Moms Demand Action: Shannon Watts Interview

In December 2012 a mentally ill man-who lived with a mother who bought him guns murdered that mother and then drove to a Connecticut elementary school and killed 20 little children and six adults who died defending them. Up until that point our president, Barack Obama had often been called cerebral but the pain of that loss brought tears to his eyes. And he was not alone.

A stay-at-home mom was also moved by this terrible crime and was moved to action. She searched for a group to join and when she didn’t find one she tried to start one. On Facebook. Shannon Watts was an executive before staying home with her children and she used her skills to organize a groundswell of determined women-and some men to eventually form Moms Demand Action. The “action” her team participated in caught the attention of former NY City mayor Michael Bloomberg who would invest a highly publicized 50 million dollars-a small fraction of the gun lobby’s coffers, but the organization had something more than money- it has heart. “Moms” committed to making the country a little safer by closing gun sale loopholes, educating gun owners about safety and preventing lobbyists from exploiting a country that reveres guns. A lobby writing and passing laws that endanger private citizens by recklessly introducing firearms to situations where they aren’t needed and allowing easy access to guns for dangerous people who shouldn’t have them. Shannon sat down for a discussion about “Wear Orange”-a national event on June 2, the NRA, and how Moms Demand Action will proceed with a hostile administration in power.

AJ: What are you trying to make people aware of with your “Wear Orange” campaign?

SW: It’s really become-this is our third year doing “Wear Orange”-and it’s really a non-political way to honor the lives impacted by gun violence and to elevate prevention efforts nationwide. And you can get involved with this regardless of where you stand on guns and regardless of your political persuasion. Because this is just saying, “There’s a problem in this country and it needs to be fixed.” Orange has really become the signatory color almost as pink has become the identifying color for breast cancer, red with heart disease. So, this is something that we’ve done every year and we’ve just seen it grow exponentially. Last year, I think, 300 noteworthy organizations and individuals including President Obama, Juliann Moore, Kim Kardashian became part of the day. And 250,000 people took action online and in person at events we had everywhere.

AJ: Have you spent a lot of time with gun owners to measure where you have common ground-certainly universal background checks are popular?

SW: Yes. There are 300 million guns in this country so, actually many of our volunteers are gun owners or they’re married to gun owners. And we know that polling by Republican Pollster Frank Luntz showed that 74% of NRA members support things like a background check on every gun sale, closing loopholes on guns you buy privately without a background check. And so when you look at where the country stands on this everyone is in overwhelming agreement. It’s really some members of Congress who are beholden to the gun lobby and have been for decades. And that, in many ways is the change that has to be affected in order to change the laws in the country.

“…all you have to do is drive to a gun show in Indiana-30 minutes away-and load up your car with guns that need absolutely no background check. And bring them back into the state of Illinois and sell them in Chicago and that’s what happens every day.”

AJ: When you look at the power, real or imagined, that the NRA has exerted, are you seeing that being mostly funding or a certain level of credibility that they’ve been able to maintain where when they attack a politician it sticks? What have you seen is at the heart of their power?

SW: Well, a lot of it is money; they have an annual budget of 350 million dollars. A lot of that they spend on things like television stations or magazines but they have a significant amount of money, they have built up a significant amount of power-real or imagined, they make lawmakers afraid that, with their rating system, that if they go against the NRA then they’ll lose their jobs. And they’ve just over the years become one of the most powerful lobbies in the country. And so some of it is dismantling that power or shining a flashlight on it and showing that in many ways it’s just not what they claim it is. They don’t have a great return on investment, for example, really until Donald Trump in their elections. So some of it is dismantling it (the power), shining a light on whether it exists or not and also understanding that [their demographic advantage is dying out]. The average gun owner in this country is over 50, White male and that is not a demographic that will live forever and they’re beginning to age out. So they [gun manufacturers] have to sell guns to women and children and that’s why you see things like a reversal on their stance on; guns on campus, guns in K-12 school, selling guns to women-but they’re making them pink and [making them so they can be attached to a bra]. But the reality is that the NRA is selling more guns to fewer people. They’ve convinced White men over 50 that they need arsenals. And that is not a sustainable marketing campaign. They are in the position of having to make some major changes. And that’s why you’ve seen them become so extremist over the last decade.

