Shannon Watts: "Women Are the Secret Sauce of Activism"
Fighting Against Gun Violence, Educating Americans
I am pleased to bring you this interview with Shannon Watts. She is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the nation’s largest grassroots organization fighting against gun violence. With its partner, Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand has stopped the NRA’s priority legislation in statehouses more than 90% of the time and passed hundreds of gun safety laws across the country. Watts is the author of the book Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World (2019).
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about grassroots organizing, including how to keep momentum among volunteers through setbacks?
Shannon Watts (SW): I came to this work as a mom, as a former communications executive, and as someone who really knew very little about organizing or the legislative process or certainly gun violence. So I had to learn a lot. My instinct, the day after the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy, was that mothers in particular would rise up around this issue.
If you look at the history of activism in this country, once women saw their ability to force change, they really were on the frontlines about child labor laws, suffrage and civil rights, drunk driving, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and more.
You no longer have to be a mom to be part of Moms Demand Action, but I do think there's a lot of power in being a mom, and that power is often underutilized. I think women more generally are the secret sauce of activism. I've learned that lawmakers often fear us, for a wide variety of reasons. When we show up in our red shirts in the dozens or hundreds, they don't want to go against the will of mothers in this country. Many men are afraid of the mother figure, they're nurtured and reared to listen to their mothers. And no matter how old they are, they may be an 80 year-old lawmaker, they still know that they should be listening to what mothers want.
RBG: Do you think that the media does a good enough job of covering the economic costs of gun violence? Because they're truly staggering. A focus on the ripple effect gun violence has on labor and communities, through lost wages and healthcare costs, could gain the cause of gun violence prevention more allies in business and finance and in conservative circles.
SW: We talk so much about the mental and physical suffering caused by gun violence in this country, but gun violence also carries significant economic costs. Every year it costs our country about $280 billion. On an average day, United States taxpayers pay about $34.8 million for medical care, first responders, ambulances, police, and criminal justice services. Overall, society generally loses about $586 million a day. And then if you look at employers, they lose about $1.4 million in productivity every day for costs related to recruiting and training replacements for victims. We rolled out a tool you can use to calculate the costs of gun violence in the communities you care about.
RBG: Gun violence prevention is also linked to democracy protection. The wild card of the current threats to American democracy, as opposed to the situation in other countries, is the hundreds of millions of guns in private hands. Arms give political extremism its bite, whether people are marching on statehouses or the Capitol, or intimidating people at polling places.
SW: We've been sounding the alarm on this for a long time. Over 40 states in this country allow open carry, mostly unregulated. Meaning in some states, people are walking around with loaded AR-15s and they don't have to have a permit or background check or any training. As has happened over the last decade, extremists then exploit that to show up with guns at polling places, statehouses, elected officials' homes, marches, rallies --and at the Capitol.
White supremacists and antigovernment extremists, including the Boogaloo movement and the Proud Boys, use guns as tools of intimidation, and they really do take advantage of weak gun laws. And then Donald Trump's election and his rhetoric really emboldened these extremists and gave them and their conspiracy theories a place in the political mainstream. The NRA has also been pulled to the right over the last two decades. The NRA used to oppose open carry, and then they realized they had to cater to their base. The gun lobby as a whole is complicit in this rise of armed extremists that so undermines democracy.
RBG: This is clearly part of the equation, and I say that as somebody who studies Fascism, which started in Italy as armed gangs in the countryside beating up and killing their political enemies.
In terms of the psychological toll of gun violence, do you think we've become, as a nation, desensitized to violence? One of our two major parties doesn't seem to care about saving lives, and actively supports anti-life positions on guns and public health.
SW: I would agree, but it's complicated, right? It's not easy as Americans are numb. I don't think you are numb when you hear about a horrific mass shooting. As individuals, we are angry and outraged and saddened by these preventable tragedies. But if you look at the different pieces of it, you have some lawmakers who are beholden to the gun lobby, and others who have bought into the rhetoric and disinformation the NRA has shared for years and years.
So you have a combination of political expediency and ignorance that really causes us problems with lawmakers. It is part of their playbook to act as though nothing has happened when these horrific shooting tragedies occur. And I don't just mean mass shootings or school shootings. I mean the daily gun violence in their own communities among their own constituents.
The other piece of it is media coverage. We live in a country where sometimes reporters run out of ways to cover this; now it's almost like a certain number of people must be killed before it makes the news. I think adds to this feeling of numbness. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) wrote a book about gun violence, The Violence Inside Us, that talks about how as a country we were sort of inculcated to tolerate certain levels of violence, as with the support for slavery. So it is a little bit in our DNA.
But that's why I see mothers as the secret sauce. So many of our volunteers join us when they have to send their kindergartner to school for the first time. And their five-year-old, instead of learning, is hiding in a bathroom or a closet pretending as though the wood door is going to protect them from the spray of a semiautomatic rifle. And these moms think, we don't have to live this way. And I sure as hell am not going to allow my child to die this way.
RBG: You've got a high exposure, high pressure position as founder of Moms Demand Action. What do you do to keep perspective? What's your secret to staying sane with the work you do?
SW: Rarely a day goes by that I don't wake up and have to read about or educate people about a horrific shooting that has happened while I was sleeping or at the end of the day. And I do think that psychic damage has accumulated among Americans, even if you haven't been directly impacted by gun violence. So I think it's important for everyone to be committed to self-care, and certainly every activist. It's something we talk about so much as an organization.
I've always said that this work is a marathon, not a sprint. It's just the way the system is set up. People don't like to hear that change is incremental, but in America it is. But it's also a relay race, and you have to be able to pass the baton to other people when you have something happening in your life that takes precedence, whether it's yourself or your family. The work will be here when you get back.
I have five kids and there have been many times when I've had to step away and say, I can't travel, this is where I've got to focus my attention. I've learned some really valuable lessons in doing that, like the importance of having other people's input and creativity. Having more than one person work on something makes it better. And I think also women often feel guilty handing their work over to other people.
In terms of my own self-care, I love a good nightly bath. It's almost like having a spa in my own house. I can get in the tub at the end of a hard day. I also like to hike and be outside. I like to spend time with my husband. I think it's just really important to recognize when stress has built up and know how to step away for a little while.