How starting a Facebook page made Shannon Watts one of the most vilified women in America.
o one wants to hear another news story about gun violence and dead kids.
Parents in America have practically every means available to ensure their children’s health and safety, but they cannot do it alone. Society is also responsible for protecting its youngest citizens, particularly against violence over which parents have no control. The Second Amendment—the right of individuals to keep and bear arms—used to be an extension of that security. Yet in the last 15 years, guns have become a growing threat to our children.
When Shannon Watts was a young woman, her feelings toward gun violence were probably no different than most people who watched television news reports from the comfort of their living rooms.
“I remember being so horrified by the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre in Texas,” Watts said. “George Hennard shot 50 people. That was 1991, one of the first mass shootings covered on cable TV. I was sad. It was all so horrible.”
Hennard’s rampage killed 23 people. At the time, Luby’s was the deadliest mass gun murder in U.S. history, and remained so until the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in Blacksburg, Va. left 33 dead. Since December 2012, when 20 kids and six adults died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., Luby’s stands as the third deadliest shooting in American history.
The enormity of these crimes leaves many Americans feeling as if there is nothing they can do. The numbers are devastating, but often numbing. Unless one has been personally affected by gun violence, shooting statistics are abstract and represent the tragedy and grief suffered by other people.
When children are frequent victims, that abstraction is meaningless. The distance between us and them disappears. The “not in my town” mindset no longer provides a sense of safety. This shift may happen gradually as anxieties resurface with each new tragedy, eventually becoming an undercurrent of fear. Still, many people are unsure how to fight that fear with action.
For Shannon Watts that shift came suddenly, but living in fear was not an option.
“The Aurora shooting occurred the day before my son went to see ‘Batman’,” Watts said. “He watched the news the night before and was so shaken up by the story he had a panic attack in the theater and had to leave. Here was my son, telling me he was sure the man next to him was holding a gun. He thought he was going to die. A child should not think he is going to be killed while watching a movie about a superhero. What do you say to that?”
Just five months after the Aurora shooting, which left 12 dead and 58 wounded at a Colorado movie theater during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. became the second deadliest mass gun murder in U.S. history.
“I remember being completely devastated,” Watts said. “I just couldn’t believe that in America 26 people could be slaughtered in the sanctity of an elementary school. I thought about my children. I knew I had to do something. I felt if I didn’t act, I would be culpable next time.”
Watts’ need to do something marked the beginning of what would become one of the fastest growing movements since Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD.) In just 14 months, Watts has gone from stay-at-home mom to “accidental activist,” and the growing number of citizens who follow her represent millions of Americans who are sick of children being shot to death.
While the weight of gun violence statistics may be temporarily lifted by the belief that it will always be someone else’s loss, or funeral services for someone else’s child, Watts knew that gun violence statistics did not represent someone else’s country.
Traci Foust: Moms Demand Action started as a Facebook page, something anyone can do. A lot of people want to fight for a cause they believe in, but they don’t know where to start.
Shannon Watts: It was the same for me. I wasn’t sure where to begin. After Sandy Hook I checked online for something similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but for gun reform, and found nothing. Then one day I was in my car and something just told me if I was going to do it, I had to do it now. And yes, anyone can start a Facebook page, so that’s exactly what I did.
TF: Many people use social media to raise awareness for a cause. How did you find support so quickly?
SW: First, a former co-worker saw the page. The funny thing is, this guy is completely pro-gun but I guess he liked what I was doing because he connected me to a mother in Brooklyn who had posted something similar on her own Facebook page that same day, Dec 15, 2012. Her post said something like, “It’s time to act on gun reform just as MADD acted on drunk drivers.” Before I knew it, I was connected to 15 moms in New York City who were willing to do anything to help me.
TF: Did you think it fell into place because people had their own experiences with gun violence, or because so many were fed up with gun deaths?
SW: I think both. One of the first women who contacted me had been shot in Georgia during a mugging just four days after Columbine. She survived her injuries but her boyfriend died. I think all of us together, wanting to be as strong as MADD—and yes all being affected in some way by gun violence—realized the first step was to start chapters. After the East Coast chapter, then mine in the Midwest, I received a call from a group of professional, social media savvy moms in Palo Alto, Calif. So there was the West Coast. Then I get a call from a man in Michigan telling me he would be happy to build a website, and this is all pro-bono. Meanwhile the Facebook page for Moms Demand Action was filling up with people wanting to join.
