Fighting Gun Culture: An Interview with Shannon Watts




IN HER NEW BOOK, Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World, Shannon Watts runs down a litany of commonly shared myths about guns and gun ownership and efficiently dispels the most common ones with facts and statistics. Knowing the numbers about guns is one of the most effective ways to disarm your opponent on any number of issues. Watts founded the group Moms Demand Action, and facts are her ammunition.

No matter how many times Watts reminds you that we live in a country where guns outnumber people, it’s the figure that we are about to surpass 400 million guns in a country with 330 million people that really startles. Instead of mocking those who offer “thoughts and prayers” — in place of legislation — in the aftermath of every single gun massacre, Watts would rather quote scripture back to the penitent: “Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).

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GREGG LAGAMBINA: In the book, you write of your experience waking up to the news of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 people, including 20 children aged seven and under. It was what motivated you to start a conversation on Facebook that quickly gained traction and nearly seven years later has evolved into Moms Demand Action. Before this particular massacre, was there any indication that you would someday devote your life to activism of any kind?

SHANNON WATTS: Yes. I can remember being in college when the massacre at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, happened. It was one of the first horrific shootings — at least, in my lifetime — and I lived in Texas. It was the age when 24-hour media had just started and to see the tragedy — people bloodied, people being pulled out of the restaurant, and the stories of the bystanders — it just seemed so horrific to me that this could happen in our country. I was in my early 20s, and it made me feel very unsafe. Then, when Columbine happened, I was a young mom with kids under the age of five. Each time, I was thinking that someone was going to do something. Then, it was Virginia Tech, but I was a busy working mom. Then, it was the Gabby Giffords shooting at a Safeway in Tucson when I thought, “Okay. This is when someone will act. Because this is a colleague, this is one of their own [in Congress].” And, again, no one did anything.

When Sandy Hook happened, I really didn’t think anyone would do anything because they hadn’t in the past. I thought, “Well, then I have to do something.” Now, to be clear, I didn’t think I was going to start the largest grassroots movement for gun violence prevention. I just thought that I wanted to join something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving but for gun safety, but I looked online and nothing like that existed. I just started a Facebook page thinking I would have a conversation with other women and moms.

The book is called Fight Like a Mother; your organization is called Moms Demand Action — what is it about mothers that makes them particularly effective activists, especially when it comes to gun violence?

I think that’s a great question, because so many of our volunteers come to us not necessarily because they have been impacted by gun violence. One in three Americans has been affected, whether it’s homicide or suicide, but many of our volunteers come to us because they have had the experience of sending their toddler or their five-year-old to school and hear about how they spent their day hiding from a pretend active shooter in the bathroom of their classrooms, as though these shootings are acts of nature and not manmade acts of cowardice. Parents realize this is preventable and senseless and an absurd way to live. So they decide they will get involved and that can be out of fear, anger, compassion — it’s all of it.

I knew intuitively that mothers would be the yin to the gun lobby’s yang. The gun lobby has convinced a vocal minority of gun extremists that their guns will be taken away, but we’re afraid our children will be taken away. But what I’ve come to realize and learn is that it’s not just the mass shootings or the school shootings that we have to address and care about, it’s gun violence in city centers. Black men are 10 times more likely to be shot and killed in this country than white men. Gun suicides are an epidemic in rural communities. We have to care about all of it and address all of it.

You write that you “fully support the Second Amendment,” which might surprise some of your detractors as well as your supporters. What do you mean by “fully support”?

Many of our volunteers are gun owners, or married to them. We even have a group of volunteers in the Midwest who call themselves CamoMoms because they hunt together. This is about the responsibilities that go along with gun rights, which the NRA has eroded for decades. Things like a background check on every gun sale, keeping guns away from dangerous people like domestic abusers, allowing judges to issue temporary restraining orders if someone who is armed appears to be a danger to themselves or others. These are common sense solutions to gun violence that are overwhelmingly supported by Americans — 90 percent of average Americans, about 80 percent of gun owners, and 74 percent of NRA members. It’s really the NRA leadership that has become so incredibly extreme.

