Five mass shootings in California. Forty in the country overall. That’s just in the first weeks of 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, announced this month that she plans to step away from leadership at the organization she started in 2012, the day after the Sandy Hook shootings left 20 children and six adults dead. I had already wanted to talk to Watts, among the most prominent leaders of the gun reform movement, about her activism. I reached out to her as the country was reeling from the deadly shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park, Calif; within hours, news of tragedy in Half Moon Bay was emerging.
I spoke to Watts this week about how she’s thinking about her role, what she’s been able to accomplish in the last decade and the work left undone as she winds down her time at the helm. As Moms Demand Action has grown to 10 million volunteers —some of whom have run for and won elected office —we also talked about gun violence as a catalyzing political issue, particularly for women, at the ballot box and as a governing priority.
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Watts, 52, is a mother of five who does not own a gun but is the daughter of a gun owner. Her grandfathers were World War II veterans who hunted and owned guns. She points out that many of her organization’s volunteers or their partners are gun owners and support the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
“We simply want to restore the responsibilities that should go along with gun rights,” Watts said. When she started Moms Demand Action, she said, it was out of fear for her kids’ safety at school. But, she admits, she was a “White suburban mom living in a bubble who didn’t know much about the gun violence crisis in this country.”
“I just knew that I was scared. I’ve learned so much and realized that this is a much more insidious and holistic issue, a very complicated issue, that has to be treated in a whole variety of ways” she said.”
Women have to speak out, she said, because of a link between intimate partner violence and mass shootings, pointing out that more than 70 women are shot and killed by their partners each month.
“It is certainly a crisis,” Watts said.
At the end of this year, Watts said, will remain a Moms Demand Action volunteer and continue to push for candidates and policies that confront the gun violence epidemic.
“This work will not end until there is no longer a special interest that is working to pass laws that endanger and kill people in America,” Watts said. “I don’t know that this work does end, honestly, in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do it.”
That work — cycle by cycle, legislative session by session —is often incremental. Some young people see that as a dirty word, Watts said.
“I wish that when I got involved that we were able to pass federal gun safety legislation … but that isn’t how the system is set up,” Watts said. “And as long as the system is set up the way it is, which is for incremental progress over a long period of time, that requires citizens in a democracy to show up over and over and over again. … It’s incrementalism that leads to revolutions.”
Watts began the week in Arizona, where Moms Demand Action volunteers helped to elect Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and four of the organization’s members to the state legislature. That afternoon, Watts was on cable television, responding to the shooting in Monterey Park that left 11 people dead and nine people injured.
Watts told me that her work is a constant grappling between “hope and incredible sadness.” Still, she added, she feels the gun reform movement is winning, and points to the diminished influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has lost members and revenue in recent years.
“We are twice as large as they are now,” Watts said. “They are in no way a political powerhouse like they used to be, and we are. But when you look at how long we’ve been doing this work, that isn’t close to the decades that the gun lobby has invested in essentially writing our nation’s gun laws.”
The Second Amendment still looms large among millions of American voters, which is why changing culture, along with passing legislation and electing candidates who support gun reform, is part of Watts’ strategy.
“We have not yet won, and that is in part because the right wing has adopted the NRA’s agenda,” Watts said. “Guns are now an organizing principle for the very extreme right, which is a vocal minority. They’re a way to get people in the door, they’re a way to raise money, they’re a way to excite the base around issues that have nothing to do with guns.”
In the end, Watts said, it won’t be the good guy with or without a gun that puts a stop to systemic gun violence; it will be the elected leaders who change and enforce laws.
“Stronger gun laws save lives, but it requires lawmakers at all levels to actually pass them, to strongly implement them,” she said. “This idea that we are going to count on the average human to stand up to gunmen when our lawmakers are too cowardly to stand up to gun makers is incredibly frustrating. It comes down to the people we have in office. And we have to remember that every time we vote for someone who is not on the side of gun safety, we are endangering our families and our communities.”
Watts said she sees real opportunity for reform in state legislatures, citing Moms Demand Action victories in recent cycles in Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota. But she also underscored the reality that change takes time and continued pressure from the electorate and acknowledged that “we’re all only as safe as the closest state with the weakest gun laws.”
“We are getting to the point where people are safer in blue states than they are in red because of the laws that are either being passed or stopped,” Watts said. “That’s why we try to work on this issue in every single state, but also why we fight so hard for federal legislation.”
Watts sees women as central to that fight, particularly in elected office, where they bring their lived experience to policy. She is active in Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. The group is led by A’Shanti Gholar, a Black woman.
Throughout history, from Prohibition to the suffragist movement to the civil rights and women’s rights movements, to the fight for environmental justice and reproductive access, women have been the “secret sauce” to organizing in America, Watts said.
“When women get involved, they force change,” she said. “They’re unstoppable. Whether we like it or not, women are seen as the protectors of their families and their communities. They have a certain moral authority. … You can say that’s anachronistic, but it’s also pragmatic. Lawmakers who are men are scared of women and their moms. … Once they have a seat at the table, they make laws that benefit people.”
Watts identifies as a single-issue voter and thinks more voters, particularly women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people should be, too.
“If we don’t all get off the sidelines and use our voices and our votes on this issue, it is very difficult to make traction,” Watts said. “If my family isn’t safe, if my community isn’t safe, if my country isn’t safe, then everything else is unimportant to me. … We know that when women in particular go to the polls, that this issue is a priority, particularly Black women when they go to the polls. But it has to be the same for everyone, regardless of political party. That needle is moving.”
For the past couple of cycles, I have asserted that women have been and will be the deciders in our elections. How will women focused on gun violence shape our politics in 2024?
Watts said gun safety has increasingly become an issue in presidential politics, and pointed to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and President Joe Biden as both crediting Moms Demand Action for helping their campaigns.
“This will be an issue, not just for Democratic women, but I think Republican women, too,” Watts said, adding that Moms Demand Action volunteers will again be active in the upcoming electoral cycle. “The motto of our organization to lawmakers is, ‘Do the right thing and we’ll have your back; do the wrong thing, and we’ll have your job.’ And it takes many election cycles to show that, over and over again.”
While this week felt timely to talk to Watts, given the unrelenting incidents of gun violence across the country, we agreed the topic is, unfortunately, always appropriate.
The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot or killed, not including the shooter. By their count, there have been three more mass shootings since Half Moon Bay, in Chicago; Oakland, California; and Red Springs, North Carolina.