TF: In the early days of the FB group, there were some comments by people who thought you were completely against all gun owners.
SW: So much of my time was spent keeping the page free from trolls. I was overwhelmed. I told my husband I felt like I would never be able to do anything but delete comments. Almost exactly at that moment a woman contacted me wanting to volunteer for the job of troll patrol.
We have made it clear from the beginning that we support the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, but with rights come responsibilities. Yet there is a vocal minority that wants completely unfettered, unregulated access to any and all firearms.
TF: People were threatening your life, saying they hoped something bad would happen to your children so you would one day see the importance of guns to protect them. Did that frighten you?
SW: At first, sure, but then I thought, if I start to become afraid I won’t be able to do this. If you’re talking about bravery versus stupidity, I’m not sure which side I’m on. But the fear is real for many people who want to join our group and I have to respect that. I would never encourage a mom to show up at a rally or get involved if they didn’t feel safe. Yet if we don’t stop being afraid, the vocal minority starts dictating the policies and the laws, and starts making something that is not normal, normal.
TF: People threatened to come to your house and “take you out.” Have you ever called the authorities because of something like that?
SW: Of course. But the police, around here anyway, have an interesting attitude about what I’m doing. Early on when I asked for help, their response was basically, “Well, this is what happens when you mess with the Second Amendment.”
I’m not focused on threats; I’m focused on passing laws and procuring new policies. This isn’t my story; it’s the story of hundreds of thousands of American moms who had the exact same idea at the same time I did. It’s time for new and stronger gun laws and we can only pass those laws if mothers use their voices and votes to create change. And Americans are ready for change. More than 90 percent of Americans want background checks on all gun sales. So the focus is on the work, not the obstacles.
TF: Let’s talk about the Second Amendment. Many people believe Moms Demand Action opposes Americans’ right to keep and bear arms.
SW: Oh, I know, yet that is so far from the truth of what we are trying to accomplish. We think that regulations for buying and operating a gun should be at least as stringent as buying and driving a car. More than 6 million guns are bought in America every year without a background check, which means too many guns are ending up in the hands of felons, criminals, and even minors. Common sense laws and policies will help change our culture of gun violence.
TF: Stricter gun laws, background checks, cracking down on irresponsible gun owners. Does this pose a threat to the Second Amendment?
SW: I think the majority of gun owners in this country are responsible. But there is this vocal minority, and they think our group wants to abolish their right to own a gun. Moms Demand Action isn’t about that at all, but there is nothing you can do to convince them. It’s very frustrating.
TF: Your platform is clearly outlined on the Moms Demand Action webpage. You’ve also spoken on national television about what the group represents. Is there a way to convince people you are not trying to undermine the rights of responsible gun owners?
SW: If someone doesn’t want to listen there is no trick to changing them. I think some people are resistant to listening to the data that shows what is actually creating our gun violence epidemic— easy, unregulated access to guns. So it’s important to stay focused on the things that can be changed. We are trying to get responsible gun owners on our side to make the laws tougher. Believe it or not, most of them want what we want. The purpose is to raise awareness for people, including those in government positions, who have never voted on this issue.
In this country, eight children [aged 0-19] are shot and killed every day.* Those are children who have lost their lives. Shouldn’t this be something that takes top rank among voter issues? So many people have no idea these statistics exist. They don’t know how easy it is to work around the laws that are already in place. There are huge background check loopholes in many states, and until I began my research, I was also one of those people who didn’t know.
*Calculations based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most current data.
TF: Do you ever consider giving up on people who won’t listen to facts?
SW: That’s a tough one. I don’t want to say we should give up on anybody. The people we are targeting are parents who leave their guns loaded on top of the refrigerator or who carry them openly everywhere they go, even in places where children are present. That is not okay. So we are definitely trying to change the culture of gun violence, which will take a long time.