How can we claim to live in a representative democracy when 90 percent of the population is supportive of a specific action to potentially reduce gun violence and no one in Congress will lift a finger to turn that overwhelming support into legislation?

That’s such an important point. When I think back to Sandy Hook and the reason I got off the sidelines, so many people were saying, “If Congress doesn’t do anything after Sandy Hook, we’re sunk. It’s hopeless.”

I was one of those people.

Yes, but it wasn’t true! We did not have a political movement around this issue then. We didn’t have any political power. And building a grassroots movement takes time. It takes years. It takes election cycles. That’s what we’ve spent the last six years doing — creating that political power. If you look at the midterm elections, we outspent and outmaneuvered the NRA. We elected over 1,000 gun-sense candidates across the country, we flipped the makeup of seven state legislatures, we elected my former colleague Lucy McBath — an activist from Moms Demand Action is now a congresswoman from Georgia. So, it is doable.

Every social issue has its own dynamics. In terms of gun violence prevention, there has been this silent majority that had not made this a priority because there hadn’t been a movement to educate and encourage them to do something. If you look at a CNN poll that was out just a couple of weeks ago, it showed that the third most important issue to Democratic voters in 2020 is guns. And by that, we mean gun safety. That is a sea change in American politics. This is no longer polarizing — it gets people out to the polls. It used to be considered a third-rail issue, and now you suddenly have all of these presidential candidates competing to see who can be the best on this issue.

But I understand what you’re saying. How do you change it, how do you keep gun lobbyists from writing our nation’s gun laws? It’s twofold. One, we need to show how toxic the NRA’s agenda is. I always say that our job for the last six years is to shine a flashlight under the refrigerator and force the cockroaches to run out. We’ve shown the insidiousness of their efforts and their agenda. The second piece of it is to educate voters and to get them to vote on this issue, to ask who their candidates are and whether they have A ratings from the NRA and to really go into the polls with this issue in mind. The NRA is weaker than it has ever been, and we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. That’s how we start to see this dynamic shift.

When Lindsey Graham said a couple of weeks ago that the Second Amendment isn’t a “suicide pact,” he was talking about how we need to look at red flag laws at a national level. Pat Toomey, another Republican said, “I’m confident there is legislation that will get 60 votes if it gets to the floor.” Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican congressman, voted for HR8 and bills that also had gun violence prevention policies in it. Kirsten Gillibrand used to be an A-rated NRA supporter and now she has an F. Tim Ryan took all the money he got from the gun lobby and gave it to gun-violence prevention organizations. We can’t un-elect everyone who opposes us, but we can change hearts and minds.

What about money? In this country, money is more powerful than opinion and maybe even voting.

It is powerful, and if you look at the NRA’s ROI on elections since 2010, it hasn’t been good. They have been losing races. They lost twice in Alabama and spent millions, first on whoever it was before Roy Moore, and then Moore. They lost badly in Pennsylvania. There are so many different races you can point to where the NRA made a big bet and lost. We’re not sure where all of the money they spent on the 2018 election came from — there are a lot of questions about the dark money that the NRA had access to during that election cycle, including the $30 million they gave to Donald Trump. But that ROI didn’t turn out well either because even though there was a Republican president and a Republican Congress for two years, the NRA was not able to pass its two pieces of priority legislation: concealed carry reciprocity and deregulating silencers. And, as I mentioned, we outspent them in the midterm elections.

That answers the money question.

Yeah! And we’re not sure where it came from and if they even have any more left. Although, Wayne LaPierre does seem to have a very large budget allowance for his clothing.

In Fight Like a Mother, you write about this notion of “losing forward.” This became your mantra of sorts after the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill was rejected by the Senate just months after Sandy Hook. The idea of “losing forward” is to see the somber Rose Garden speech given by President Obama in the aftermath of the bill’s defeat as a dispiriting moment that in no way reflects the power of a movement.

You stole that from Hamilton, by the way! [Laughs.]

