Women of the Year

In the Battle Against Gun Violence, Shannon Watts Fights Like a Mother

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, Shannon Watts awakened to the horrors of gun violence. She decided to do what no one believed possible: take on the NRA, gun manufacturers, and the politicians who served the interests of both. And along with her army of furious, fed-up, heartbroken moms, she started winning.
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Ulla Johnson dress. Dinosaur Designs earrings. Retrouvai ring. Ark Fine Jewelry ringMichelle Watt

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.

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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.

At first she called the group One Million Moms for Gun Control. She called for a march and a movement and then she waited. Within hours, her first post was going viral. Watts responded to each message she received as scores flooded in. 

Chris Murphy, the US senator from Connecticut who took office the month after the Sandy Hook shooting, recalls watching Watts expand an activist base that had once consisted of gun violence survivors into a much broader coalition. “She comes from a different place than many in the movement because she didn’t experience the loss firsthand,” he says. “But what Shannon said was that you can’t sit on the sidelines if you’re a parent, even if you haven’t lost a child. I think she challenged the conscience of a lot of parents out there in a way that was badly necessary.”

The organization that grew out of that page now has nearly 10 million supporters, but Watts is still answering the literal phone. “I’ve seen Shannon on lots of different calls, and not just the big ones,” says Mia Tretta, a student activist whom Watts has mentored. Tretta was shot at her high school three years ago by an assailant with a ghost gun; her best friend was killed. “There’s no real handbook about what you do when you are shot and you lose your best friend,” Tretta tells me, but an internet search led her to Moms Demand Action’s student wing, and soon Tretta was working with the network’s policy team on the issue of ghost guns.

“A big part of her character is that she’s made personal connections with a lot of these people, and she really cares about the work that they’re doing in each city and each region,” Tretta says. Watts may not be a direct survivor of gun violence, but she has a reputation for listening. “She cares about survivors’ stories,” says Tretta.

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Watts grew up in upstate New York, a place whose history of political activism inspired her. As an introverted only child, she learned at school about Harriet Tubman, who made her home in the area after emancipation, and she visited Mount Hope Cemetery, where Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were buried. When she was a teenager, her family moved, first to San Diego and then to Plano, Texas. In high school it was another activist group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose legislative and public safety campaigns left an indelible impression on Watts.

“Back in the 1980s, it was sort of controversial, this idea that you’re going to be held accountable if you made the choice to drink and drive, and furthermore, that if you injured someone because of that choice, you would be punished or held liable,” Watts says. MADD would park wrecked cars on the lawns of high schools and at highway rest stops as a warning about consequences. “I can remember thinking, Wow, that has a visceral impact on someone whose brain isn’t fully developed,” she says. After Sandy Hook, the group struck her as an example she could follow. “I thought, Okay, that was a badass army of women who got something done. And I want to be a part of something like that, but for gun safety.”

Protestors outside the US Capitol in May 2022 at a rally organized by Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Students Demand Action, following the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At the time she made her page, she had 75 Facebook friends, and in retrospect, the post was politically naive: There had been a million-mom march to protest gun violence in 2000, and One Million Moms was an existent organization (its goal at the time, unfortunately, was an antigay push to get Ellen DeGeneres fired as a spokeswoman for JCPenney). Advocates for the prevention of gun violence stopped short of calling for “gun control,” having found that the term gun safety appealed to a larger share of people.

Watts changed the name of her organization to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America two months later. But looking back, she is glad that she focused on building momentum first and perfecting nuances later. Within a week she was a sought-after media pundit and was asked to give her reaction when the NRA finally responded to the Sandy Hook massacre. (Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, blamed the shooting on video games, the media, and mental illness.) Interviewed after LaPierre’s speech, Watts told a USA Today reporter that the NRA was going to see “a tsunami of 84 million angry moms coming out at them. Angry moms like they have never seen before.”

In her corporate communications past, Watts had been in charge of teams of people from around the world. She knew how to divide up a project by region and how to make something that looked sophisticated and compelling, guiding people into sharing a unified message. She called Debbie Weir, the CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (who would later come to work at Moms Demand Action), for organizing advice and took guidance from the other professional women who volunteered to help with the nuts and bolts of website development, trademark registration, and the development of a clear policy platform.