In the ‘80s, when people would drive drunk and kill other people, it was all about “what a horrible mistake.” A drunk driver could get off without any charges. Then people began to understand the obvious: Let’s hold drunk drivers accountable, make them liable for the people they killed because of their negligence. Driving drunk became unacceptable because laws were changed and there were repercussions involved.
TF: That is an apt parallel. You can’t stop people from driving drunk, but you can hold them responsible for putting the lives of others at risk. Moms Demand Action isn’t trying to stop anyone from using a gun. You’re trying to enact tougher laws to prevent negligence.
SW: Exactly. It’s what we need to do with those quote-unquote accidental shootings. Those shootings are not accidental; they are due to criminal negligence, or guns ending up so easily in the hands of the wrong people.
TF: Talk a little bit more about guns ending up in the hands of the wrong people. Gun violence is not new, but killings with assault weapons started more recently. Where are people getting these guns?
SW: There are entire marketing campaigns devoted to assault rifles. And there are companies that modify legal rifles into semi-automatic or automatic weapons. There are dealers hanging up ads showing an AK47 and saying “consider your man card issued.” So just like in the past, when tobacco and alcohol were marketed as macho or cool or American, they are now doing the same thing with guns.
Sellers have to broaden their market. They assume people who rally for stricter gun laws want guns taken away altogether, so they’re going with a new ad strategy. Now it’s all about guns being American. You scare the people into thinking someday they will not have a right to own a gun, so if they are a true American, they had better get them now.
TF: Who was responsible for the billboard that went up earlier this year in Chicago?
SW: The Texas-based company who paid for that is called Slide Fire Solutions. They sell parts to turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons. This is legal because the guns are technically still semi-automatic.
When we asked Lamar Advertising to take down the billboard they claimed they don’t discriminate against clients, which isn’t true. They rejected an ad showing the cleavage of a furry pink puppet from the off-Broadway show “Avenue Q,” saying it was inappropriate for a Colorado Springs bus stop. An atheist group’s billboard was also judged too controversial for Oklahoma City. We’re still working on this one. The ad is going up in several other cities.
TF: I got emails from family in Germany asking if the billboard was real.
SW: It’s so real that’s it’s unreal. Imagine how many children see that every day.
TF: Tell me about some solid changes that are a direct result of Moms Demand Action.
SW: On the federal level we have pushed the background checks really hard. We almost won. I think we did a good job of pressuring legislators that might not have voted for a background check. We also got a director for the ATF. There hasn’t been a director for the ATF in over seven years, but Congress hasn’t passed any new bills for stricter gun laws. Since immigration reform is at the top of everyone’s list now we have to look at mid-terms to vote in new members of Congress who will do the right thing.
At the state level we’ve had many victories. In Washington we won unanimous House and Senate votes on a bill that will help keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers who have a protective order filed against them. It also directs law enforcement agencies to address firearm removal, seizure, and storage. Our Missouri moms stopped the bill that the Missouri legislature put forth to nullify all federal gun laws.
TF: Missouri wanted to ban all federal gun laws in their state.
SW: You see what we’re up against. Every day it seems like there is a new law being proposed that would allow guns in school. Right now we’re fighting this in Georgia* and Ohio. In my home state, Indiana, the legislature just passed a bill to expand the areas where guns can be allowed on school property, including parking lots. I testified against the bill, and it was clear that many legislators in Indiana are beholden to the Washington gun lobby.
*The Georgia House passed a bill earlier this year which allows guns in places of worship, bars, government buildings without security checkpoints, and eliminated criminal charges for those who accidentally bring their guns to the airport or other secured buildings where guns are prohibited. The supporters of this bill plan to expand these rights and allow weapons in public schools K-12.
TF: Tell me about your Starbucks win, because I know you have a special thing with them.
SW: Oh yes, there are very few pictures of me without a huge Starbucks cup in my hand, so when the company began allowing people into their cafes with open-carry weapons, you can imagine how strange that was for me.
We started our campaign asking them to make it a store policy that no one with an open-carry gun would be allowed within a 25-foot proximity. I mean, Starbucks is a family place, kids are in there all the time. We asked our moms to take pictures of people sitting around with guns near children and circulate them on social media because a lot of people could not believe it.
