judges. They do not get to adjudicate the laws that are passed. They have a responsibility to make sure that that their constituents are following the law. So he has said anyone who doesn’t will no longer have a job. And I think he’s going to take this very seriously.
CHAKRABARTI: We’ll have to see if he follows through here. Now, you know, I keep talking about common ground when it comes to opinions about gun safety, but I haven’t really offered evidence of that. But you, through your work with Moms Demand Action, I think you’ve had examples of finding that common ground. Could you tell us a story about in 2018, in Maryland when the group was supporting legislation that would prevent domestic abusers for having from having firearms? I believe there were a lot of hecklers. But you were able to find common ground with them. Can you tell us that story?
WATTS: Yeah. Our Moms volunteers showed up in Annapolis. They were at a rally, and they were there to support a bill that would remove guns from people who were convicted of domestic violence. Pretty much common sense. And there were these gun extremists there. They had signs they were there specifically on behalf of the NRA to heckle our volunteers. And one of our volunteers, who is a former police officer, went over to them and she shared her story about how her abusive husband had tortured her by forcing her to play Russian roulette with a loaded gun.
And she believed that his intention was to kill her eventually. And that story really resonated with the protesters. And then all of our volunteers went over and they all introduced themselves. They talked about the bill and what it would do and what it wouldn’t do. And eventually these NRA supporters changed their tune. In fact, one of the men was quoted in local media saying, we support the moms in this. We’re all against domestic abusers. You know, we believe they’re criminals and they shouldn’t have guns of any kind. And then just a few months later, the Republican governor, Larry Hogan, signed several bills that revamped the state’s gun laws and publicly thanked our volunteers for their support.
CHAKRABARTI: Shannon, I wanted to ask you, obviously, you’ve got a strong public voice because of all the work that you’ve been doing with Moms Demand. You’ve also got a very strong voice on social media. I look at your tweets and I’m like, wow, she’s unafraid to really express how she feels about a lot of news stories. And you can also say on your Twitter account, for example, in the location, you identify your location as the NRA’s head rent free. But I wonder, has your advocacy ever come at a risk? Have you feared for your own life at any time?
WATTS: I think there’s something to be said for naivete, because when I started Moms Demand Action, I did not realize that I would get threatened both online and in real life, that there would be people who wanted to kill me and my kids, who would make threats of sexual violence to me and to my daughters. I immediately started receiving threatening calls and texts, letters to my home, people driving by my home. In those early days, you know, I called the police to say that this was happening, and the officer who came to my house said, Well, that’s what you get when you mess with the Second Amendment, ma’am.
And I think I realized I could either back down or I could double down. And my personality is such that I ended up doubling down. But I have an incredibly supportive husband and family. I really feel … if I lose my loved ones, I have nothing left to lose. And that, I think, is what motivates me. And so many of our volunteers on top of the fact, you know, we do this work every day, shoulder to shoulder with gun violence survivors who heroically use their own stories to force change. And so certainly if they can do this work, I can, too.
CHAKRABARTI: And can we just rewind for a second when that police officer who had been called to help you said that’s what you get for messing with the Second Amendment, ma’am? What did you say or do?
WATTS: You know, I was raised to respect police officers. So I said, okay, you know, thank you for coming. Thank you for that feedback. And it really was something I had to think about for several days. And I just realized that was what we were going to be up against, and that there was this misperception of what we were trying to achieve. That we support police and law enforcement, and that, in fact, gun safety saves officers lives, too.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, in talking about the fact that so many members of Moms Demand Action have themselves experienced the horrible tragedies of gun violence, it reminds me that it’s important for us to note that even though what inspired you to finally stand up and take action was a school shooting. The horror of Sandy Hook, and that you’re white and nevertheless, the truth is that gun violence has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Can you talk about how that realization really then went on to shape how and what Moms Demand does.
