By Francis Wilkinson
Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. She’s been an astute observer, and opponent, of the National Rifle Association, which recently released a new video in what might be called its culture-war series. This one features NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch issuing an attack on The New York Times. Addressing the paper directly, Loesch promises, gangland style, “We’re coming for you.”
Watts is a former communications executive who, after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., launched a Facebook group seeking ways to reduce gun violence. Moms Demand Action, which is supported by Bloomberg L.P. founder Michael Bloomberg, evolved from that original group. It’s becoming a potent force in gun politics throughout the U.S.
I interviewed Watts, via email. An edited transcript follows.
Wilkinson: What’s interesting about these NRA attack videos – Loesch, for example, lambasted the “Godless left” in 2015 – is that they’re not about guns per se. Why is the NRA taking up these cultural fights that, in the past, would’ve been perceived as tangential to its mission?
Watts: For nearly a decade, NRA leaders were able to stoke fears based on a black president who supported gun safety. With that president out of the White House, they must rely on making Americans fear one another to sell more guns.
These recent tactics have nothing to do with the Second Amendment or gun safety. The NRA was silent for weeks when Philando Castile, a black man legally carrying his own gun, was killed by a police officer in Minnesota.
Some NRA members have publicly questioned why the organization had virtually nothing to say about Castile. The shameful video featuring Dana Loesch has others revoking their memberships. Just as with background checks, which most NRA members support, the NRA is out of step with its own members.
Wilkinson: Yet the NRA doesn’t seem so out of step that its influence in GOP politics is declining. How do you approach your advocacy work in such a polarized arena – isn’t it difficult to make converts?
Watts: A very small subset of gun owners actually belongs to the NRA. According to polling, a vast majority of Americans support common-sense laws such as a background check on every gun sale. So this is about the polarization of lawmakers in Congress and statehouses, and their refusal to answer the call of their constituents on this issue.
The only way to move them is to be a counterweight to the NRA. Over the past 41/2 years, we have learned how to be David to the NRA’s Goliath. This year in state legislatures, Moms Demand Action helped defeat guns-in-schools bills in 17 of 18 states; we helped defeat guns-on-campus bills in 14 of 16 states, including Alabama, South Carolina and Wyoming; and we helped defeat bills to allow people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit in 20 of 22 states. Lawmakers associated with the NRA can no longer turn a blind eye to the extremism of its leaders.
Wilkinson: For the past couple years, many blue states – California, Washington – have adopted stricter gun regulations while many red states – Texas, Georgia – moved toward a “guns everywhere” agenda. Do you see any indication that the red-state appetite for maximal gun culture is petering out? Or will U.S. states continue moving in opposite directions?
Watts: We’re the first grassroots movement to tackle this, and we’ve only been at it for four years. It will take a few election cycles to move federal and state lawmakers to where they need to be on this issue. That said, gun-safety policies are prevailing in states across the country despite a political environment in which the gun lobby has a literal seat at the table in the White House and holds a strong grip on many statehouses and governorships.
Since the start of 2013, 23 states have strengthened existing laws or passed new ones to help keep guns away from domestic abusers. In 2017 alone, six states have enacted this type of legislation: Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah. All but one is led by a Republican governor.
In 2017, more than two dozen states, including traditional gun-lobby strongholds such as Florida and Texas, rejected bills that were top gun-lobby priorities. South Dakota’s Republican governor, who is an NRA member, vetoed permit-less carry, as did Montana’s Democratic governor. A similar bill failed in Texas after advocacy by the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Efforts to repeal background checks were blocked in Iowa and Nebraska. In Iowa, volunteers from across the state called, sent emails and met with lawmakers to urge them to oppose the proposal. As a result, the authors of an omnibus bill, House File 517, stripped the background check repeal and a permit-less carry provision from the legislation.
Wilkinson: Those successes, and your high profile in social media, have made you a very visible target of some ugly provocation. How did you develop the thick skin to endure that?
Watts: In many ways I’m the NRA leadership’s worst nightmare: an outspoken woman (and mother) who won’t be silenced by their sexism and attacks.
I never actually thought of myself as having thick skin until I got involved in this work. The underbelly of America bared itself just hours after I started my Facebook page. As the death threats and threats of sexual violence started rolling in, I had to make a decision: back down or double down. I decided to do the latter because, honestly, if I lose my loved ones to gun violence, I have nothing left to lose. Besides, having raised five teenagers, the NRA’s jabs really aren’t that tough in comparison.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.