“Most mothers cannot fathom that their kids–even preschoolers and kindergarteners–will regularly spend part of their school day rehearsing for the possibility that someone with a gun will come into their school and murder as many people as possible. How could lawmakers not act after twenty first-graders and six educators had been slaughtered in the sanctity of an elementary school?”
On May 24, 2022, tragedy struck our nation when an eighteen-year-old gunman, armed with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and murdered nineteen children and two educators. The attack, which marked at least the 30th shooting at a K-12 school that year, was devastating and all too familiar. Columbine High School. Sandy Hook Elementary. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mandalay Bay. Pulse Nightclub. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Innocent lives lost to random violence.
Ten years prior, a similar tragedy sparked Shannon Watts to found Moms Demand Action. December 12, 2012, started like any day. Watts dropped her children at school and began her work as a full-time mom—cleaning, cooking, shopping. She was folding laundry, watching the news, when a breaking story interrupted. Twenty children and six educators had been gunned down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. She thought of her five children, sitting in their school desks at that very moment. Her heart ached for the loss of life and the suffering of these families. The killings devastated Watts, stoked her anger, and fueled in her a desire to do more than offer thoughts and prayers to the victims.
“If thoughts and prayers alone were enough to prevent gun violence,” she thought, “Americans wouldn’t get shot in our places of worship.” She thought of her role models as a child—activists like Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony whose homes she visited on school field trips growing up in Rochester, New York. Watts was tired of her own and others’ complacency. She wanted to make a difference. Turning to the teachings of her Buddhist faith, she sought to convert righteous anger into transformational change.
Watts used skills developed as a journalist with Missouri University’s student newspaper, The Maneater, and a communications executive in the Fortune 100 world to begin a conversation on Facebook. “This site is dedicated to action on gun control–not just a dialogue about anti-gun violence,” she posted. “I started this page because, as a mom, I can no longer sit on the sidelines. I am too sad and too angry.” Watts urged women to march on Washington, D.C., to demand that legislators protect their children. Thousands rallied. Within months, she and hundreds of volunteers from around the country were lobbying the halls of Congress. A movement had started. Moms Demand Action soon became the largest gun control lobby in the United States.
Moms Demand Action fights for safety measures that protect people against gun violence. It advocates for policies proven to save lives, like background checks on all gun sales, extreme risk protection orders, and regulating the sale of assault weapons; for laws that disarm domestic abusers and require the secure storage of firearms; and for funding of community violence intervention programs. It’s chapters in every state and the District of Columbia work to elect gun sense champions and educate gun owners on the importance of secure firearm storage.
Shootings, in the vast majority of cases, are carried out by people who have shown dangerous warning signs. Recognizing and addressing these patterns, violence can be stopped. Shannon Watts uses her qualities and expertise to do her part, and the title of her 2019 book—Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World—perfectly illustrates her approach. She knows “that a mom fighting to protect her children [is] way more powerful than a gun lobbyist fighting to protect gun manufacturers’ profits.”
Watts faces a formidable opponent: The National Rifle Association. Taking them head on, she refutes their doctrine that more guns in more places makes us safer. “For decades, the NRA was lining lawmakers’ pockets, promoting the idea that everyone should be able to purchase a gun and carry it anywhere they want,” she wrote. “If more guns and fewer gun laws were the answer, we’d be the safest country in the world. But we’re not.” She rejects calls from the governor of Texas and lawmakers whose campaign chests are filled with NRA contributions to arm teachers. “MYTH: Arming Teachers Will Make Kids Safer. FACT: The push to arm teachers isn’t, at its root, about keeping kids safer. It’s about selling more guns.”
The killings in Uvalde highlight the seeming intractability of gun violence. Indeed, deaths by firearms in the United States continue to rise. In 2021, 45,000 Americans lost their lives in gun-related suicides, mass shootings, intentional murders, and unintentional shootings. Firearm-related deaths now outnumber automobile accidents as the leading cause of mortality for American children and teens. Over twenty-eight hate crimes involving a firearm occur on a daily basis in the United States, directed primarily toward people of color, religious minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community. Gun violence infiltrates our most sanctified spaces—our homes, our churches, our schools, shops, and businesses. “[W]hether it’s gun homicides or gun suicides or domestic gun violence or unintentional shootings: all of it matters. It all has to be addressed, and it is all part of the trauma that is tearing at the fabric of our communities.”
Watts balances despair and hope in the knowledge that determination and time will make a difference. She recognizes that her work is more important now than ever and gathers strength knowing she is doing what she can to protect children, families, friends, and neighbors. “Nobody can sit on the sidelines anymore,” she asserts and encourages everyone to take a role in making our country a safer place.
Faith and passion keep her centered and patient. “Activism is like drips on a rock. I wish the system in this country [was] set up for wholesale overnight change. It is not. It is set up for incrementalism, and that is frustrating . . . [b]ut if you don’t show up to make those changes, then change never happens. I think you could argue that incrementalism in this country is often what leads to revolutions.”
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