On December 14, 2012, a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, took the lives of 26 people, 20 of them children. The very next day, Shannon Watts, a mother of five, founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots movement that would fight for public-safety measures to protect people from gun violence. At the time, the National Rifle Association was invariably the loudest voice in the public sphere following any high-profile shooting. The NRA was well funded and entrenched in both local and national politics. Its message following any public act of gun violence was (and remains) the same: More guns equals more safety. “I knew this was a lie,” Watts says, and she began to fight back.
Moms Demand Action began as an online conversation among Watts’s Facebook friends but has since grown into the largest gun-violence-prevention organization in the country, with over 6 million supporters. The group has helped pass laws that require background checks in 21 states and that disarm domestic abusers in 29 states. Impressively, it boasts a 90 percent success rate in stopping the NRA agenda in state houses on such issues as carrying weapons without a permit; stand-your-ground laws; arming teachers; and preventing colleges from banning guns on campus.
Today the NRA faces significant legal and financial challenges because of the efforts of activists like Watts, but the fight for gun sense in America has barely begun. In a June 30 episode of the podcast Life as It Is with Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, Watts describes her group’s founding, her philosophy of continuing to fight against overwhelming odds, and how she finds moments of peace amid the struggle. The following interview is excerpted from that conversation.
James Shaheen (JS): Shannon, I want to start by asking you about the day that Sandy Hook happened, or actually the day after. Your life changed after that, and you went on to found Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Can you tell us what that day was like?
Shannon Watts (SW): At the time I was living in Indianapolis. It was a very cold day in December, and I was folding laundry. When you have five kids, it’s a full-time job. I saw breaking news on my television, so I sat down and started to watch this tragedy unfold in a place called Newtown, Connecticut, somewhere I had never heard of. And like the rest of America, I was devastated. Even now, eight and a half years later, remembering that 20 children and six educators were murdered in the sanctity of an American elementary school is too much to bear.
But that sadness quickly turned into anger because some pundits and politicians in the hours afterward were saying that somehow the solution was more guns, that if only those teachers had been armed this wouldn’t have happened. I knew nothing about activism or organizing or gun violence or even the legislative process. I just knew that was a lie. I knew our nation was broken, and I knew nothing would be done.
I decided to get off the sidelines. The day after the tragedy, I went online thinking I would find something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which had made such an impression on me as a teen in the 1980s; it changed the culture around drinking and driving. But what I found was just think tanks and a few state organizations, mostly run by men. I wanted to be part of an army of women.
So I started a Facebook page, and that online conversation has turned into the largest offline movement in the country.
JS: You have over six million supporters now. It’s pretty amazing that you started on Facebook with under a hundred followers.
SW: Seventy-five Facebook friends. But now we’re larger than our opponent, the National Rifle Association, and we have volunteers like me in every single state who wake up and do this work every single day to protect their families and communities.
JS: You say you wanted to work with other women in particular. How did you come upon this idea, that you wanted to begin a movement that would be driven by women?
SW: I grew up in upstate New York, in Rochester. We were raised to believe that activists were role models. On our field trips, we would go visit Susan B. Anthony’s home or Harriet Tubman’s home, part of the Underground Railroad. We visited places where so many activists, many of them women, gathered to change laws from suffrage to Prohibition and on and on. And so I always wanted to work with other women.
When Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed the culture in the ’80s, it seemed like it happened overnight, but it really took them a decade. When I became a mom, I started thinking about not just the safety of my own family but the safety of my community, and I saw so many other women who had that same concern.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s also a relay race. You pass the baton when you need to prioritize yourself or your family. Self-care is a vital part of any advocates agenda.
Women are fierce when it comes to protecting their families and communities. It seemed logical to me that women would be the enemy’s worst nightmare, that if we banded together and took on one of the most powerful, wealthiest special interests that ever existed, that we could beat them. We would be David to their Goliath, but ultimately we could beat them. And I was right.
