The day was December 14, 2012. Former corporate communications director turned stay-at-home mom Shannon Watts was folding clothes when she started to hear news about a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. As more details began to be released, Shannon was overcome with emotion, unable to wrap her head around what happened. Sadness turned to anger when the shooting was largely politicized by members of Congress and those who staunchly supported the Second Amendment. She knew that in order to ensure the safety of her five children and children around the country, she must act immediately.
Nearly six and a half years later, Shannon Watts is the tip of the spear in the fight against gun violence in America. She is the founder of an organization called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which started as an online grassroots movement and has now grown into an alliance of over 6 million members with one goal: stop gun violence in America.
“It was like lightning in a bottle,” Watts said when discussing the beginnings of Moms Demand Action with students and members of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) community on Wednesday night in the Memorial Union Building (MUB) Strafford Room. Watts talked about how fast the movement took off, and how integral social media was in providing a platform to connect moms across the country who wanted to make a difference for the future generations of America. Watts also talked about the instant support she gained from people in power, including calls from Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), a career-long advocate for gun control, and even the White House. Their message to her was clear: the country had too long been deprived of moms like her who strived to change gun laws. However, she knew it would not be easy.
“The beginning was really like drinking from a firehouse,” Watts said. She highlighted how her and the other moms within the organization had no experience with activism and not much knowledge about guns and the gun laws in America. All they knew was that something had to be done. In the next few months, Moms Demand Action and other activist groups pushed for new legislation within Congress. Many bills they thought to be “slam dunks” failed to pass, including a largely supported bill that would have required background checks in all 50 states in order to buy a firearm. Surprisingly, many Democratic members voted no to the bill, a shock to Watts and her supporters.
Unsurprisingly, however, was their reasoning. They referenced the “other side” and how the NRA and how they heard more from those on the pro-gun and Second Amendment side of the argument. She vowed to never let this happen again, but highlighted the importance of failure in any endeavor, and how one must learn and grow from these bumps in the road.
From that point on, Watts and the rest of Moms Demand Action pushed back against the opposition, making a difference in various communities throughout the country. When Starbucks prohibited the use of tobacco products within twenty feet of their stores, Shannon asked, “What about guns? Will you still allow guns in your shops?” When she was told yes, her and others immediately took action. She started the hashtag #SkipStarbucksSaturday, posting pictures online of her and other moms drinking their coffee at different chains.
“We were more afraid of secondhand smoke than secondhand bullets,” Watts proclaimed when referring to the Starbucks situation.
The hashtag instantly caught fire on social media, with moms across America participating in the movement. In the end, Starbucks felt the pressure. Soon after the online initiative, Howard Schultz CEO of Starbucks released an open letter to the American people, proclaiming, “Today we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas – even in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted – unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.” It garnered mass support from gun safety advocates, and proved to be a major win for Moms Demand Action.
Watts and her supporters continued to fight for gun safety, resulting in many victories for gun control advocates. When Arkansas passed an NRA-supported bill allowing guns on college campuses, Moms Demand Action acted swiftly in making sure it would not go into effect. Ultimately, it was decided that guns would not be allowed inside Razorback Stadium, the University of Arkansas’ football stadium. This was a major win for Moms Demand Action.
During the next election cycle, a member of the organization took on the governor who signed the bill, running for his spot. She ended up winning the election, turning the tides of the gun control fight in Arkansas. The victories didn’t stop here.
Over the course of the next couple of years, the moms continued to pressure politicians on the local and federal level to take action. Laws in 28 states were passed which disarmed domestic abusers, new Red Flag Laws were passed in 17 states, and among other accomplishments, Moms Demand Action killed over 1,000 NRA bills. In 2018, 17 members of the organization were elected to some sort of public office, ranging from local to federal.
In the 2019 election cycle, Moms Demand Action outspent the NRA, a feat that had never before been achieved. Shannon Watts and Moms Demand Action are still fighting the NRA to try and curb the pro-gun agenda. Though Watts and her supporters have done so much in an effort to quell gun violence in America, they know there is still much work left to be done.
Watts emphasized the importance of education and awareness of how impactful gun safety laws can be, and encouraged the audience to get involved anywhere they can to join the fight against the NRA. There are now over 300 Students Demand Action chapters across the country. She also highlighted the importance of “building the plane while you fly it,” because if she had taken the time to learn all she knows now before she started Moms Demand Action, it never would have happened.
“Moms don’t give up,” she said.