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When the 2013 bipartisan bill that would have mandated background checks failed in Congress by a handful of votes, including some from Democratic senators, Watts watched the count from the Senate gallery. Then she went to Starbucks to write a statement, prepared to concede that her five-month-old movement had failed. But volunteers kept reaching out to her, sharing invitations from governors who were willing to act on the state level, and Watts soon realized that she was in a long-haul fight.

While she was committed to working as a volunteer (she has never taken a paid salary for the work), she began to focus on funding, and it was through networking that Watts met the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, then mayor of New York City. At the end of 2013, they merged Moms Demand Action and his organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, under a larger umbrella organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, which now not only encompasses hundreds of local chapters of the Moms Demand Action network but a student wing (Students Demand Action) and an advocacy group of people who have experienced gun violence directly (the Everytown Survivor Network). Watts modeled her organizing structure after the Sierra Club: Each chapter has a leader who coordinates volunteers assigned more specific tasks, such as cultivating relationships with religious organizations, working with survivors, or keeping track of legislative and electoral developments.

She admits that her own sudden life shift took her family some time to adjust to. Becoming a public figure came with the full weight of the internet’s misogynistic and threatening attacks. She went from primary parenting duties to overseeing a national organization that kept her busier than she had ever been in her life. Her still-new marriage took on some of the strain, and Watts credits biweekly counseling sessions for helping her and her husband emerge stronger. Her teenagers, on the other hand, did not seem to mind. “I think they’re like, ‘Good, I’m glad Mom has something to distract her,’” she says, laughing. She still identifies as an introvert and has been known to excuse herself from gregarious chapter meetings of moms to take 30 minutes of alone time in the car. She meditates every afternoon and is a master of multitasking, writing op-eds on planes and posting on social media in security lines. (“Some people play Candy Crush,” she says. “I tweet.”) She says her team understands that she recharges by being alone: “My assistant is always like, ‘Do you need time to regroup?’ I think it’s part of self-care. I’m telling the most horrific, traumatizing stories all day long.” She encourages the same approach for her volunteers. “We talk all the time about the need to prioritize yourself and do those things that will help you to be able to sustainably do the work.” She has a uniform for public appearances, a Moms Demand Action T-shirt worn under a suit, but it took the pandemic to get her to give up wearing high heels.

She is a prominent presence on social media. When Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016 with the endorsement of and major donations from gun industry lobbyists, Watts, who had previously used her Twitter feed as a place to politely discuss policy points, dropped the decorum and started gaining thousands of followers. Her public voice became bolder and less apologetic: “@realDonaldTrump didn’t tweet about #SandyHook anniversary or #Aleppo, but tweets when Vanity Fair criticizes Trump Grill,” she wryly observed in 2016. Lately she uses Twitter to highlight instances of “everyday gun violence,” reminding her followers that, for example, homicide is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women, or that laws prevent the prohibition of guns in rec centers. After the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, students across the country took to legislative offices and the streets to reject platitudes of thoughts and prayers. Moms Demand Action volunteers helped from the sidelines, using their experience getting permits for rallies, and starting their own youth wing, Students Demand Action, which went on to register more than 100,000 voters in the 2020 election cycle. A wave of state gun safety laws passed in the months that followed, and the 2018 midterms later that year became, for many, a referendum on gun violence prevention.

Watts has a term, MOMentum, that she coined in her book Fight Like a Mother to describe the latent power of their base: Women are a majority of the voting population and can exert strong influence when they unite over common interests, like the safety of their children. They make 80% of family spending decisions and can exert serious financial pressure on companies. Especially in Moms Demand’s early days, with the federal legislative response stalled, the organization focused on encouraging companies like Starbucks and Target to ban guns from their premises. They also turned to state legislatures, and in their first year of existence helped pass an assault weapons ban in Maryland.

