The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The NRA is weaker than they’ve ever been,’ says founder of gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action

Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. (André Chung/for The Washington Post)

Shannon Watts, 48, is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun violence prevention nonprofit she started after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. The organization is part of Everytown for Gun Safety. Watts is the author of "Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World." She and her husband live in Northern California.

You started this after Newtown, and there have been so many slaughters since then. I’m wondering where you see progress being made and what sort of keeps you optimistic?

I spend most of my time traveling around the country rallying the troops, this army of Moms Demand Action volunteers. And really my job — and I’m a full-time volunteer — is to make sure people understand that we are winning. I wouldn’t wake up and do this work every day, many, many hours a day, if we weren’t winning. And that’s a story that sometimes gets lost when a shooting makes the headlines because people just focus on the fact that this keeps happening as opposed to all of the work that’s being done to prevent these kinds of shooting tragedies. Not just mass shootings or school shootings, but the gun violence that happens every day. Whether it’s gun homicides or gun suicides or unintentional shootings, all of that matters. We have to fix all of it.

What’s frustrated you the most in your efforts to change some of these gun laws?

I’m really frustrated when I see politicians using the same old, tired talking points that we’ve been hearing from the NRA forever. When we use misinformation or NRA talking points to have a discussion about this, it becomes very difficult to have conversations that will save lives, and that’s what our lawmakers should be doing. They should be talking in a bipartisan way with one another about laws that work. You can look at Connecticut, [which] passed background checks on every gun sale and saw gun homicides drop by, I believe, 40 percent and gun suicides dropped by 14 percent. And then you can look at a state like Missouri that undid all of their background check requirements, and gun homicides, I believe, went up by 27 percent and gun suicides went up by 16 percent.

One of the concerns of gun owners about the gun control movement is that ultimately it’s an effort to repossess or confiscate their guns. What your message to them?

Well, we know that about 80 percent of gun owners support stronger gun laws like a background check on every gun sale, and only one in 10 gun owners even belongs to the NRA. A Republican poll by Frank Luntz showed that 74 percent of NRA members support stronger gun laws like a background check on every gun sale. So when you talk about people who believe the NRA’s rhetoric, that any kind of gun law is a slippery slope to confiscation or overturning the Second Amendment, that is a very vocal minority. And what we have had to do is get the silent majority off the sidelines and get them to use their voices and their votes on this issue, and that includes the vast majority of gun owners. And many of our volunteers are gun owners, or they’re married to gun owners. We are simply trying to restore the responsibilities that go along with gun rights.

Is the NRA as powerful as ever?

The NRA is weaker than they’ve ever been. Because they are under investigation on so many fronts, they are reputationally and financially underwater. They certainly do not carry the same weight that they used to with lawmakers. We’re seeing that. This can be a very bipartisan issue in the states. Unlike Congress, there are lawmakers [in states] working across the aisle to save their constituents’ lives.

Why isn’t this a bipartisan issue in Congress?

It’s where the NRA has spent the most amount of money, but also there are a few very influential senators who are beholden to the NRA, not to mention the president. So the NRA spent $30 million in Donald Trump’s campaign, and they expect a return on their investment.

Between the time we do this interview and the time it runs in print, there’s almost certainly going to be another mass shooting, and maybe more than one. Is there a certain number of people who have to die in a single shooting in order for Congress to pass new gun control laws?

Sadly, the Senate inaction does come with a body count, and the more mass shootings there are in this country, the higher that count seems to have to be in order to get the attention of media or lawmakers. But I don’t believe that Americans are numb. There isn’t a single parent in this country who isn’t afraid that their child could be the next victim of gun violence. And that’s why we’re seeing this becoming a major issue that Americans plan to vote on.

Another concern gun owners have about gun control is that they will be required to be licensed to own a gun.

Everything we do is research and data-based, so all of the laws that we support and prioritize are based on what would save the most amount of lives. And we know that background checks would save the most amount of lives. There are a lot of ideas that are being bandied about during the primary season, and that’s exactly what this season is for. It’s to make sure that candidates are sharing the most innovative, creative ways to address America’s gun violence crisis, and for voters to sift through and decide which make the most sense. It’s really a sea change in American politics that we see all of the Democratic candidates really competing to see who can be the best on this issue. And, you know, whether it’s talking about buybacks or licensing or executive action, all of these things are important to be examined and look at, and, frankly, to be judged based on their ability to save lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed.