An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Heidi Li Feldman. It has been updated.
It was a winning night for Watts, and for her organization’s cause: stricter gun laws in America. Watts, 51, who founded the group a decade ago, spent the two months leading up to the elections visiting 15 states to stump for candidates affiliated with Moms Demand Action. Then, on election night, one after another of the group’s candidates claimed victory.
“We have changed the political landscape in this country,” Watts said. “This decade of grass-roots advocacy and electing gun-sense champions up and down the ballot has really enabled this seismic shift in American politics.”
Once a corporate communications executive, Watts was in the midst of taking five years off from her career in 2012 to be at home with her family of five children, ages 12 to 23, when a gunman entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 first-graders and six adults.
Watts was folding laundry when she heard the news.
“I just sort of stopped what I was doing and sat on the edge of my bed, watching this tragedy unfold, just sobbing and so devastated,” she said. “The next day, when I woke up, that sadness had turned into rage. I knew I had to do something.”
Watts took to social media. At the time, she had about 75 Facebook friends. Referencing Mothers Against Drunk Driving, she wrote, “We should have a conversation about the need for MADD but for gun safety.” The post went viral.
Watts grew up in Plano, Tex., in the 1980s, the height of MADD’s campaigns when they would place wrecked vehicles involved in drunk driving accidents on school campuses. She still remembers seeing blood on the inside of a totaled car.
“The reaction to that was so visceral. I can just remember this group of mostly women changing the culture overnight,” Watts said. “It went from being acceptable, drinking and driving, to being your friends’ and family’s lives at risk, to being completely unacceptable to behave in such an irresponsible way.”
Watts responded to every message sent to her by “type A” women across the country who offered to help, organize and fight back against the gun lobby.
She then went to work, creating an army of mothers that grew into a coalition of volunteers, organizations and elected officials.
“Shannon Watts is a major force in American policy related to … gun law,” said Heidi Li Feldman, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “She grew an organization, which attracted a wide membership, really engaged people who had not necessarily historically been engaged in this area and mobilized them at the grass-roots level.”
While the National Rifle Association and others “still have an inordinate amount of influence,” Moms Demand Action has proved to be “the most successful counterbalance to the gun industry lobbying effort,” Feldman said.
Watts’s entire life changed after that first horrifying grief, then fury in the wake of Sandy Hook. She often finds herself crisscrossing the country, leaving her home in California to meet with lawmakers in D.C., or visiting swing states to help elect “gun-sense” candidates. She has spent countless nights away from home as a full-time volunteer.
Like many moms, she has dealt with the “mom guilt” that comes with being a working parent. But, with the support of her family, Watts focuses on the mission.
The payoff grows almost daily.
“Nothing drives me crazier than when people say 20 [children] were killed and nothing changed. That is not true,” said Kristin Goss, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, referring to the refrain about the tragedy of Sandy Hook. “It is true that Congress did not pass any sweeping gun legislation … but I think Shannon and her organization were really pivotal in that moment.”
Yet Watts and so many others expected more. After Sandy Hook, Watts herself said she thought something was going to change. She now says, in retrospect, “that was pretty naive.”
“The same Congress we had the day before was the same one we had the day after. It was the same Congress that did nothing when Gabby Giffords was shot. What I have learned in the last decade is Congress is not where this work begins, it’s where it ends.”
Moms Demand Action joined forces with Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2013. It now has chapters in every state and volunteers that number in the hundreds of thousands. In 2021, an arm of Moms Demand Action, Demand a Seat, was formed that backs volunteers and gun-sense candidates in their run for office.
“Shannon and that organization knew a real key to success would not just be policy change, but a change in personnel; you needed to change who was making the decision about gun policy,” Goss said.
But Watts didn’t come to this success with a big preconceived plan. “Really, we didn’t know what this was in the beginning,” Watts said. “But it became very clear very quickly that what we needed to do was to organize so that we could go toe to toe with the NRA and be equal to them in terms of their membership, that we actually needed boots on the ground.”
And who better to do it than mothers? Mothers who fell to their knees at the news of Sandy Hook. Mothers who were determined to do something, anything, so no other child would die by gunfire, now the leading cause of death among children. Mothers who get the job done at home, at work, in life. Mothers like Watts.
“I want to give women a brand and a power that makes them feel emboldened to take on the most wealthy, powerful special interest that’s ever existed, and that’s exactly what’s happened,” she said. “I think it’s really important to let women lead. We’re not just moms anymore. We’re mothers and others, we’re students and survivors, but we are an organization that lets women lead.”
That mind-set has set her apart and created a group that, while named Moms Demand Action, has also offered inclusivity and welcomed those not under that umbrella.
“Shannon has done a really impressive job of leveraging the power and interest of mothers in their homes and in the larger world without alienating people who are not mothers and have no interest in being mothers,” Feldman said. “There’s great power in mobilizing mothers and potential risk because of the misogyny in the culture. You could imagine that by organizing mothers, you can sideline your cause and she’s done exactly the opposite and I think she’s done that because she takes mothers seriously but she doesn’t sentimentalize or glorify them.”
“When I started doing this work, about a quarter of all Democrats in Congress had an ‘A’ rating from the NRA. Today, none do. And, in fact, we just passed the first federal gun law in 30 years that had 15 Republicans sign on,” she said. “I have learned there’s nothing more powerful than an army of angry women … I really do think there’s something to be said for strength in numbers and strength of women.”
Andrea Hunley, a high school principal and Moms Demand Action volunteer, decided to run for office after a student protest at school. She said she was stuck with the thought, “Am I doing enough?”
On Nov. 8, the 38-year-old mom of three was elected to the Indiana state Senate, becoming the first Black person to represent her district.
“Shannon is a beautiful example of strength and what happens when women lead,” Hunley said. “When women lead, women build coalitions and build consensus, women empower each other, and that’s why Moms Demand is so successful and I look forward to what else we do.”
Watts makes a point to tweet every day, sharing stories that don’t make national headlines. The toddler who was shot and killed in a road rage incident. The teenager shot and killed at a football game. The child shot and killed by a loaded gun left unattended at home.
She received threatening text messages night and day. Threats on Facebook. Letters were sent to her house.
“I called the police and the officer came to my house, and I explained to him what was going on. He said, ‘Well, that’s what you get when you mess with the Second Amendment, ma’am.’ I realized I could back down, or I could double down. And my personality is such that I doubled down.”
Watts acknowledges it wasn’t always easy but was made easier by the co-parenting relationship between herself, her husband and her ex-husband.
“I do think it’s difficult to accomplish everything that we want to accomplish. I was really lucky that I had two other parents to lean on. My youngest kid was 12 when I started,” said Watts, whose children are grown now, with the youngest a senior in college. “I’m sure it would have been much harder if they were tiny.”
Watts will be 52 in a month or so, and said it feels like “there’s another chapter in my life.” She doesn’t know what it is, but does “get asked a lot, ‘Am I running for office?’ Right now, I really enjoy helping other women get elected to office,” she said. “But never say never.”