AJ: Almost every billboard that is for guns or pro-gun here in the South is a woman holding a handgun or rifle.

SW: That is interesting. I don’t know if you went to the NRA convention in Atlanta this year (I didn’t) but they’re selling insurance now. Which is bizarre because it includes…psychological support after you’ve shot someone but they advertised it with Dana Lash. She was everywhere. Her picture was everywhere in their marketing material.

AJ: Your detractors argue that gang violence skews your statistics: does Moms or a different chapter of Everytown have a targeted plan for addressing gangs or keeping guns away from gang members who likely seek illegal means of getting guns?

SW: We work with Mayors (Mayors Against Illegal Guns founded by Michael Bloomberg). Mayors is a part of Everytown. Moms Demand is the grassroots arm-so volunteers to show up at state houses and change laws. But really if you want to keep guns away from gangs, the best way to do that is to pass background check laws, and the reason for that is-I lived in Indiana when I started Moms Demand Action and if you live in Indiana you know that Chicago is, literally, steps away from the Indiana border-and so what happens is-Chicago actually has pretty good gun laws and so does the state of Illinois but the problem is that guns go across state lines as easy as cars do. And all you have to do is drive to a gun show in Indiana-30 minutes away-and load up your car with guns that need absolutely no background check. And bring them back into the state of Illinois and sell them in Chicago and that’s what happens every day. And we see in the 19 states that have closed that gun show loophole so far, in the states that have closed the loophole we see gun trafficking cut almost in half, we see suicides by gun cut almost by half, we see police shootings by civilians cut almost in half, we see domestic homicide by gun cut almost in half. And so we know these laws work. But the problem is when you are a state with stronger laws in place that border a state with weak gun laws like California vs. Nevada, or Illinois vs. Indiana then you are [hindered] because it’s not a federal law.

AJ: I’ve heard you say before that you are only as protected as the weakest gun laws in a neighboring state.

SW: A great example of that is Hawaii. They’re the only state that is an island and they have strong gun laws. And they have the least gun violence in the entire country. That’s because guns aren’t coming from other states into theirs. There’s no pipeline.

AJ: In the past the CDC was banned from researching gun violence because the National Rifle Association (NRA) managed to convince enough people in Congress that it would result in the CDC propagandizing for gun control. What is Everytown doing to convince Congress that, if we’re not going to change any laws, can we at least fund research to study the underlying causes?

SW: Well, we do a lot of our own research because it’s not being done by Congress. So a good example of that is our “Not an accident” index where we track child shootings by children; unintentional shootings of themselves or others. It’s a bizarre happening because it doesn’t happen in other developed nation and we don’t keep track of it as a country so we keep track of it as an organization. And there are other kinds of examples of that kind of research, for example school shootings; we monitor and track and do research about. We have a very thorough, fairly large research arm. Because we believe that every single suggestion that is made around gun violence policy should be based on data, not anecdote. Because Congress de-funded that research long ago, this is not a Congress that will likely restore that funding, so we are working-Mayor Bloomberg has funded a lot of research at John Hopkins, and there are other universities, I think, University of California Davis has started a program to research gun violence. So where the government is not doing what they should we’re seeing others step up but ultimately had Hillary Clinton won the election that is certainly one of the things, I think, she would have tackled. But, again, we have a pretty intractable Congress. And just to point out: the reason that the Congress de-funded the research was because there was some research that came out that said that having a gun in your home actually put you in more danger than not having a gun. And that is when the NRA said, Ok, we’re going to have to put the kabosh on this.

AJ: Has there been any effort to organize gun owners into competing gun clubs that don’t work as lobbyists for gun manufacturers?

SW: I think the problem with that is that there are two sides of the NRA. The side where they’re focused on sportsmanship and hunting and those kinds of things which people enjoy and you get a discount if you belong to the NRA and that is all fine and good and that’s all they used to do until they became lobbyists. But there’s this other side that people have to realize that they’re supporting if they’re part of the NRA that they need to change. The leadership is extremism not the membership. The other piece of this is, look, 90% of Americans support stronger gun laws like background checks on every gun sale. A lot of what needs to be done is people need to use their votes to change and to say, okay if this politician has an “A rating” from the NRA what does that mean? Does that mean he does not support background checks on private gun sales? Does that mean he or she supports allowing domestic abusers to be armed? Does that mean they support allowing terrorist to get guns? There are a lot of different things that that “A rating” from the NRA could mean. So a lot of this is incumbent upon the voting public caring about this issue, making it a priority and being educated about it and actually voting on it. That’s been the issue for so long. And it’s been a trade off for the NRA’s good qualities which is the sportsmanship and hunting and the training vs. the lobbying arm of the NRA.

