What We Need To Do About White Supremacists And Gun Violence

flowers around a "stop racism" card

Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action explains how we can ensure that deadly weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands.

In the wake of last weekend’s horrific shooting in Buffalo, the House has passed a bill aiming to quash the threat of domestic terrorism — a threat fueled by dangerous racist rhetoric that’s circulated online.

Katie sat down with Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action for a deep dive into white supremacists and gun violence, and what more needs to be done to ensure that deadly weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands. Read on below for some of Sharon’s fascinating insights — and check out the full video for more.

Katie: So Shannon, you’ve been really focused on this issue ever since Sandy Hook, right? You were incredibly frustrated, and writing about this on Facebook and getting other people who are interested. How big is Moms Demand Action at this point?

Shannon: Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action are the grassroots arms of every town for gun safety. We’re now 8 million strong, larger than the National Rifle Association. We have finally created a grassroots movement that can go toe to toe with the gun lobby, and that’s really what it takes right to take on any special interest. You have to have people on the ground where they live, fighting back, in city council, school boards, boardrooms and state houses. That’s how this work gets done.

Let’s talk about what happened in Buffalo on Saturday night, Shannon. This wasn’t unique in terms of the motivations of the shooter, was it?

Sadly, it was not. We’re seeing white supremacy and all that it entails — racism, bigotry, and then also misogyny. These are becoming motives more and more often for people in this country who let’s be frank, are mostly men, mostly white men, who have easy access to guns. In fact, the Attorney General recently said that domestic terrorism based on race or ethnicity is one of the most important indicators and one of the most dangerous signs that someone may commit a crime. There are about 10,300 hate crimes involving a gun each year in this country. That’s about 28 every single day.

You recently wrote a piece for TIME magazine — tell us what that’s about?

It’s about the fact that first of all, white supremacy is deadly, right? There is systemic racism, and there are white supremacists in this country. And we have to work to dismantle that. That’s a key issue in this country. On top of that, we have easy access to guns, which makes white supremacy even more deadly. When you look at our pure nations, they’re all home to white supremacists. What makes us unique is that we give them easy access to arsenals and to ammunition. This is something that we have seen become more and more of an issue.

When I started Moms Demand Action again about a decade ago, we would frequently have armed extremists show up at marches and rallies or meetings. We started to sound the alarm back then, that we were seeing people exploiting the gun laws in this country — for example, open carry which is legal in 45 states. That means you can carry a long gun, a loaded semi-automatic rifle pretty much anywhere without a permit or training or background check. And that is legal. Right? And we were starting to see extremists exploit these laws.

In 2014, we had about four Moms Demand Action volunteers show up for a membership meeting in Texas. They looked out the window of a restaurant and they saw a dozen or so men pulling long guns out of their trucks, and pose with them. They were working to intimidate them and silence them. There was nothing management can do because it’s completely legal. Eventually, they went away.

It made international news. The NRA was asked about that incident and what they thought. They said at the time that open carry is downright weird. Days later, they backtracked and said they supported open carry, because extremists in Texas put so much pressure on them to accept this practice that is considered completely dangerous and inappropriate by mainstream America. But the NRA had to embrace that because they had to embrace extremists.

I think that is that even gets us into another conversation, which is, that back when I started Moms Demand Action, I think we thought once we defeat the NRA, and they’re pretty powerless at this point, that we will have won. And what we have seen is that this extremist agenda has actually been co-opted by right-wing groups in this country, and is part of their own policy platform now separate from the NRA.

It’s been interesting to watch the reaction by some right-wing extremists — They constantly say mental illness is the reason for these kinds of mass shootings. I often compare what’s happening in other countries, because the level of mental illness in other countries is actually the same as it is in the United States, right? It’s the access to guns, as you said, that makes a difference.

That’s exactly right. So let’s be clear that white supremacy is not a mental illness, it’s an ideology, it is a choice. And it is a straw man, along with so many other things. I mean, I’m watching the news. And I’m seeing people on he rights blame this on violent video games, on mental illness, on poor parenting, we hear these excuses over and over again. But to your point, people who are mentally ill are much more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. And as you said, there are similar levels of mental illness in America to all other peer nations.

I think the violent video games thing is interesting, right? If violent video games caused gun violence, Japan would have a crisis that was beyond epic proportions. They have about 10 gun deaths every year in a population of 127 million people. So it’s pretty clear. It’s the guns.

I think people feel very powerless and frustrated that more has not been accomplished, and that there are more gun stores than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. Let’s talk about the gains that Moms Demand and Gabby Giffords’ organization and other groups have made. First of all, the NRA, as you mentioned earlier, is really kind of a shadow of its former self, isn’t it?

It was once the most powerful, most wealthy special interest that’s ever existed, and last year, they attempted to declare bankruptcy and failed. A lot of really interesting facts about the corruption of the organization became very clear, around misusing its members’ dollars, spending money on lavish vacations and personal wardrobes, spending very little money on training and safety. They are a lobbying organization.

As a result, because they’ve lost money in many ways, they’re just not as powerful as they were. As I said, their agenda has become part of the right-wing. Going back to what you said, people sort of feel hopeless sometimes. I think the reason for that is because there hasn’t been this cathartic moment in Congress that we’re all waiting for, that I promise you will come when we have the right president and the right Congress in place. But we can’t lose sight of how much is being done at the local level, and how important that work is at the local level.

