Shannon Watts woke up the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting enraged, and in desperate need of something that didn’t yet exist.
She needed the antithesis to the National Rifle Association (NRA). A gun policy organization that preached common sense that she, and people like her, could join. At the very least, some Facebook group of sympathetic souls with whom she could commiserate. Her first search for such a haven yielded nothing.
Six years later she sits as the founder for Moms Demand Action For Gun Violence In America, the largest grassroots organization dedicated to reducing gun violence in the country, under the banner of the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund. They’ve quickly become one of the greatest threats to the NRA’s supremacy on the issue.
Watts went from a concerned mother of five with a corporate marketing background to one of the biggest names in political activism in our country and she did it in record time. Over the past six years she and her outfit of more than 5 million supporters have worked tirelessly to influence state lawmakers all over the country to pass common sense gun laws and strengthen existing protections against gun violence.
Along the way, Watts has listened, learned, and absorbed a lot of information — and she’s been a source of inspiration and empowerment to countless other women. Lucy McBath, for example, went from being a volunteer, to serving as an organizational spokeswoman, to representing Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the House of Representatives.
“To know Lucy is to understand that she is incredibly compassionate and smart and passionate about this issue,” Watts told ThinkProgress by phone.
McBath is the mother of a black teenager who was shot and killed after a white man fired his gun into the teen’s car because he was upset at the volume of the teen’s music.
“Lucy will tell you,” Watts continued, “that every time we had a conversation on the phone I would always ask her: ‘When are you running for office?'”
The successful synergy that she enjoyed with McBath is due in large part to the enormous effort Watts made to overcorrect for her own blind spots in the initial days of her organizations’ founding.
“Becoming an activist was certainly something I never saw myself doing. I write about this in the book… building the plane as you fly it,” says Watts, referring to her recently released Fight Like a Mother, which hit shelves on May 28.
“I had absolutely no background in political activism or in gun violence prevention and yet I knew our nation was broken, I knew I had to do something and so many other women and moms felt the same way after Sandy Hook.”
Watts also said she wasn’t prepared for the extent to which concern over gun violence had taken root in traditionally red states — or how quickly that concern would expand. Six years later, she’s wiser and more seasoned, more capable of handling the occasional surprise with aplomb.
Still, the burning question most people have when they meet her is: How does she manage to find the strength to do what she does, every day?
“I have received so many calls, from mostly women and moms, who wanted to know how I did this,” she said. “How did I start the largest grassroots movement in the country? How could they do it where they lived? Whether it was in their neighborhood or their state. And not just gun violence but about an issue that was important to them.”
Now, with Fight Like A Mother, which is part memoir, part guidebook, and part manifesto, Watts hopes to answer those questions and continue to empower even more people — mothers, especially.
“I think motherhood used to be viewed as something to be embarrassed about and it wasn’t seen as a fit for being an activist or running for office,” Watts said, musing over how motherhood has empowered her. “But women are the secret sauce of activism in this country.”
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
THINKPROGRESS: What does it mean to “fight like a mother?”
SHANNON WATTS: (Laughs lightly) Being a mom in activism in this country is a double-edged sword. We have been given permission to be activists based on our anger on behalf of other people — mainly children. But not really on the behalf of ourselves. We should be able to be angry in our own right.
At the same time, we have to be pragmatic. We have certain levers of power available to us as moms and as women. Given that 80 percent of lawmakers at the state level, and 75 percent of federal lawmakers, are men, and mostly white men, we have to pull the leverage of power available to us. When we show up in the dozens, or hundreds, at state houses, lawmakers listen. Because they know that we can hold them accountable.
What has your organization gotten better about over the years?
Oh my gosh, there’s so many things. There’s no one that gets involved in a complicated, sometimes polarizing, issue, and doesn’t make mistakes. Certainly I’ve made them. We started as being very craft focused in the early day. And then realized we’d be better off spending that time organizing. We initially had rallies and marches which are important, but often those resources are better spent on moving the needle in statehouses and court rooms.
Also realizing that you can’t really talk about gun violence in this country without talking about race and focusing on the shootings of unarmed black Americans.
Tell me about a time when you had that “Ah ha! This is working!” moment?
I think Arkansas is a really interesting example. In Arkansas, we struggled to organize at first in the early days because this has been such a hopeless issue there. But then what happened was that lawmakers passed a guns on campus bill. The governor signed it into law with a lobbyist from the NRA standing next to him. It allowed guns in Razorback Stadium, where alcohol is served.
Suddenly women and moms were coming out of the woodwork because they were so outraged. And they started getting involved in Moms Demand Action. We grew from like two local groups to over a dozen across the state. They were able to carve out an exemption for Razorback Stadium and that was an early win. And then two of our volunteers ran for office. One is a professor in Fayetteville and the second one was a retired nurse and a Moms Demand Action volunteer, who ran against the man who put the gun bill forward, she beat him by 12 points.
And then this year they were able to parlay that political power into stopping all of the NRA’s agenda in Arkansas, including a stand your ground bill.
What is the one thing you hope people take away from your book?
It’s two things. One, is that we’re winning. People are waiting for this cathartic moment in Congress that hasn’t happened yet, but it’s so important to pay attention to the work that’s being done on the ground. We are winning in state houses and in board rooms.
It’s so comforting to hear you say that.
Yeah! What I’ve learned over the last six years is that Congress is not where this work begins, it’s where it ends, like most social issues in this country. When Sandy Hook happened, we didn’t have a political movement with any power. We do now. In just six years. Those wins on the ground will eventually point Congress and the president, whoever that [ends up being], in the right direction.
The other thing I would want people to take away from the book is that women really are the secret sauce to organizing in this country. You don’t have to carve out a full time work week to be a volunteer. No matter how little time you have, it all matters.
And if people don’t get off the sidelines on this issue and use their voices and vote, it’ll take even longer to effect change. The more people who get involved in this issue and commit to making it a priority when they go into the polls, the faster it will be addressed. Time is really of the essence on this issue.
One of the things that must give you some hope is that America has done things like this before. As a country, we’ve changed our attitude toward things like wearing seatbelts and smoking cigarettes.
And drunk driving.
Yes, and drunk driving. Activists changed the way the entire nation felt about these things.
And we are doing it. We out-maneuvered the NRA at the midterm elections, for the first time ever. And that sends a strong a cultural signal.
Any final thoughts?
We aren’t going to un-elect every lawmaker who disagrees with us but we can change their hearts and minds. We’ve seen it happen, from Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the Second Amendment is not a suicide pact. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who is a Republican, said if the Senate was allowed to vote on the background checks bill that just passed the House it would definitely get 60 votes.
We are seeing Republicans and Democrats alike come around on this issue. And it is within our power as activists to change their hearts and minds. And those are conversations we should be having, all the way from city council to Congress.
It has been David versus Goliath but we are getting there.