AJ: I want to push you a little bit for some clarity on the A rating: domestic violence, terrorist watch list etc. You’re not suggesting that the leadership of the NRA wants terrorists or domestic abusers to have those weapons? You’re suggesting that they’re willfully negligent in preventing that from happening. Is that what you’re saying?

SW: No. I’m suggesting that they don’t care; that they are fully okay with terrorists and domestic abusers having guns as long as it means more gun sales for them. And that they believe any law passed that would somehow prevent someone from having a gun even if they’re an abuser or a terrorist is a bridge too far for the NRA. They decided that we’ll never give an inch or come to the middle on anything because for them they think it’s a slippery slope. Somehow that’s going to lead to registration or confiscation. And they take an extremist position that that means fighting for the rights of terrorists and domestic abusers’ rights to have a gun and that’s exactly what they’ve done. The other day in Rhode Island they put out a press release saying that-we’ve been pushing almost every day at the state house in Rhode Island that would take guns away from domestic abusers-they put out a press release saying that we can’t pass this law because sometimes women lie about abuse. And that would wrongly prevent someone from having a gun. Right, so first of all they’re implying that women lie about domestic abuse. They’re saying that one case where this might have happened is worth allowing all domestic abusers to be armed. To me, that’s willfully arming domestic abusers. And they fought that all the way to the Supreme Court where they wanted abusers, as long as they were just misdemeanors, and not felonies, they wanted them to be able to have guns. The Supreme Court, even being as conservative as it is, said, that’s ridiculous.

“I’m suggesting that [the Gun Lobby doesn’t] care; that they are fully okay with terrorists and domestic abusers having guns as long as it means more gun sales for them.”

AJ: I grew up around gun owners who fear the slippery slope, don’t want criminals to get guns but don’t believe criminals buy guns legally. How do you penetrate public opinion, to let people know that guns are purchased legally in states with lax gun laws?-Search the San Bernardino shooters traversing to TX as opposed to buying guns illegally off the streets in CA.

SW: Some of this is semantics. People argue that there’re no loopholes. That if you’re a felon you can’t get a gun: and, legally, you shouldn’t be able to get a gun but we make it incredibly easy for felons to get guns by not making them do background checks for private gun sales. So every illegal gun starts out somewhere as a legal gun. And depending on what happens with that gun-we don’t keep track of guns in this country. We don’t require people to report guns if they’ve been stolen. And a lot of times those stolen guns become illegal guns. So I think because we have such lax gun laws it’s all sort of semantics.

AJ: I woke up one morning to find my nieces and nephews all buried in the gun safe my dad had forgotten to lock. Luckily no one was hurt. Until sensible gun laws can be passed and even after they do pass for law abiding citizens like me who own guns, are their products you encourage gun owners to purchase to help prevent accidents at home?

SW: Yeah, we have a program called It’s another apolitical way to talk about guns among Americans because all gun owners and non-gun owners should be able to agree that children should not be around unsecured guns. And yet the NRA, are kind-of infamous for giving training saying keep your loaded gun in your kid’s bedroom because criminals won’t look there. And being really irresponsible about storage but they say they have no position on how a gun should be stored. But we feel strongly that the onus be on the adults. If you look at, in my opinion, Eddie the Eagle is equivalent to a modern day Joe Camel. It’s a marketing program to target kids instead of keeping them safe. Basically the NRA says that, you know, kids should be taught to tell their parents if they see an unattended gun. Our program says that adults should never leave children around unattended guns. Their guns should not be unattended. And that the onus is always on the adult. And there’s really no such thing as an accident when it comes to leaving a loaded gun around. It’s negligence. And so we teach how to responsibly store their guns or how to ask when they take their kids to play dates or to visit family homes if guns are safely stored. Because sometimes it’s a difficult discussion to have especially if you’re in a Red State. We’ve done more than 500 presentations across the country, we’ve partnered with the PTA (Parent Teacher Association), and really looked to get this message out of responsible gun storage. And it’s bizarre to me that there are people who feel that you should have loaded, unsecured guns around children, that that shouldn’t be a crime.