I can give you so many examples. We’ve passed background checks in 21 states, and now, over half of all Americans live in states where a background check is required on every single gun sale. Simultaneously, the gun lobby is working to pass something called permitless carry, which means you can carry hidden loaded handguns in public with no background check and no training. It’s incredibly dangerous. But what it’s created is this petri dish that we can look at. America is this patchwork of gun laws.

We can look at data and say, where are lives saved, and where are they being stolen by gun violence. It is not going to surprise you when I say that states with strong gun laws have fewer gun deaths, and states with weak long gun laws have more gun deaths. So background checks is one thing, but we also work on red flag laws. Now in about 20 states, we’ve closed something called the Charleston loophole and the same amount claiming red flag laws aren’t real.

And this is important because today, Governor Hochul in New York passed or put some executive orders out that actually will strengthen the Red Flag Law our organization helped pass in the state of New York. This is a law that essentially allows family members or police to petition a judge to get a temporary restraining order that will remove the guns from someone who is a danger temporarily, just so that you can figure out what is going on in that situation. Is this someone who should have access to guns, right? Either they have suicidal ideation, or they’re thinking about killing someone else.

What the governor in New York today did was to make sure that there’s more public education and awareness about that law, because you can have a Red Flag Law, but if police don’t know that they can use it or how to use it or for people don’t know how to use it with a family member, then the law is useless. So that is something we work to pass. I mentioned the Charleston loophole. You do have to get a background check from a licensed dealer in this country, unless your state has changed that. But that licensed dealer can go ahead and sell you a gun within three days if your background check hasn’t cleared. Why hasn’t your background check cleared? Probably because you have a criminal history.

If you look at the gunman in Charleston, his background check didn’t clear because he was a prohibited purchaser. The dealer went ahead and sold him a gun anyway. And he shot and killed nine black parishioners. So these are loopholes that we should be closing at a federal level because, frankly, we’re all only as close as the safest state with the weakest gun laws. But until we do that we are going state by state, we’ve passed so many important policies at city council level. I had a conversation earlier today with a monster man action volunteer who’s now a county supervisor in San Francisco, she’s passed nearly half a dozen gun safety measures, including a prohibition on ghost guns. So every day our volunteers wake up and do this work, where they live. And it is making a huge difference in saving so many lives. But I think because we haven’t had the U.S. Senate act, people sometimes feel frustrated.

But it’s also because these mass shootings happen time and time again. There have been an insane number of mass shootings already this year...

You see people saying there’s been a couple hundred mass shootings this year. But I also want to point out that mass shootings are about 1% of the gun violence in this country. Gun violence ravaging communities happens every single day — about 110 people are shot and killed in this country on a daily basis, and hundreds more are wounded. And much of that gun violence disproportionately impacts black and Latinx communities. That’s why it’s so important that when people get engaged because they see a national shooting tragedy, that’s horrible, but they should get involved and help us address all types of gun violence, everything from white supremacy and mass shootings to the daily gun violence.

You’re right, daily gun violence doesn’t get the attention, mass shootings do. I think they don’t really enter the consciousness of a lot of Americans because they don’t hear about it. And it’s just not as shocking as somebody walking into a grocery store and opening, opening fire and also writing this racist, white supremacist manifesto. How did this buffalo kid 18 years old get his hands on an automatic weapon?

The details are still coming out. What is shocking to learn, and not surprising, because they’re often red flags around these shooters, is that there were so many warning signs. It’s coming out now that he tortured animals. It sounds like he was suspended for using the N-word. He was also hospitalized for threatening a mass shooting. I mean, what bigger red flag is there? And yet it also sounds like his dad bought him a bolt action rifle when he was 16 years old.

Then, after these threats happened, the ones he was hospitalized for, he turned 18. In the state of New York, that is when you can legally buy a long gun (not a handgun, you have to be 21). So he wasn’t able to buy cigarettes, but he could go buy a semi-automatic rifle and not have a permit. It sounds like he had three long guns when the shooting occurred.

I also want to point out the fact that right now, the gun lobby really wants to lower the federal age to buy a handgun from 21 to 18. We know they want to sell more guns, but an 18-year-old teen shouldn’t have them. Because when you look at the data, rates of gun homicide are really high between the 18 to 22-year-old age range.

The New York Times reported this week that we’re in the middle of a great gun-buying boom, with the annual domestic gun production increasing from 3.9 million in 2000 to 11.3 million in 2020. What can we do about that? And what’s your reaction to those numbers, which are really disturbing?

Well, again, this is the plan, right? The gun lobby wants more guns in more places. That’s been their agenda from the very beginning. There’s a reason that the Trump administration instructed the ATF to allow curbside gun sales during the pandemic, or to consider those businesses to be priorities that stay open. And so we saw tens of millions of new gun sales during those years of the pandemic.

We also simultaneously saw state lawmakers in some states completely obliterating the strong laws that their state had. I would point to Missouri as a sad example of that. Once people are sort of living somewhat normal lives again, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a significant increase in things like road rage with guns. In fact, 44 people in America are shot and killed by road rage now. 34 people every single month, are shot and killed just in road rage incidents.

Clearly, you’re seeing gun violence increase, particularly in city centers, and we’re seeing gun homicides go up. Suicide is a crisis among children and teens. Gun violence has now surpassed automobile deaths to become the leading cause of death among children and teens in America. We have a crisis of epidemic proportions. If having 400 million guns, and very few gun laws made us safer, which is what the gun lobby wants us to believe we would be the safest nation on the planet. Instead, we have a gun homicide rate that is 26 times higher than any pure nation.