The day of the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Shannon Watts was home folding clothes. As the news broke that 20 children and six adults had been gunned down by a mentally ill young man, Watts watched the updates in horror. That night, she decided to do something about the problem.
“I knew I had to get off the sidelines, because these shootings kept happening year after year,” says Watts, a Lafayette resident. “I made a Facebook group to discuss the problem.”
Watts only had 75 “friends” on Facebook at the time, but her post touched a nerve with moms across the country. Almost immediately, she started receiving messages, texts, and phone calls from women saying that they also believed that something had to be done right away to address the problem of gun violence in the United States.
“Suddenly, I was working with total strangers—women from Brooklyn, Chicago, Palo Alto—and we started organizing. We created a Facebook group for every state,” says Watts, recalling the origin story of Moms Demand Action, a powerful advocacy group that now has more than six million supporters, a number greater than the National Rifle Association’s membership. “So many women had the same idea, and we channeled all of our energy in the same direction. It was lightning in a bottle.”
Moms Demand Action has worked tirelessly for gun reform, advocating successfully for new laws requiring background checks in 22 states and laws that disarm domestic abusers in 29 states. Even when their efforts come up short—such as the failed Manchin-Toomey bill that would have closed background check loopholes across the country—Watts says her network of moms is winning, especially at the grassroots level.
“I watched [Manchin-Toomey] fail by a handful of votes, including Democratic senators,” she says. “Today, every single Democratic senator that voted against Manchin-Toomey is gone. They went up against their true-blue voters, and they were voted out of office.”
Watts, who moved to Lafayette with her husband about 20 months ago, after their youngest child went to college, is in constant demand as a speaker about gun safety and women’s issues. Her 2019 book, Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World, and her frequent appearances on national news shows have raised the volume for the causes that she is passionate about, especially her encouragement of women to run for office.
“I am here to tell [moms who want to change the world], ‘Don’t listen to the naysayers. There will be so many people telling you that you don’t need to do this, or you don’t have the qualifications,’” says Watts. “You have to build the plane as you fly it.” momsdemandaction.org.