Shannon Watts was folding laundry when she decided to make a change. The mother of five was watching the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.
She felt she had two choices: leave the country or fight.
She started a Facebook group the next day to start a grass-roots effort for more gun reform. Two years later, she caught the attention of former New York City mayor and banking mogul Michael Bloomberg. This year, the two are fighting the National Rifle Association and calling on lawmakers and voters to expand background checks on firearms purchases in Nevada and nationwide.
Watts’ group, Moms Demand Action, is a growing force here and a partner with Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, which pledged $50 million in 2014 to fight to expand background checks state by state.
Everytown is the driving force behind a ballot initiative here that will ask voters next year if gun purchases between private buyers and sellers should be vetted by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a measure to do so in 2013).
Nevada could be the 19th state to expand background checks if the ballot initiative passes in 2016. With the help of Bloomberg and Watts, Washington and Oregon have done so in the past year.
Watts, whose group has 130,000 members in 50 states, is an unlikely foe of the NRA. The former communications executive ebulliently praises the work of her members and could undoubtedly rub elbows with the nation’s soccer-moms. But while referencing the foes of gun control she’s biting.
Her group’s tactics have led to the prohibiting of open carry in stores like Target, Chipotle and Starbucks. She’s orchestrated stoller jams — a blockade of moms armed with the common accessories of parenting — in the halls of state capitols to corner lawmakers. She’s given voice to an issue that four years ago had little momentum in the country.
The Sun recently sat down with Watts at Vdara to talk about the shootings in Charleston, the NRA, sexism and hashtag activism.
You recently called to not let the Charleston shootings get lost in the 24-hour news cycle. Does something like the flag debate shroud a greater issue? What did you mean by the that?
The flag issue is important. And I am thrilled as an American that the flag is coming down. But the flag didn’t kill people. It was easy access to guns that killed nine black Americans. Gun violence also disproportionately affects minority communities. Everything that happened in Charleston is indicative of a bigger problem we have in this country.
Is Mayor Bloomberg the out-of-touch billionaire the far-right pitches him as?
Mayor Bloomberg is involved in this because it is a humanitarian issue. He sees it as a way to save lives. And you’re talking about us going up against the NRA. The NRA has an annual budget of $350 million. You can’t compare the war chests of the organizations now.
Without social media do you think your rise in activism would have been possible?
It would have taken a long time. … American moms are one of the biggest user groups of Facebook and social media in general. That's where we are congregating and having discussions. Tweeting is influential for as much as people talking about hashtag activism. It’s an important thing when you are a mom trying to make a difference.
Have you faced misogyny or sexism?
From day one I had death threats. Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t threaten to kill me or sexually assault me. All of our moms have experienced it. But we are not against guns. Many of our moms are gun owners. We are simply for common sense gun regulations. At rallies and events we are surrounded by men who are open carrying. We have strollers. On one hand, the gun lobby wants to silence our voices by intimidating us because they are armed. But on the other hand, if we lose our children what else do we have to lose? None of us are scared.
Second Amendment advocates say background checks will lead to a de facto gun registry and a means to mass confiscation by the government.
We already have background checks in place at the federal level for licensed dealers. That has never led to any kind of horrific outcomes. The reality is, you look at the gun lobby, their leadership has become so extremist and radicalized. But their members aren’t. We’ve done polls that show 70 percent of NRA members want background checks. They are responsible gun owners … This whole idea of a slippery slope is just a straw man to keep people from putting regulations in place.
Second Amendment advocates say that criminals don’t pay attention to gun free zones and don’t participate in background checks, leaving law-abiding citizens unarmed when they need protection most.
It’s a straw man, circular argument by the gun lobby. Our country is based on laws, for lawmakers to say laws don’t work. It’s like you are waving the red flag. Why are you in office if you think laws don’t work? Where states have closed the background check loophole — unlicensed sellers, online and private sales have background checks — they have seen cop killings, domestic murders and suicides cut almost in half.
Aside from gun control, what else should the nation be doing to prevent mass shootings?
What’s causing the mass shootings in this country is unbelievable access to guns in this country. There are a lot of things we know that could work. We just passed in California a law that’s basically a gun violence restraining order. If you believe someone is dangerous, their guns can be taken away for a certain amount of time. We can replicate those laws around the country. There are a number of things. At the end of the day, the No. 1 way to save lives is background checks.