Gun Control Advocate Shannon Watts on Gun Safety Amid Covid-19

“We all — particularly white Americans — need to take a stand against injustice and racism.”

In addition to the impact on the economy and public health, there has been another troubling side effect of the coronavirus pandemic: More guns. Retailers sold 1.8 million firearms in April, a year-over-year increase of 71 percent from the same period in 2019, according to estimates from industry research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting.

Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts spoke with Wake-Up Call senior writer Tess Bonn about this new trend and the importance of gun safety, especially when it comes to gun owners securely storing their firearms.

Watts estimates that there has been an increase of at least 40 percent in unintentional shootings since the Covid-19 crisis began — likely due to the spike in gun sales and children being at home unexpectedly for an extended period of time.

The gun-control advocate also addressed President Trump’s tweet on the Minneapolis looting that was flagged by Twitter as “glorifying violence.” Last week the president tweeted, “ when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The tweet has since garnered condemnation from city officials, lawmakers and reportedly led his allies to warn him to tamp down on his rhetoric.

Wake-Up Call: Fueled in part by first-time gun owners, firearm sales have skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Are you concerned that this fear related to the virus could lead to more gun violence?

Shannon Watts: We know there were about 4.2 million gun sales starting in March and April. That’s a historic number of sales — almost twice what is typical this time last year — and many of those guns were sold to new gun buyers, where they may be in states that don’t require training. They may not know how to securely store a gun. Combine that with the fact that tens of millions of children are unexpectedly home from school.

We know before the Covid-19 crisis, already 4.6 million American kids lived in homes with unsecured guns —meaning they weren’t locked, they were loaded, they were easily accessible. We don’t even know what that number is now given this recent influx in gun sales. So it’s incredibly important that adults always assume children and teens know where their guns are stored and that they keep them locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition.

You touched on that on the issue of kids being on home more and making sure that guns are locked up. What are maybe some other precautions that parents should be taking?

First of all, we can’t count on kids to know better if they come across a gun. Unsecured guns in homes have many deadly consequences, including unintentional shootings and increased risk in teen suicide. So an unsecured gun in the home could be the difference between life and death for kids or teens. That’s why we’re asking adult gun owners to secure their guns, whether it’s in a lockbox or a cable box — so that the gun is stored separately from ammunition. That’s really the key to keeping kids safe. We have a program called Be SMART — that acronym stands for: Secure all guns in homes and vehicles; Model responsible behavior; Ask about firearms and other homes that your child visits; Recognize the role of guns in suicide; Tell your peers to be smart.

I wanted to get your reaction to President Trump’s recent tweet that was flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence.” What are your thoughts about Twitter putting labels on the president’s tweets?

When white supremacists stormed Charlottesville with torches and guns, the president said there were “very fine people on both sides.” When mostly white crowds protested stay at home orders, the president encouraged them. But when predominantly black crowds protest against the deaths of black people, the president called for more gun violence. We all — particularly white Americans — need to take a stand against injustice and racism to stop this dangerous president and his allies.

In addition to the overall rise in gun sales, there’s also reportedly been a spike in ghost guns. Can you explain this phenomenon and how the pandemic has potentially perpetuated this issue?

Ghost guns are essentially gun parts that are put together without serial numbers. We’ve seen them in a number of horrific shooting tragedies recently. They’re not regulated by the government. And what we’re seeing is really a lack of regulation of guns, particularly during the pandemic with the Trump administration recommending, for example, that gun stores be considered essential businesses or with the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) enabling curbside gun sales.

There have been some protests over lockdowns and social distancing measures across the country. During a protest at the Kentucky State Capitol, protestors hanged an effigy of Gov. Andy Beshear and then marched to the Governor’s mansion. As a leader of a major gun control organization, what is your take on this pushback?

Well, unfortunately, what we’re seeing outside of state Houses all across the country is the logical outcome of our country’s lax gun laws.

There is a First Amendment in this country. It should not be undermined by the Second Amendment. People should feel free to voice their opinions and to make political decisions without the threat of death or violence.

A recent poll conducted by your parent organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, found that the majority of Americans believe that background checks are more important now than before the crisis began. How do you think this will impact the November elections?

I do think gun violence will be a top-of-mind issue for American voters going into the polls in 2020. We know that coronavirus crisis’ exacerbated gun violence in this country, whether it’s domestic gun violence, unintentional shootings, gun suicide — all of it is being made worse by this crisis.

We saw very few episodes of gun violence on school grounds in March and April, if any. Yet, given all of these new guns and homes, many of them may be unsecured. I’m very worried about what is going to happen in this country in the fall, whether it’s gun suicide or unintentional shootings. Sadly, I do think that these tragedies will keep gun violence at the front of our conversation in America for a long time.

There has been a lot of talk in the past about, for instance, a federal licensing system. What are some fundamental gun control laws that need to change or happen to get the US down to the levels of gun violence seen in other developed nations?

Well, we’ve been waiting for this cathartic moment in Congress now, at least with our organization for almost eight years. We started the day after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 and what we realized was that this Congress that we had in place at the time that they weren’t going to act.

But we need federal laws. We need the federal government to protect all Americans’ lives because guns go across state lines as easily as cars do, so we want specifically the Senate to pass background checks.

There are bills sitting around Mitch McConnell’s desk, and that was passed over a year ago by the House. We would love to see a red flag bill that mirrors the bill that’s already passed in 19 states and essentially allows family members or police officers to get a temporary restraining order from a judge that then removes the guns from someone who is a danger to themselves or others until people can understand what’s going on.

Also, there’s a bill that was proposed by Senator Amy Klobuchar that closes what we call the “boyfriend loophole.” Federal law does not prohibit dating partners or stalkers from having easy access to guns. And so our goal is also to get that legislation passed. And the Violence Against Women Act — that’s also been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk for a very long time because it includes a provision in it that would do what that Klobuchar bill I mentioned would do, which is to prohibit date partners and stalkers from having easy access to guns.

Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden has called for “constitutional, common-sense gun safety policies.” This includes universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and more resources toward the enforcement of existing laws among other things. Though his proposals would make the biggest changes to gun laws in decades, it doesn’t for instance, offer a mandatory buyback program. Do you think it’s a step in the right direction or do you think we need more drastic changes?

Our organization has endorsed Joe Biden because he has been such a proponent of stronger gun laws, not just making them part of his policy platform, but actually prioritizing these bills. He has promised to act in the first 100 days of his administration if elected. And so we are very excited at a Joe Biden presidency, very eager to see who he picks as his vice president. But you know, all of these candidates and potential candidates have expressed their support for gun safety. So this administration, the Biden administration would be head and shoulders above a Donald Trump administration.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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