Subconscious plagiarism! I’ve never seen Hamilton, which is probably more embarrassing than stealing a phrase [“this is not a moment, it’s the movement”]. But after that bill went down in the Senate, a lot of us became dispirited, including yourself. “I wondered whether Moms Demand Action would survive this blow,” you write. However, you soon realized this was only a moment and the movement was the path to carry you forward — “If we wanted to change the nation’s culture of gun violence, we’d have to change our lawmakers one at a time.” Instead of backing down, the failure of that bill inspired a longer, more powerful strategy.

Absolutely. We never think about backing down, we always double-down. The failure of that bill to pass, the silver lining is that I don’t think we would have had six years to build this grassroots movement. Moms Demand Action is a political powerhouse in just about every statehouse in the country, and we would not have pivoted to doing this work in statehouses and boardrooms if that had passed. Passing background checks is important and it’s foundational to all of the other work that has to happen, but there is so much more that needs to be done. That includes showing lawmakers that when they do the right thing, we’ll have their backs and when they don’t, we’ll have their jobs. That takes several election cycles to accomplish.

What about the self-described “grim reaper,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? You can only “lose forward” so far until you reach the immovable object that is Senator McConnell. He will never bring a vote to the floor if it upsets the NRA. How do you face down that enormous obstacle and still remain optimistic about making any progress when the Senate is off limits?

We’ve thought that about this a lot. Look, who thought [former Republican House Speaker] John Boehner would come out in favor of legalizing marijuana? Things do change. A lot of what the Senate and Congress does is dictated by whether or not they will get to keep their jobs. If enough Americans tell their lawmakers that this issue is a priority for them, slowly things will change. Mitch McConnell won’t be there forever. But, in the meantime, we have to keep doing this work on the ground. I mentioned Lindsey Graham and Pat Toomey — two Republican senators who think that we need to be doing more on this issue. So, what Mitch McConnell decides to do may be based on political expediency, which could very well be that Americans are demanding it. But, in the meantime, we’re not going to wait. We’re going to keep playing defense at the federal level, and keep playing offense and defense in statehouses. We have a 90 percent track record of killing bad NRA bills every single year in state houses. Last year, we beat over 1,000 bills that included guns on campus, arming teachers, permit-less carry, and stand-your-ground laws. And, then, just last year, we also passed stronger gun laws in 20 states, nine of which were signed by Republican governors.

There is an argument from gun owners and NRA members that goes something like this: guns are part of America’s story, the fight for our independence, it’s a right enshrined in the Constitution, and it is part of the fabric of our nation’s culture. There is no going back, and any violence that occurs as a result of this culture is “the price of freedom.” People actually say this.

I would say a big part of our nation’s culture around guns has actually been inculcated by the NRA. They promote this idea that we are always in danger, at all times, and we must always be armed to protect ourselves, despite what the data tells us. This view has been cultivated particularly among gun extremists. The average gun owner is a responsible gun owner. That’s why they support stronger gun laws. An example of this is responsible gun storage. Only 11 states require gun owners to responsibly store their guns, and if they don’t and someone gets one and injures themselves or someone else, it’s a misdemeanor and a $400 fine. Where I live, in Colorado, there is absolutely no law around responsible gun storage. You could say the same thing about drunk driving in the 1980s. The culture didn’t change until there were laws that held people accountable for getting in a car after drinking. So, that is part of it — responsibility.

We also have a program called Be SMART. It’s all about responsible gun storage for gun owners and non-gun owners alike. When you send your kids over to a friend’s or family’s home, it is incumbent upon you as an adult to ask whether someone has guns and how they are stored. Not to make a judgment, but to decide if you want to send your kids over there. That’s not because they have guns, but only if they are not storing them safely, which is locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition. In this country, at least 4.5 million children live in homes with unsecured guns. That is a dangerous culture. Again, you want to ask where that comes from. In 2016, the NRA had instructors at its annual meeting encouraging people to keep loaded guns in their children’s room because that’s where burglars were least likely to look for them.

In 2008, during his first campaign for president, Barack Obama infamously said — about voters in cities where lagging industry led to massive job loss — that “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” It sounds more prescient now, instead of an elitist “gaffe” as it was mostly reported at the time, because these are the same issues that are bringing people out to Trump rallies. Trump has seized on the sentiments that Obama described. Guns are a major part of some people’s political identity. How do you convince those voters to help you flip the necessary seats in statehouses and Congress to pass common-sense gun safety legislation?

