On December 14, 2012, stay-at-home mother of five from Zionsville, Indiana, Shannon Watts, took in the news of the shootings at Sandy Hook with horror. Like many mothers, she wondered what it was that she could do and ended up starting a Facebook page -- which within weeks became a movement. A former communications executive for 15 years, prior to becoming a SAHM for five, Shannon became the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a not-for-profit organization with tens of thousands of members and chapters in every state across the country.
Now, Shannon is at the forefront of the reaction to the latest gut-churning national tragedy: the shootings at the University of Santa Barbara. She's also still grappling with raising her kids -- two step-daughters, 25 and 20; two daughters, 18 and 17; and a 13-year-old son -- in the midst of what's become a civil battle to quash senseless gun violence.
Shannon spoke with The Stir today about what drove her to start Moms Demand Action, what she tells her kids about guns, and how she has hope that the tide is turning slowly but surely ...
How you end up founding Moms Demand Action?
The day after Sandy Hook, I just was so angry and devastated and kept looking online for something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving but for gun reform and couldn't find anything. So I thought, 'What can I do? I'm a stay-at-home mom in the middle of Indiana?' I know how to start a Facebook page. So that's what I did, and one of my Facebook friends said, 'Wow, I saw another mom posted something like that. I should hook you two up.' And that sort of ignited all these other moms around the country, and they just started joining. And what was an online convo quickly became an offline movement. I had met a group of moms who called me from Silicon Valley, and several of them were lawyers, and they said, 'We had the same idea, and we want to help you.' And one of the lawyers said to take donations and move forward as an organization is to be a 501(c)(4). Within a week, we were a [not-for-profit] based in Indiana.
Why did you decide to zero in on moms specifically to take on the cause?
Sandy Hook affected me as a mom. As a mom, when 20 first graders are gunned down in the sanctity of their elementary school, that ratchets it up to a level of disbelief that is beyond any comprehension, and it seemed to me that was, like, okay, America has reached the point of absolute, abject insanity on this issue. I felt like, as an American, you have to sit through all of these shootings -- whether it's Columbine, Gabby Giffords, Aurora, the list goes on and on. And when Sandy Hook happened, I really had this feeling inside of me: if I don't do something, I'm culpable the next time it happens. I can't prevent it from happening, but I, as an American, have to do something. And as a mom, even more. [Women] make up 50 percent of the electorate, but only 19 percent of Congress, and it's just so clear that the men have been making the decisions on this issue. And as a woman, I want to have a voice. As a mother, I want to have a voice in the America we are creating for our children. When I couldn't find anything online that had to do with mothers and gun reform, I thought this is a vacuum.
How did you talk to your kids about Sandy Hook after it happened?
I was trying to shield them. My [then-12-year-old] son [Sam] has been very disturbed by the Batman shooting in Aurora, Colorado, a few months earlier. He was so disturbed by it, in fact, that he had one of his first of several panic attacks in that movie, because he found out about the shooting before he went into it and was convinced everyone had a gun in the theater. We knew they would talk about it at school. I think the shooting happened on a Friday, so we told him about it on a Sunday before school, and it was interesting because his response was, 'Well, that happens a lot in America.' After he'd gotten over Aurora, when you hear about them more and more, you become numb. And I think our kids are victims of that, as well.
What did you talk about after Santa Barbara?
My kids are older now. Sam is 13. The girls had heard about it, but it didn't really affect them, and we were able to shield Sam from the news, and he just found out about it yesterday. The less information you can give, the better, just because some of them are so horrific, and the bottom-line is that you want your kids to know they're safe, and these are rare occurrences but tragic, and there's something we can do to stop it. It doesn't have to happen. But you know, as much as possible, you want them to feel they're safe and you don't want that barrier to be breached. That's why we never have the local, or even national, news on. They're looking for video and horrific details and glorifying the shooter. That's the last thing I want my kids to see. I'd rather they hear from me what's happening in America. I'm doing everything I can to keep you safe, you are safe, and I wish I didn't have to tell you about this over and over.
Have you had to answer any tough questions from your kids related to the current events?
My son kept asking me about how long I would be doing this work. I said, 'Why, are you afraid that I am going to be shot?' He said, 'I'm worried that our family is in danger.' And I think even now that what disturbs him more than anything is the threats that come in opposed to the mass shootings. But having a mom who does this work brings a unique fear factor of all the gun bullies who basically spend their days threatening the moms who work on this.
What do you teach your kids about guns?
Two million children live in homes with unsecured guns. Part of what we're going to be doing as an organization is gun safety and safe storage and encouraging moms in particular to ask not only when they're going to someone's house, but how to keep and store their own gun safely. I don't have guns, but [for my kids], when they were little, it would be, 'If you go over to someone's house, if they have guns, you have to let us know, or if you see it, you don't touch it. You tell an adult.' I do have that conversation when my son goes over to people's homes. Some people think that if you train your child not to touch a gun, they won't, and studies show no matter how much training they've had, no matter what you say, the majority of them are going to touch that gun. It's just an innate curiosity that is difficult to go around. So the onus really has to be on adults to safely store firearms.
What in-roads has Moms Demand Action been making?
There are serious in-roads being made at the state level and with American business policies. Moms make most of a household's spending decisions, and when we found out that Starbucks wouldn't change their gun laws, we started a campaign asking them to prohibit guns from their stores, and it only took them three months for them to change their policy. We've gotten Jack in the Box and Chipotle, and we're on the cusp of getting other restaurants. Accidental activism actually works. For as messed up as our gun laws are, democracy works. There is so much that moms can do, and they shouldn't underestimate the impact they can make.
How have the shootings at Sandy Hook and in Santa Barbara affected your view of gun control?
Image via Shannon Watts