Sharon Salzberg (SS): I was so heartened, Shannon, by your message of hope, because so many times it’s exhausting. How can people not see themselves in one another to the extent of not feeling something when you realize someone has lost their child? This callousness that we see so much of the time can be really overwhelming. How do you carry on in the face of all that?
SW: I’m definitely motivated by our wins. And when we poll all of our volunteers, it’s also what keeps them going, that we are making progress. We have a motto: Losing forward. Even if we lose, we know we have learned something so that we’ll win the next battle. We also know this is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t get involved in social issues that are led by a special interest without believing that it’s going to take several election cycles—many years, if not decades—to get the work done.
That doesn’t mean you don’t engage and you don’t do it. But just as it’s a marathon, it’s also in many ways a relay race. You have to pass the baton when you need to prioritize yourself and self-care or your family or your community. I’ve seen many people step away and take a break, especially during the pandemic, but they come back, and the work is still here. It is important to remember that self-care is a vital part of any advocate’s agenda. You have to be sure you’re making time for yourself and that you are recuperating and resting, because you can’t fight this battle without those reserves.
JS: What is self-care for you?
SW: Meditation is a big part of that self-care. I take a Buddhist class every week with [the Tibetan Buddhist teacher] Ethan Nichtern online, and I really enjoy continuing to learn and grow and making sure that my activism isn’t the only thing that I do. I have a very wonderful and supportive husband I enjoy spending time with, and we get outdoors as much as we can, whether it’s hiking or just getting away from our computers and our Zooms for a while. But every woman has something that helps her decompress, and we really encourage our volunteers to find what that is for them. I think meditation is such a great tool, not just for restoring your mind but also for making sure you stay grounded. And when you do receive death threats, or trolls online, or losses, in many ways you see those things happening almost as you see your thoughts during meditation—knowing they’re temporary, knowing they’re impermanent, and knowing they will go away.
JS: You couldn’t have picked a more formidable foe than the NRA. And I love the idea of losing forward. I find that inspiring. But what I found even more inspiring was “Failure is feedback.” Can you say something about that? [Insight Meditation teacher] Joseph Goldstein says struggle is feedback. I really love that idea.
SW: When we started this, we knew that, in particular in red states where the gun lobby was so entrenched, it would be difficult to make headway and we would spend a lot of time playing defense. I’ll give an example: I would travel to Little Rock, Arkansas, and meet every time with the same handful of very nice women, but the chapter never seemed to grow. People in Arkansas maybe thought this was a futile way to spend their free time, to work on gun safety.
But then the legislature passed a guns-on-campus bill. It sailed through the State House. The governor signed it with the chief lobbyist at the NRA standing by his side. It so angered people in Arkansas, in particular women and mothers, that we grew exponentially overnight. We grew so quickly that we were able to immediately go in and carve out an exemption so that at least guns wouldn’t be allowed in Razorback Stadium during tailgates where alcohol is served. That seems like it should be common sense. It wasn’t.
The next year, two of our volunteers ran for office for State House in Arkansas. They both won. One of them, a retired nurse, beat the man that put the guns-on-campus bill forward by 12 points. And then the year after that, they were able to stop stand-your-ground bills twice, despite a Republican supermajority. Now, we’ve certainly had other losses along the way and we will have more, but we would never be where we are right now if we hadn’t had that original loss on guns on campus.
I think that’s the story of activism. It’s drips on a rock. It’s never giving up. And it’s learning from when you lose so that you can win the battle the next time.
SS: After the Parkland shooting, we had a retreat for survivors of gun violence. On the last night of the retreat we had an open mic night, and I thought, This is going to be a talent show or something, people with guitars. Then one woman from Chicago got up whose son had been killed in a drive-by shooting. She told a story about their church, where many moms have had a child killed through gun violence.