You know, I grew up in the 80s and I can remember when someone would get in a car and drive drunk and kill their whole family and they would live and people would say, what a horrific tragedy. This person has suffered enough we can’t punish them. And fast-forward to 2017 and it’s just the same thing with guns. If I left a loaded gun on my counter in my home, and a child got it and shot their self or others people would say, what a horrible tragedy, we shouldn’t punish that person. And Mothers Against Drunk Driving came around and said, wait a minute. If we don’t make laws that prevent this, if we don’t educate people about why this is horribly dangerous, this is going to keep happening. These are completely preventable, senseless tragedies.

AJ: Finally, lobbyist is a four letter word in this country. I’ve had people on social media attacking the AARP. What is it that makes the NRA so palatable to Americans who hate lobbyists? Are you focused on converting or just mobilizing those inclined to agree with you?

SW: I think it’s a couple of things. I think they are starting to get heat from average Americans because we are shining a spotlight on what they’re doing. Media Matters does a great job of talking about the NRA and all the crazy stuff they recommend like guns for blind people and some of the videos they’ve made. Now they’re attacking the media just like Trump does. A lot of that seems to be getting elevated. Their insurance has gotten a lot of coverage and their effort to push silencers. Stuff they used to do in the dark is not in the dark anymore. And that’s what Moms do at the state level too. We write op-eds and letters to the editors and do interviews about the crazy laws they try to pass; things like guns on campus. I think we’ve done a good job of enlightening and educating people about the NRA and how insidious they are. And I think the other piece of that is, you know, the NRA has been doing this for 30 years and they’ve gotten good at marketing and they try to present themselves as-they call themselves the oldest Civil Rights organization in America, I’m sure the NAACP would have something to say about that, and they sort of position themselves as good ole’ boys who are looking out for…White guys. So it’s the same reason Donald Trump won, that message resonates pretty strongly with a core group of people and they’ve gotten really good at that but it will be interesting to see how that changes as the fortunes of Donald Trump change. And also as the demographics in America shift.

AJ: As we approach Wear Orange June 2. What do you want people to be thinking about?

SW: I think just, the NRA was the largest outside donor to Donald Trump. And I understand that there are a lot of important issues to people in America right now but this should be a priority because they are going to expect a return on their investment. We’re already seeing that in silencers, the legislation they’re trying to rush through Congress: Conceal Carry Reciprocity which would make the lowest common denominator state apply to every state. So if you have stronger laws in Massachusetts, you’d suddenly have to start letting people from Alabama who can get a permit without any live fire training, you can be 18, you can have misdemeanors in your background, so they basically want to obliterate “state’s rights” by passing Conceal Carry Reciprocity. And we’re hearing talk of eradicating gun free school zones. Just a lot of the things that the NRA has planned that are a dream for the NRA but a nightmare for public safety. I’d just encourage everyone to get involved, to join a chapter where they live of Moms Demand Action.

AJ: So are you playing defense at this point?

SW: We’ve definitely been on defense because of Congress. Even with President Obama in office we couldn’t count on Congress we could just count on the presidential veto to protect us from the really bad stuff. We don’t have that anymore. We don’t have that wall. Now, that said, had Hillary Clinton been elected she would have the same or even worse issue with the Congress but we would have that veto safety net. We are definitely on defense now at a federal level. You never know in this country when people come together and decide it’s time to pass, you know, for example hate crime legislation. You just don’t know and you have to remain hopeful. But you also have to work really hard to make those changes at a federal level. That is what we are doing. We are gearing up to play defense. We haven’t had to yet but we’re only 6 months in. But I have to say I thought the federal elections would impact the state house activity and we’re not seeing that. I mean we are killing bad NRA bills in Montana and Idaho and we’re passing good bills in states like Utah. So the good news is that there are checks and balances in this country, state legislatures being one of them. And so far we’ve killed, I think, 11 bills that would have allowed guns in K-12, I think 14 guns on campus bills, 13 permitless carry bills etc. But we’re also passing good bills in states too.

Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action. You can follow her on Twitter @ShannonRWatts and visit the website at