WATTS: When I started Moms Demand Action, I was a white suburban mom living in a bubble, and I got off the sidelines because I felt my kids weren’t safe in their schools. You know, shame on me for not paying attention to what was happening. You know, the fact that gun violence in schools, mass shootings, school shootings, that’s about 1% of the gun violence in this country. It’s really the everyday gun violence, whether it’s gun homicides, domestic violence, suicide. All of it disproportionately impacts communities of color.
And they have been leading the fight in these communities for decades, especially Black and brown women. I realized, and this is in large part thanks to my dear friend Lucy McBath. Lucy’s son Jordan Davis was shot and killed just weeks before the Sandy Hook school shooting. A Black 17-year-old in a car in a gas station in Florida playing loud music. A middle-aged white man took issue with that. They got into an argument and this man opened fire on Jordan’s car, killing him. And Lucy and I were introduced in the spring of 2013. She became a Moms Demand Action spokesperson, and now she is a congresswoman in Georgia.
But in 2014, Lucy wrote me a beautiful note talking about the fact that, you know, we really needed to look at this issue more holistically, that the audiences she was speaking to were mostly white, that we weren’t talking enough to Black and brown communities, to religious communities. And I think that was a real turning point, right, to say, you know, this is a complex issue that demands comprehensive solutions. And in order to build a movement, we needed to listen and to learn and to be inclusive and most importantly, to build partnerships to support the work that was already being done in the communities most impacted.
CHAKRABARTI: Shannon, after ten years of doing a lot of leading Moms Demand Action, I’m wondering what you think of the following question. Many, many Americans purchase firearms for self-protection. They’re afraid. I mean, even in cases where, you know, like that horrible Utah case that just happened where a man murdered his wife and all of his children as well before taking his own life, his family after writing his obituary, also released a statement saying that they still are very, very strong supporters of what they called protective gun ownership. What do you think Americans are so afraid of?
WATTS: Well, in addition to being the only developed nation with a 25 times higher gun homicide rate than any peer nation, we’re also the only country with a gun lobby. And that gun lobby profits by selling fear, by making people so afraid that they need to have guns to protect themselves. Everyone in this country has a right. If you’re not a criminal, to have a gun because of the Second Amendment. And we are not opposed to that. However, it is really important if you’re going to buy a gun, that you do know the data.
And the data shows us that guns in homes actually makes us less safe. In fact, the gun that you purchase to protect yourself or your home is very likely to be used by someone to die by suicide. We know that if there’s a home in which there is domestic abuse, that gun is five times more likely to be used to kill the person who’s being abused. So it is up to an individual as to whether they want a gun in their home. But I think it’s really important that we know the data.
And let’s be clear, the gun lobby in particular, the NRA, has tried to silence that data for years, even making sure that Congress shut down funding scientific funding around whether guns make us safer or less safe. And when the data started to show that, in fact, guns were making us less safe, that’s when the research was stopped. Thankfully, it’s being refunded now because of in part, Moms Demand Action volunteers who unlocked that funding. But you know, I think it’s really important that we are making data-based decisions, not just lawmakers, but Americans who choose to buy guns.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, well, so let me push you on this a little bit because I’m not sure it matters. And here’s why I say this, you know, because I know that a lot of listeners right now are also going to be screaming at their radio that, like we have a broken, you know, political finance system in this country. And because of Citizens United, money has a real disproportionate impact on our politics. And I note that I don’t deny that. But even before things like Citizens United and the, you know, the further empowerment of the gun lobby, as you put it, I mean, this country has had a history of gun violence.
You know, children have been gunned down in neighborhoods for decades and decades. There have been mass shootings for four decades now. I mean, is it possible that we as Americans also just have an extremely high tolerance for death, for violence? I mean, in other countries, when something horrible happens, it only takes one event and they very quickly pivot and are able to, like, do something about the proliferation of, say, assault weapons. But I just think every time we say never again in this country, it’s just not true. The child body count keeps rising, but some of the fundamentals don’t change.
