Shannon Watts on What It Takes to Defeat the Gun Lobby

shannon watts

“It’s like drips on a rock”

In the wake of the horrific mass shootings in Georgia and Boulder, I talked to Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, about the fight for sensible gun safety legislation at every level of government. We discussed how the organization’s success speaks to the power of determined individuals, as well as the need for a network of laws that protect Second Amendment rights while keeping the nation safe. “What we’re seeing unfolding is so shameful. Only in America, when you return to normal activities after a pandemic, does that also include public shootings,” Shannon said. Below are a few takeaways from our conversation.

“Common sense, right?” The House of Representatives recently passed several pieces of gun safety legislation that are headed to the Senate. The first, H.R. 8, would require background checks on all gun sales, including those by unlicensed sellers online or at gun shows, in addition to those made by licensed gun dealers. The second, H.R. 1446 would close the “Charleston loophole,” which allows sellers to move forward with a gun sale if the buyer’s background check hasn’t cleared after three days. Finally, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women’s Act, which would prevent those with a misdemeanor conviction of domestic abuse or stalking from buying a gun. Common sense, right?

“Why? Because we have easy access to guns, and we know that.” The U.S. has similar rates of mental illness and suicide attempts as every other high-income country, Shannon pointed out. Research shows, however, that our easy access to guns means that we have a gun homicide rate that is 25 times higher than that of any other wealthy country. It also means suicide attempts are far more fatal here than in peer countries.

“This is just about restoring the responsibilities that should go along with gun rights.” Shannon emphasized that Moms Demand Action does not aim to take away Second Amendment rights, but to pass laws that a majority of Americans and gun owners agree on. “93% of Americans support a background check in every gun sale. 89% of gun owners…87% of Republicans. I can’t think of another issue in this country that has that much consensus.”

“We haven’t even tried trying to stop gun violence in this country.” Shannon compared gun safety laws with efforts that, together, created a “safety net” to reduce traffic deaths in the U.S. “It was seatbelts, speed limits, rumble strips, better car technology – a whole host of things that is a safety net.” Rather than focusing on any one law, she said, we have to try to create a similar network of policies to reduce gun violence.

“Our organization has worked very hard over the last eight and a half years to loosen the stranglehold, finger by finger, that the gun lobby has on our lawmakers.” The National Rifle Association is currently facing two major lawsuits alleging financial misconduct and has lost a significant amount of its political power. “Women – and men, but mostly women – came to me and offered me their skill sets and their time and talents and said, ‘we need to become a force that can take on one of the most powerful, wealthy special interests that’s ever existed.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”

“It’s like drips on a rock: showing up at every gun bill hearing, having relationships with your lawmakers, showing them when they do the right thing, you’ll have their back, and when they do the wrong thing, you’ll have their job,” Shannon said. “That’s what’s gotten us to this opportunity now to finally have change at the federal level.”

“It takes everyone getting off the sidelines and focusing specifically on this issue.” Shannon emphasized that it’s not enough to post about gun safety, but that we should give our time and resources to the cause. The first step? Text “CHECKS” to 64433, which will connect you with your Senator and facilitate a conversation about gun safety laws. 

This interview was edited and condensed.