At first Starbucks said they couldn’t do anything about it because they had to follow state laws, but they had already banned smoking within 25 feet of their establishments, which was strictly their own policy, even though in most states there is no law to ban smoking near public streets. They were faced with their own hypocrisy. In just three months they changed their gun policy with a huge worldwide announcement.
TF: And now Facebook, the place where it all started, is allowing illegal weapons sales through gun groups.
SW: Well, they get around the illegal part by owners posting weapons for trade. On the page “Guns for Sale” there are 200,000 members. Basically what people do is say, “Hey I’ve got this gun. I’ll trade you an iPad, no background check.” They aren’t selling them directly on Facebook*, but they are meeting in person. They think if they meet someone in person they don’t have to perform a background check, because direct private sales may or may not require a background check, depending on state-level policies.
*On March 5, 2014, Facebook publicly announced changes to its platform that would limit illegal gun sales on the website. Facebook will block all users under the age of 18 from viewing reported private gun sale posts and pages primarily used for these transactions. Users will be able to flag posts that promote suspicious or potentially illegal gun sales. Facebook will delete reported posts that offer gun sales without background checks. Facebook will delete all reported posts that offer gun sales across state lines. Read the full story here.
TF: What are some unorthodox methods you have used to get the attention of legislators?
SW: We involve our members in mom-focused campaigns that are creative, and encourage the involvement of children. We call them “craft campaigns.” It started out with asking our mom members to write “Moms Demand Action” in chalk, take pictures of their creations, and email and Tweet them to us and to their members of Congress.
Even though many of us aren’t particularly crafty, these projects became the glue that holds our movement together. For Valentine’s Day our moms made “Have A Heart” Valentines for their members of Congress, and a team of us personally delivered thousands of them to legislators on our members’ behalf. For Mother’s Day, we created a Mothers’ Bill of Rights, which we read at community events across the country. In July, our moms participated in their local Independence Day parades, and read our Declaration of Independence from Gun Violence. Some of our Texas moms rode unicycles and wore sequined leotards in their parades, but that’s another story. We’ve also sponsored lemonade stands and held stroller jams across the country, jamming up statehouse halls with our diaper bags and other kid gear.
This mom-focused work, while fun, has a specific purpose. We’re always working to enact legislative or cultural change through Congress, state legislatures, and American businesses.
TF: With all that you and the other chapters are accomplishing, you must be exhausted all of the time. Were you brought up with a strong work ethic?
SW: Oh, very much. My mom was a homemaker and is very outspoken and opinionated. But my dad was politically opinionated. He was the one of the first white members of NAACP at Northwestern University. He was never really an activist but he is very passionate about social work.
TF: How do your children feel about the time you spend on the cause?
SW: You know, all my kids are extremely proud of me. They grew up with a working mom. I worked for 15 years as a communications executive. Then they had me home for about five years full-time. Now as teens and young adults they’re pretty self-sufficient, but of course there are those times when I hear, “Okay mom get off the phone, you’re too preoccupied.” The weekend of my stepdaughter’s birthday dinner we had the whole family together, and I had to sit in the parking garage to upload press releases and do media interviews. I was really late, and I know everyone was like, “Ugh, do you have to do that right now?” But on the whole my family is very patient and supportive.
TF: Does it ever get to be too much? You’ve been on so many news broadcasts and have to be ready, it seems, at a moment’s notice. I read that you forgot about a Skype interview with CNN Headline News and you had to be on in 15 minutes. You were cooking dinner with your hair in curlers. Do you ever want to go back to a full-time job or just stay at home with the blinds down?
SW: Oh God, yes. There are times when I am tired of being obsessed with it. I’m tired of having guns and deaths—children’s deaths—so prominent in my life. At the same time it has to be what I sleep, eat, and breathe. That’s how you get things moving.
Right now John and I are getting ready to leave for a two week vacation. A real vacation. I’ll be offline and with limited phone use so that will be weird but very needed. And yes, there are a lot of times when I say to my husband, “I want my life back.” I mean, we had plans for when he retired, but I guess the Universe had a plan, too. Every time I catch myself saying, “This is too much work for a volunteer position,” I stop myself and I say, “Wait, look how lucky I am. I’m bringing change and helping people. I’m making this country a safer and better place for my children and their children. What’s more important than that?”