Abbey Clements gets a tattoo of "One Tough Mother" on her shoulder by tattooer Gordie Jones at Tattoo Paradise. Clements was a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary who survived the shooting. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Yes, she did cry.

“I did. A little bit,” said Abbey Clements, dabbing under her eyes as she left the back room of the tattoo parlor, into a cheering crowd of middle-aged women in the lobby. “But not because it hurt. Because, well, because of everything. All of it, it’s like this is my battle scar.”

Because, as an artist was piercing her 50-year-old skin for the first time with an ink needle to write “One Tough Mother” on her back, Clements remembered the sound of 20 first-graders being slaughtered across the hall while she sang Christmas carols to her second-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary nearly seven years ago.

Because her fear that this will keep happening was realized the very next day, with the first of two mass shootings that killed at least 31 people and injured dozens, this time in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

Clements was one of more than 2,000 gun violence activists in Washington for their annual meeting. They call themselves Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — and they are growing more powerful with each rampage we endure.

On Friday night, before the latest mass shootings, 56 of them left their conference rooms in a raucous and exhilarated pack to get tattoos signaling their warrior status in this movement.

On Saturday night, hundreds of them left their annual gala to protest after word spread of the shooting in El Paso.

Welcome to the inner circle of the angry, fed-up and fired-up world of Moms Demand Action.

They are as exhausted as the rest of us by the weekly stories of gun violence in our country, the daily grind of drive-bys and lonely suicides, the public slaughters at offices, churches, synagogues, country concerts and garlic festivals.

But they are ready for the fight.

They say they’re bigger than the National Rifle Association. And across the nation, they are quietly changing law after law, electing their approved candidates to county, state and national office, challenging the NRA’s infamous scorecard with their own scoring system to push candidates.


Erin Wiley, a Florida mother with Moms Demand Action, gets a tattoo at Tattoo Paradise. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Over the weekend, Washington was home to their below-the-radar bootcamp, “GSU” — Gun Sense University. There were tattoos. And strategy meetings. And networking. A pajama party. Wine. Tears.

They introduce each other as a gallery of collateral damage to America’s relentless gun violence epidemic:

“They lost their son in Pulse.”

“She was there when Gabby Giffords was shot.”

“Her daughter was killed in Aurora.”

And they have witnesses to the daily carnage of gun violence on city streets and in lonely bedrooms.

“A family friend was killed while playing basketball.”

“Suicide. My brother.”

While they were deep into their break-out sessions on Saturday at the Wardman Park Marriott, they received a vivid reminder of why they do what they do as news of the shooting in El Paso lit up their phones.

For the survivors of gun violence at GSU over the weekend — there were about 700 in their group of 2,000 — the old trauma came back. For everyone else, the old anger came back.

Instead of their usual Saturday night gala, they ate a quick dinner and hit the streets, marching to the White House, then the Capitol, chanting “El Paso! El Paso!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go.”

“We’re now larger than the NRA,” Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts told me last week. “And we’re seeing the needle move.”

Watts claims her group has 6 million supporters, though that number is impossible to verify. It includes anyone who has signed up for its programs or volunteered by marching, tabling, phone-banking, letter writing, organizing (or tattooing).

Watts, a mother of five, started the group in 2012, right after the massacre at Sandy Hook.

Modeled after MADD — Mothers Against Drunk Driving — Moms Demand Action supports the Second Amendment and woos gun owners. It wants to pass common-sense measures like background checks and red-flag laws, while opposing laws that make it easier to carry guns on college campuses and in other places.

“It’s like the changes in car deaths,” Watts said. “It’s seat belt laws. Airbags. Rumble strips. Speed limits.”


Abbey Clements checks out her new "One Tough Mother" tattoo in a mirror at Tattoo Paradise. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Martha Alguera, who barely escaped a street shooting in New Orleans that happened days after Sandy Hook, started the group’s tattoo tradition at their annual gathering a couple years ago.

She was so fired up about mom power that she got a swirling heart with “One Tough Mother” inked on her arm. The other women loved it. The next year, a few more got the same one. Then the next year, they got a new one, “Disarm Hate.”

This year, dozens of moms — and one dad — got tattoos. Some chose the signature heart. Others went with the group’s 2019 slogan. It reads: “Keep Going.”

Twitter: @petulad