She said that one day there was a knock at the church door, and it was Yo-Yo Ma. He said, “Hi, I’m Yo-Yo Ma. I heard about this church and this organization.” They didn’t believe it was him! But it was, and he offered to create a piece of music dedicated to each one of their children. He sat down with them and learned who they were and created a piece of music for each child.
I saw that this was a hugely important thing—that their child not be forgotten, that their child still had a voice through them and was trying to make a better world through them. I think there were four people from that community at the retreat, and they each played a copy of that piece of music and passed around a photo of their child. It was an unbelievable moment, where you got to see both the immensity of the loss and the determination and the clarity of these women.
“Activism is like drips on a rock. I wish the system were set up for wholesale overnight change. It is not. But incrementalism is often what leads to revolutions.”
And then something else that you said made me think of one of the most chilling or poignant stories about the insurrection on January 6 at the Capitol.
At one point [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi was talking about her staff, which is fairly young, and she said they locked themselves in the office and hid under the table. They knew what to do because they learned it in school.
SW: Mass shootings, school shootings—that’s about one percent of the gun violence in this country, and Black and brown women in particular have been doing this work with little to no attention for decades, literally putting their physical bodies on streets in their communities to stop bullets. What is so important about this movement now is that we understand, whether it’s gun homicides or gun suicides or domestic gun violence or unintentional shootings: all of it matters. It all has to be addressed, and it is all part of the trauma that is tearing at the fabric of our communities.
SS: If I sit with anger, my own anger, and I just watch the play of emotions that are making up that anger, the fear, the sadness, everything, I virtually always come to this kernel of feeling helpless. That’s the real source of this massive rage. Once I get there, I know what to do, which is just to take an action, even if it seems very small, even if it’s not going to solve the big problem. Just do it. You have to do something. And that’s channeling the energy because that helplessness is the most corrosive thing we can feel. It’s unbearable.
SW: That’s such a great point. There are so many times where people don’t get involved in activism—not just on this issue, on any issue—because they feel like they can’t make a difference. We actually have a term in our organization, Naptivism, meaning “Here’s something you can do while your kid is taking a nap.” You may only have 30 minutes, but you can use a hashtag, you can send an email, you can make a phone call.
You can do those things. Activism is like drips on a rock. I wish the system in this country were set up for wholesale overnight change. It is not. It is set up for incrementalism, and that is frustrating. Incrementalism has become sort of a dirty word because it is used by the far right. But if you don’t show up to make those changes, then change never happens. I think you could argue that incrementalism in this country is often what leads to revolutions.
Marriage equality. When I was younger, it felt like that would never happen, and I have a daughter who’s gay and she has no idea there was this long fight. She thinks it happened overnight. But it took years and years of activists on the ground to make that change happen. I don’t think gun violence will be any different than that. One day it will seem like it’s happening overnight and there will be federal laws, and it will be all based on us getting off the sidelines. Each of us doing our own part. There’s a story that resonated with me where a woman would make sandwiches for people who are homeless in her community and the media covered her. They interviewed her and she said, “You know what? People reach out to me all the time. And they say, here are some donations to make more sandwiches, or they call me to say thank you for making sandwiches.”
And you know what I want to say to them? Make your own damn sandwiches. If we all made sandwiches, there wouldn’t be any hungry people. I think we all need to make our own sandwiches.
SS: I asked some of my friends in the marriage equality movement, How did you work that long? How did you do it? And they’d say, I wanted to put a win on the table every day. That could look different every day, and it might seem small in the eyes of some. It could be a good editorial, it could be a conversation with somebody where a gay person was humanized in their eyes, but the point was every day to bring it to life, to do something.
A win may not always look like a great triumph, but what counts is that you really put your heart into it and that you show up. I think that’s really important.
SW: Agreed. Drips on a rock. That’s our motto.
Tricycle’s podcast Life As It Is features Buddhist practitioners speaking about their everyday lives. Hear the full interview with Shannon Watts and find a new episode each month by visiting tricycle.org/podcast or by subscribing to the show wherever you get your podcasts.
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