“I had two choices,” Shannon Watts confessed. “I could figure out how to move a family of seven to another country or stay here and fight.” The founder of Moms Demand Action stayed stateside—and six years later, she feels decidedly optimistic about the women-fueled movement to end gun violence that she launched in the wake of the 2012 Newtown school shooting.
On a chilly late December night in Los Angeles, Watts closed out the year by addressing a crowd of women from across the city at The Jane Club, a space described by co-founder and Grace and Frankie star June Diane Raphael that night as “a village that values women and the work that they do.” Watts was right at home in the backyard, seated next to a firepit with a blanket slung over the arm of her chair while women seated in precise rows of folding chairs looked to her for insight and guidance on how to get off the sidelines.
Watts fielded questions from women in the audience about active shooter drills, metal detectors in schools and how to have difficult conversations with other parents about firearm safety after opening up to MTV News correspondent SuChin Pak about her own journey to activism—and then, attendees followed suit and began their activist careers on the spot.
Just inside, the Hancock Park cottage converted into a feminist co-working space for working mothers was filled with blank postcards and iPads opened to online petitions. The night closed out with the group penning notes to local and federal legislators and even neighborhood business owners about gun violence.
“It’s our job as moms to shine a light under the fridge,” Watts told the local mothers-cum-activists, “and find the roaches.” Before heading into what used to be a small bedroom to meet one-on-one with attendees, she urged the whole lot of them to show up at town hall meetings and in the offices of their legislators, call on companies to change their own gun safety policies and break the silence around gun safety and gun ownership with their fellow parents.
2018 was a banner year for Moms Demand, the grassroots arm of anti-gun violence group Everytown. As of December, the organization had 5 million members and 350,000 donors. In one year alone, they successfully pushed new gun laws onto the books in 20 states, nine of which had Republican governors. By November, they had outspent and out-manuevered the NRA in an effort to tilt the scales in the midterms toward gun-sense candidates, holding conversations with over 1.2 million voters and helping to elect Lucy McBath, a “mother of the movement” who lost her own son to gun violence, and 16 of 40 Moms Demand volunteers who launched campaigns of their own across the country. (That same night, 77 percent of NRA-endorsed candidates lost their races.)
The record numbers of women who ran and won also gives Moms Demand a boost. “All of these women being elected to office is a game-changer,” Watts explained. “The takeaway is: we’re winning.”
Watts wasn’t planning to start a movement on the day of the Sandy Hook school shooting—but tragic news of the massacre that left 20 six- and seven-year-old children dead compelled her to speak out. After searching for a space where she could find solace, she started her own: a Facebook group called “one million moms for gun control.” Within hours, she was getting calls and messages from women across the country looking for guidance on how to take action.
Over the next six years, Watts would come to modify her messaging and become one of the NRA’s most vocal and powerful opponents. In the process, she also became aware of the unique power women like her could wield, and how urgent it was that mothers like her get off the sidelines. This May, she expects to release a memoir appropriately titled Fight Like a Mother.
“I want women to lead,” Watts declared. “We have a lever here. We have the power of our voices. I want to make sure women have a voice in this debate.”
The Jane Club co-founders, Jess Zaino and June Diane Raphael, invited Ms. digital editor Carmen Rios back to the space for a live Q&A. Follow Ms. on Facebook to receive a notification next time we go live!