I think it’s obvious that this country is becoming increasingly polarized, particularly since the election of Donald Trump. I think it is about a demographic shift. The NRA, if you remember, in 1999, said they supported a background check on every gun sale and they opposed guns in schools. Then, flash forward, in the next decade they quickly abandoned those principles and started trying to pass laws that would force guns onto college campuses, that would arm teachers, and that would allow permit-less carry. This was because they were selling more guns to fewer people. They convinced white men over the age of 50 or 60 that they needed an arsenal. But that is a demographic that is aging out. In order to maintain the profit margins for gun manufacturers, the NRA had to put forward an agenda of guns for anyone, anywhere, anytime, no questions asked. That is, in part, why we have this culture right now. They also fully aligned themselves with the Republican Party, and in particular, Donald Trump.

The shift in the NRA is also because these gun groups, smaller than the NRA, have sprung up in just about every state in the country. Where I live in Colorado, they’re called the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Every state has some version. They’re even further to the right of the NRA. They’re like Gun Owners for America in that they believe that any law at all is an infringement on the Second Amendment. Just as the Republican Party was pulled further right by the Tea Party, the NRA has been pulled right by these smaller, state-based gun organizations.

In the book, you write about new recruits to Moms Demand Action and their astonishment when they make their first visit to their statehouses: “[I]t doesn’t take long for them to realize that many of the lawmakers who represent them aren’t exactly rocket scientists. […] [They are] men who are more interested in power and perks than policy.” This is a problem that also appears to be getting worse, that the “best people” are not representing us. 

I worked at the Missouri State House right out of college and I can tell you that it’s the same as it ever was. Except at least we now have more women sitting in statehouses. But I always recommend to people that if they haven’t spent any time in their statehouse, they have to go do it. Because you will realize that you would not trust many of these lawmakers to get you a cup of coffee, let alone make the laws that protect your families and communities. Our chapter leader in North Carolina, when she became a volunteer, she thought she would go to the statehouse and they would want to hear from her. When she realized that wasn’t the case, she decided to run and she won. I’m thrilled to live in Colorado where at least one of our chambers is majority women. I think Nevada, their entire legislative body is majority women. When you look at how this issue polls with women, more women support stronger gun laws than men do and when you move from shaping policy to making it, you’re just going to have that added impact of turbocharging how quickly this issue gets addressed.

You also make the case that stand-your-ground laws have created particularly harmful consequences, especially for people of color. What do you say to a person in a state with a stand-your-ground law that thinks they must have a gun for protection because they are part of a marginalized community in their own city?

Well, first of all, you can’t talk about gun violence in this country without talking about race and social justice. They are tied together. That is because black men — and boys, in particular — are disproportionately impacted by gun violence in this country. The data shows having a gun does not make you safe. In some cases, we are talking about gun violence involving police. There are nearly 400 million guns in this country. If more guns and fewer gun laws made us safer, we would be the safest country in the world. Instead, we have the highest rate of gun homicides of any developed nation. We’re 25 times more likely to be shot and killed in this country. In terms of laws like stand-your-ground that impact people of color, that is because we are encouraging armed vigilantes to shoot first and ask questions later. This happens in a variety of public places. The idea that everyone is going to be armed and that is somehow going to make us safer by resulting in shootouts is just a fallacy. It’s an NRA fantasy.

What about the relationship between guns and misogyny? You receive threats on a near-daily basis, and a lot of these threats, especially online, are about the fact that you are a woman. Domestic violence happens everywhere, but in this country it often involves gunfire.

There’s definitely an issue with toxic masculinity in this country. I think Nicholas Kristof [of The New York Times] said it best, “In other countries, brutish husbands put wives in hospitals. In America, they put them in graves.” Every nation is home to domestic abusers. Only in America are they given access to arsenal and ammunition. But in terms of this of this trolling and bullying culture, I received threats of death and sexual violence against me and my daughters within hours of starting that Facebook page. At first it was frightening, but then it became sort of white noise, because I realized the intention is to intimidate or silence me and I just am not willing to do that. I decided a long time ago that if I lose my children, I have nothing left to lose. Now was the time to stand up. If it weren’t for Moms Demand Action, this agenda of the NRA would have sailed through statehouses these last six years. Time was of the essence and this type of bullying eventually became white noise.

