We are powerful. 

This is one of the most important messages Shannon Watts wants you to take away from her new book, Fight Like a Mother. Watts, a mother of five, started the Facebook group that would later become Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December of 2012. The organization has helped spur one of the largest grassroots movements in American history. Powered by women, Moms Demand Action (MDA for short) has been influential in getting pro gun-sense candidates elected to office, dozens of gun-safety bills discussed and passed—including Colorado’s red-flag bill, which was passed by the state legislature in March—and going head-to-head with National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyists. (Gun control groups outspent the NRA for the first time in the 2018 midterm elections.)

Nearly seven years after starting MDA, Watts, who now lives in Boulder with her family, is a full-time activist (and newly, an author). She came down to Tattered Cover Colfax on Wednesday evening to discuss her first-ever book, which recounts the whirlwind of starting MDA, offers tips on how to combat gun violence, and outlines a roadmap for the future. “It’s part memoir, part manual, and part manifesto,” she told 5280.

In advance of National Gun Violence Awareness Day on June 7—people across the U.S. are encouraged to wear orange to show their support for fighting gun violence and common-sense gun laws—we sat down with Watts to discuss her book, her organization, and the future of gun-violence prevention in the United States.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I noticed there were protesters and even a couple antagonistic audience members at Tattered Cover on Wednesday night. Is this the norm for you?

I’ve never published a book before, but have had people protest events put on by Moms Demand Action in the past. Now it’s about me. It is strange that I would support background checks, for example, and that would be so controversial. I just want to restore the responsibilities that come along with gun rights.

I received death threats and threats of sexual violence against me and my family within hours of starting the Facebook group in 2012. There have always been trolls, letters to my house, threats, and it’s something that I’ve ceased thinking about. I see it as white noise. I wouldn’t do this work if I was afraid; I refuse to be silenced.

Why do you think there is such a vitriolic reaction to the push for common sense gun control, with the ultimate goal of reducing deaths in this country?

Well, people have been convinced by gun lobbyists, the extreme right, and pundits that any legislation is a slippery slope to overturning the Second Amendment. If you say something long enough and loud enough, people will believe it.

You travel across the country now to talk about gun-violence prevention. Are there geographical differences in how your message is perceived?

I was surprised to see how energized people in red states are. Like-minded women and moms find each other and feel like a tribe; as a result they create very strong and cohesive chapters. Texas is a good example of that. They know it’s an uphill climb but they work incredibly hard and do an amazing job of playing defense.

I noticed the room was mostly white women, while most gun violence affects people of color in urban areas. Do you actively do any sort of outreach to women of color?

Diversity, equality, and inclusion are incredibly important to [MDA]. When I started the organization after Sandy Hook, it was a lot of moms who looked like me and were afraid to send their kids to school. But women of color have been on the front lines of the issue of gun violence for decades. We’ve prioritized diversifying our own organization, our leadership, and partnering with community organizations all over the country. What I’ve found is that this work [to create an inclusive and diverse movement] is never over.

You have certainly become a voice that advocates for more women in politics, policy-making, and positions of power in general. Let’s talk about that.

When I started the organization, I sort of intuitively knew that women were the yin to the gun lobby’s yang. We are the secret sauce of organizing in this country; when women get involved, things change. Women have a moral imperative to run for office, and there is nothing I enjoy more than helping other women and gun violence survivors do so.

When it comes to policy, you talk a lot about data. It seems like we design legislation for an ideal (what we wish the world was like) rather than based on human behavior or data-based. 

Yes—the federal government hasn’t funded gun violence research for decades, so we don’t fully understand our crisis or how to solve it. Not only is that beneficial to the gun lobby, because we can’t try to solve the issue, but they can fill that vacuum with their own information. NRA leaders want us to believe that only a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. They fill the void with misinformation and anecdotal evidence, when really, we can look at states and compare them and see what works. That’s real data. But the NRA doesn’t want real data—they want us to make our laws based on fear.

Speaking of fear. It seems like fear is a driving force in this country right now.

Both [the NRA and MDA] are fear-based. The NRA is rooted, erroneously, in the fear that guns would be taken away; ours is based on the fear that our children would be taken away from us. I believe, ultimately, that is the stronger emotion and will win the battle.

What’s next? 

After the 2019 election, in which there are many important seats up, especially in Virginia, I am excited about the 2020 election. We have a gun sense questionnaire that we’ve sent to all the presidential candidates. After they’ve filled it out, we can make candidate distinctions, and then endorse the right candidates.

What would you say to those who are feeling disempowered or beaten down?

There are so many issues out there, and if you’re passionate about one, you should roll up your sleeves and get involved. We were able to get Chipotle to change their policy on guns after three days using the hashtag #burritosnotbullets. It’s like drips on a rock—every action counts. Sometimes you have a lot of time and can do a bigger thing, and sometimes you don’t. We are democracy. We use our votes and our voice and our spending power to create change.

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Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe is a freelance writer and editor, and 5280's former digital associate editor. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @jlforsyt.