Activist Shannon Watts on Mass Shooting in Boulder, Fighting Gun Violence

shannon watts gun control

“It is never a good idea to underestimate a mob of angry moms.” 

In 2021 alone, there’ve been almost 25 mass murders due to gun violence thus far — a decrease from 2020, but nonetheless a chilling figure.

KCM spoke with Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement with more than 6 million supporters working to fight gun violence. “We mourn with the communities of Boulder and Atlanta after the devastating and senseless mass shooting tragedies in the past week,” she told us. “We can’t and won’t accept gun violence as just a fact of life in America. To save lives and end these senseless killings, we need more than thoughts and prayers –– we need federal action on gun safety from the Senate and the administration, and we need it now.”

Watts herself was a stay-at-home mom with five kids when she turned on the television and saw the news of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. She decided then and there she had to do something. With just 75 Facebook friends, she decided to start a group to mobilize other moms who were similarly outraged. Nearly 10 years later, Shannon’s Facebook group grew into Moms Demand Action. “You should never underestimate a bunch of pissed-off moms,” Shannon told us.

The gun-safety activist talked with KCM about how you can join their mom army to advocate for gun-safety legislation. 

Katie Couric Media: You started your organization Moms Demand Action out of a Facebook group in 2012. What inspired you to take action? 

Shannon Watts: The trajectory of my life drastically changed on December 12, 2012. As a stay-at-home mom of five, I was doing laundry when the news of the school shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, broke. I watched in horror at footage of elementary-aged children running out of school in terror. They looked so small and scared. Every mom-bone in my body ached and I just knew I had to do something for my children and all of our children. 

So the day after the shooting in Newtown, from a laptop on my kitchen counter, I started a Facebook page to organize other outraged mothers on the issue of gun safety. At the time, I only had 75 Facebook friends and didn’t even have a Twitter account. But women needed a place to connect, to mourn together, and to organize. I knew that you should never underestimate a bunch of pissed-off moms. But I didn’t realize how quickly they’d jump in, or how far they’d run with it.

How were you able to mobilize a Facebook group into a full-fledged grassroots organization with over 6 million supporters?

Within hours of creating that Facebook page, it had hundreds and then tens of thousands of likes. I began to get calls from national media asking about our platform. Moms began to call too, wanting to know how they could start chapters in their own communities. I thought to myself, “Chapters of what? My Facebook page?” Women everywhere were asking how they could join my organization, and I didn’t even realize I’d started one. 

Flash forward to today, after years of organizing, fighting, and winning victories across state houses and corporate boardrooms, Moms Demand Action is the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety. We have more than 6 million supporters, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and a chapter in every state in the country. Today, we are not only the largest gun violence prevention organization in America — we’re one of the largest grassroots movements, period. 

You’re almost 10 years into this. How is Moms Demand Action fighting to end gun violence today? 

We’ve worked culturally, legislatively, and electorally to fight gun violence. And, while no one anticipated this pandemic and how it would reshape every part of our lives, in many ways, we were ready for it. We were an online movement before becoming an offline one. So what we found is that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. With so little in-person campaigning, we were actually able to be even more strategic with our resources. In the 2020 campaign cycle, volunteers made more than 3.7 million calls and texts to voters and registered more than 100,000 young voters, and as a result, we helped elect a gun sense trifecta in Washington, with the most pro-gun safety Congress and Administration in history. 

But we won’t stop fighting and organizing until we get federal gun safety signed into law for the first time in 25 years — in addition to our work advocating in state houses, cities, towns, and boardrooms across the country. Because while there are now background check laws in 22 states and D.C., red flag laws in 19 states and Washington, D.C., and laws protecting victims from domestic abusers in 29 states and Washington D.C., there’s still so much work to be done.

The House just passed two bills that would strengthen background checks on all gun sales and transfers. It’s the first federal gun safety law in over 25 years. Tell us why this is such an important moment. 

You’re right — this is a huge moment for our movement. We’re on the precipice of finally addressing a crisis that has killed millions of Americans. It’s outrageous that the federal government hasn’t passed a significant gun safety law since 1994. That’s 25 years of families being devastated as their loved ones were killed or wounded; 25 years of survivors and activists demanding change; and 25 years of the NRA and its allies standing in the way of overwhelmingly popular, life-saving legislation. 

A lot has changed in America in 25 years: in 1994, there were 50 percent fewer guns in the hands of civilians; the Internet was just coming into American’s homes, and there was no way to buy a gun online, and the leading cause of death among American children and teens was car accidents. Today, it’s guns.

The measures face a tough battle in the Senate. What would you tell senators who are on the fence about these bills? 

First and foremost, thankfully times have changed and anyone who stands in the way of federal action on gun safety now does so at their own political peril. The NRA has been sidelined by bankruptcy and corruption, and the only place where universal background checks aren’t bipartisan is in Washington. Across the country it’s one of the most popular and bipartisan policies, with recent polling showing 93% of voters support universal background checks, including 89% of Republicans, and 87% of gun owners. 

So I have two messages for Republican senators: First, now is the time to get on the ride side of history. Second, it is never a good idea to underestimate a mob of angry moms. Join us and we’ll have your back. Oppose us and we’ll have your jobs.

How can people get involved with Moms Demand Action? What can people do to help stop gun violence? 

Join our army of mothers and others fighting every day for gun safety! Text READY to 644-33 and we’ll make the best use of any time that you have. This past week that meant calling or emailing members of Congress to ask them to support background checks on all gun sales and we’re now going to be focusing on making sure every single senator knows that inaction is not an option. But there’s also so much work to be done to help advocate for gun safety in our schools, communities, and states. 

What’s a piece of advice you would tell your younger self? 

There were many moments in the days and weeks after starting Moms Demand Action when I felt overwhelmed, underprepared, and generally exhausted by the never-ending demands of my new volunteer position. But one lesson I learned through this experience is the importance of building the plane as you fly it. If I knew at the outset that starting that Facebook page would mean I’d have to speak in front of large audiences, I probably would’ve just closed my laptop then and there. 

So the message to my younger self would be to not wait until everything seems perfect before jumping into something you’re passionate about. Take the leap!

What was the hardest part of starting Moms Demand Action? 

It was clear early on that we caught lightning in a bottle after the Facebook page was first created with thousands of people all across the country reaching out to help and be a part of this movement. The challenge was harnessing that lightning and quickly building the infrastructure to be able to empower and engage all these new volunteers.

The other challenge that I wasn’t prepared for was the incredibly disgusting and personal attacks from the NRA and gun lobby. NRA members love to use intimidation as a weapon, including threatening me and my family or when men with semi-automatic rifles would show up at Moms Demand Action meetings. But the truth is: Parents scared of losing their child will always outspend, outwork, and outvote gun rights extremists scared of losing their guns.

Moms Demand Action has built a grassroots army of mostly women volunteers — some of which are running for office themselves. Who are some of these women that inspire you today?

I’m so inspired by the volunteers who take their advocacy to the next level and run for public office. Dozens of Moms Demand Action volunteers who cut their political teeth as activists in our movement have won their elections, including Congresswomen Lucy McBath and Marie Newman. Now they’re on the front lines in Congress leading the charge to finally pass common-sense gun safety laws.