After the Christchurch mosque shootings, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took immediate action, which included gun buyback programs and banning military-style semi-automatic weapons along with assault rifles. Do you think the fact that she is a woman was a coincidence in relation to the immediacy of her actions?

No! I believe that because the prime minister is a woman that action was taken so quickly. Obviously, New Zealand has not struggled with an all-powerful gun lobby and it makes it easier for the lawmakers there to make these decisions. They have a different culture. But I think it is an important example of how women who lead with compassion and courage create quick change.

All signs point to the NRA self-immolating from overspending, internal quarrels, and the recent cancellation of NRA-TV, including the dismissal of some of their exorbitantly compensated “personalities.” If the NRA goes away, does the fight still continue in the same manner? What happens if the enemy retreats?

Well, first of all, the NRA has been counted down and out before, as recently as the ’90s. But like cockroaches, the NRA leadership always comes back. What I think happened that has put the NRA in this position now is they thought if they elected a Republican they would pass all the legislation they wanted and would put money in their coffers. That didn’t happen. On top of that, gun manufacturers are at least $100 million in the hole because there is no boogeyman in the White House to make gun owners afraid every time there is a mass shooting that their guns will be taken away. So that has been a really bad recipe for the NRA. They’ve overspent, they’ve misspent, and they’ve mismanaged funds that are no longer coming in the door. Now, what they’re waiting for at this point is to have Democrats in the White House and in Congress so they can again have a boogeyman that makes everyone afraid their guns will be taken. So, while the NRA is at its weakest point, it doesn’t mean, by any means, that they are down and out. There’s always Gun Owners of America waiting in the wings to take on the gun extremists who are unhappy with the NRA. So, we have to keep working, we have to be vigilant, and just like MADD — it took them 10 years to pass the laws they needed to reduce drunk driving deaths, but they still show up in statehouses to protect the gains they’ve made. This work is no different.

You said if you lose your children, you have nothing left to lose. People have gone to Moms Demand Action events with the intent to intimidate, sometimes with open-carry, and you are threatened constantly online. If your own family loses you to a cause, is it worth it to them?

I have to make sure that I don’t sound flippant. I work with gun violence survivors every single day, and the pain and suffering they experience is profound and unimaginable. So I’m not saying that I am some courageous hero who is putting my life on the line. All I’m saying is that there are causes that are so important, that the danger that is inherent is not as important as the cause itself. I am very fortunate in that my family is incredibly supportive, they are very brave, and they allow me to do this work and I don’t have the burden of them being worried. I’m not sure I could do it if they were. I’m not sure it would be fair. But we all made this tacit agreement at the beginning that this is what I was going to do and that I felt good about doing it and that I would take important safety precautions. This cause is my passion.

There’s an old joke that goes something like, “The only people who think about God every day are priests and atheists.” You spend every waking hour thinking about guns, maybe even more than members of the NRA. How does that end up affecting your psyche over time?

I’m a full-time volunteer, and an experience I’ve had over and over is waking up to the news of a horrific shooting tragedy in this country and then my day is done. The rest of the day is going to be reacting to that, doing media, talking about potential solutions based on what happened, and working with volunteers who are in that area. That is a scenario that has played itself out over and over and over again these last six years. Similar to secondhand smoke, in this country, we have secondhand trauma from gun violence because it is so ever-present, especially if you’re doing this volunteer work. I talk in the book a lot about the importance of self-care. I always say this work is a marathon, not a sprint. But it’s also a relay race. You have to pass the baton when it becomes too much. I think we have created a structure among our volunteer chapters where they can step out and back in as they need to. For me, personally, I do a lot of hiking. I meditate. But for reasons I am not very clear on, because I’ve never been personally impacted by gun violence, this is my passion. I wake up and I live, eat, sleep, breathe trying to solve this problem. I’m honored to do the work.

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Gregg LaGambina is a writer living in Los Angeles.


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