There is an infamous tweet from 2015 that Shannon Watts will sometimes bring up in conversation. The British journalist Dan Hodges shared it, invoking the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 first graders and six adults in 2012. “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” Hodges wrote. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
For Watts, the 51-year-old founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, nothing could be further from the truth: The devastation of Sandy Hook marked the beginning of the largest grassroots movement fighting to end gun violence in the country. Thanks to the vast network of survivors and volunteers that Watts has helped nurture since then, what began as a collective outpouring of grief and fear has since become an unignorable force in American politics. In a country that saw gun deaths reach an all-time high in 2021, with more than 48,000 deaths from gunshot wounds, Watts has spent a decade refusing to wave the white flag. Her work and the millions of people she’s rallied are a retort: It’s not over.
When I meet with Watts in her home in the Bay Area, a shaded retreat with expansive views of the surrounding hills of California, she greets me flanked by her boisterous French bulldogs, Mimi and Lulu. Almost 10 years ago, on a cold, gray day in December 2012, Watts was watching TV and folding a pile of laundry in her bedroom in the suburbs of Indianapolis when a breaking-news headline interrupted with the update that a shooter had attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Watts was 41 at the time and had taken a hiatus from a high-powered career in corporate communications to focus on raising her three children and two stepchildren in the newly blended family of her second marriage. She had never heard of Newtown, Connecticut, but she stopped folding laundry and simply sat on her bed, watching. “I was, like so many people in this country, just in tears, and I couldn’t believe what was happening to these families,” Watts remembers. At the time her youngest child was in elementary school. “It made me scared for my own kids.”
She was in the middle of a yoga class the next day when she realized she couldn’t focus. “I can remember sitting there and thinking, I can’t be here—like, why am I here?” she recalls. She rolled up her mat, got in the car, went home, and started a Facebook page.