WATTS: I mean, it’s a complicated question. And Senator Chris Murphy actually wrote a very interesting book about the history of violence in America. But in terms of the gun lobby, you know, the NRA switched from being this hunting organization to being a gun lobbying organization in the late seventies. And it is around that time when guns started to proliferate, when gun violence became more normalized.
When we decided as a nation that gun violence was an acceptable exchange somehow for what the gun lobby tells us is freedom. And look, we have, again, something no other developed nation has, which is both a gun lobby and the Second Amendment combined. And it’s been perverted in order to profit the gun lobby. I mean, the amount of money they have made on, sadly, the deaths of Americans is obscene.
But they’ve also learned from other lobbying organizations, whether it’s alcohol or tobacco, on how not to fail. And they quickly became one of the most powerful, most wealthy special interests that’s ever existed. You know, our goal from the very beginning was to shine a light on the NRA, to expose their corruption, to show that they don’t act like a typical nonprofit. And we succeeded in that. You know, they are hemorrhaging political power and money. What we did not expect was that their agenda would be embraced by the right wing.
Guns are now an organizing principle for the right wing to create new members, to bring in dollars to excite the base around issues that have nothing to do with the guns. It’s just what gets them in the door. And so that is the next issue to tackle. But, look, I just want to point out that we have changed the calculus on gun safety and so much has changed on this issue. And it is because every day Americans got off the sidelines and said, we will not live this way. We will not tolerate a country in which we are not safe anywhere we go, because so many people who shouldn’t have guns have them.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, true. And at the same time, I continue to see that tension is the tension that you and the group has have been pushing against for a decade now. Because, you know, simultaneously we have, for example, you know, a Supreme Court. Right. Which in recent rulings has shown its willingness to even go so far as to roll back gun safety laws that some states pass.
So there’s a long trajectory here when it comes to, I think, policy change in this country, which makes me wonder why did you make the decision to step down this year? Because if you feel like Moms Demand has achieved some significant momentum, why step away from it now?
WATTS: You know, when I started Moms Demand Action ten years ago, I remember someone saying to me, make sure you don’t get Founder’s syndrome. And I had no idea what that was. And I came to realize that what that means is founders really have a finite role, that they create the space for people to gather. But it’s really the people who are in the space that make the difference, the volunteers and the survivors. We are now 10 million supporters nationwide, right? We are twice as large as the NRA and we are having amazing success at all levels local, state and federal.
We elected 140 of our own volunteers to office in November and. You know, I went to the celebration for the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and every year I’d asked myself, you know, is this the year to step back? And when I went to that celebration, it felt like a bookend to me. From when Manchin-Toomey failed to finally having federal legislation passed for the first time in a generation. And I need to step back so that others can step up and can be celebrated.
And I can only do that, frankly, because our organization and our movement are stronger than they have ever been. I will spend the next year traveling across the country with other leaders from the organization to meet with volunteers and to celebrate their success. But at the end of the year, I will step back and become a California Moms Demand Action volunteer.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you think that being tenaciously optimistic is a requirement for doing the kind of advocacy you’ve been doing? Because, you know, I’m sitting here also looking at the data, as you said, and I see numbers that give cause for perhaps pessimism, like there’s still more guns than people in this nation.
WATTS: There are other countries with high rates of gun ownership that have very little gun violence. We can be a country like that, and we are moving there. As I said, we’ve passed hundreds of good gun laws in states all across the country. We finally passed federal legislation. We are moving the needle on this issue with American sentiment.
You know, more Americans than ever support stronger gun laws. So I have a lot of hope, and I do think it’s a requirement. I think it is if you’re an activist, you have to be hopeful because what’s the other option? That we live in a country where we tolerate 100 people being shot and killed every day? I think joy and hope are an integral part of activism.
Excerpt from Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World by Shannon Watts. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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