“Men are afraid of their moms,” Watts tells me. “Eighty percent of the lawmakers in this country are men, mostly white men. So women are not making the policies and the laws that protect our families and our communities. But we do come to the table with certain levers of power, and that moniker of Mom is one of them.”

To frame politics in the context of motherhood is a commitment to nonviolence, as well as a statement of dedication. “After you have a kid, you are a multitasking maniac,” Watts says. “And, you know, your kid gets a fever in the middle of night and it’s exhausting and you’re over it—you don’t leave. I think democracy is much the same way. You kind of have to stay in the fight and stick with it until that kid is better.”

Right now the kid is still not better. On May 24, 2022, a gunman at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two teachers on what was supposed to be their last week of school. Two weeks before, 10 people were killed at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo by a white supremacist. There have been more than 500 shootings involving four or more people in the United States in 2022 so far.

Watts tracks instances of gun violence in the news as part of her job, often tweeting to remind her followers of the urgency of their cause. On the day of the shooting in Uvalde, she immediately noticed headlines, but authorities were slow to release information about fatalities. Then she refreshed her news feed. “Suddenly it was 19 dead kids and 2 educators, and I thought, Oh, there’s an error,” she recalls. When she realized the numbers were real, another thought struck her: Have we learned nothing?

Even in a country where gun violence has already pervaded movie theaters, country music concerts, and college campuses, the relentless chain of events provoked a renewed sense of hopelessness. For Watts, when the news sunk in, it activated a familiar-to-her feeling too: resolve.

In the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook, Congress had failed to pass meaningful gun safety legislation. This time Watts was determined to remind lawmakers that voters on both sides of the aisle would notice if they once again failed to act. She started on cable news. From Morning Joe at 5 a.m. to The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell after 10 p.m., Watts repeated her message: We’re only as safe as the closest state with the weakest gun laws; the data shows that more guns and lax laws do not keep people safe; and it is time for voters to use their voices on this issue. She repeated her message as Moms Demand Action volunteers rallied outside the NRA convention in Houston, held only three days after the shooting. They rallied again in Washington a few days later, joined by students dressed in bulletproof vests. For newcomers to the cause, a path to action was easily found online, and Moms Demand Action and other advocates drove over a million calls to congressional representatives. They lobbied governors with a recommended list of executive orders and renewed calls for Facebook to ban gun sales on its platform. As states including Delaware, Rhode Island, and New York passed measures in response to the tragedies, Moms Demand Action volunteers were there to voice their support.

Shannon Watts speaks to a crowd gathered by the US Capitol for a rally demanding action on gun violence on June 8, 2022 in Washington, DC.

The Washington Post/Getty Images

Their persistence worked: One month after the shooting in Uvalde, the Senate passed the bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Signed into law by President Joe Biden the next day, the legislation ended almost three decades of congressional inaction on the issue.

The political winds had changed, and Watts—and the millions of members of her organization—could claim a good deal of credit. But the world didn’t wait to remind them that their work is never done. On the same day that Watts traveled to Washington to witness the voting on the bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June, news broke that the Supreme Court had ruled a New York gun safety law unconstitutional. The ruling nullified laws meant to keep people safe in at least six states. Watts has a phrase she uses to motivate herself: Lose forward.

That relentlessness finds varied expression. Representative Lucy McBath, an Atlanta-area Democratic congresswoman who came out of the movement to prevent gun violence movement, puts it nicely when she tells me, “Shannon would always say to me, ‘And when are you running for office?’ and I would blow her off.” Watts recognized McBath’s potential as a politician even before she believed in it herself, McBath says. “What I love about Shannon is she empowers others to lead.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at a rally before the vote on the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Representative Lucy McBath, in the red top, is among those who joined her. 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 2012, McBath’s son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a gas station by a man who complained Jordan was playing his music “too loud.” After his death McBath left her career as a flight attendant with Delta and became an outspoken advocate for survivors, dedicating her life to telling Jordan’s story and raising awareness of gun violence as a national public health crisis. She met Watts in early 2013 and soon joined Moms Demand Action as its national spokesperson. As a Black woman and a survivor, McBath helped build out the movement in communities of color as well as cultivating the involvement of faith groups. In 2018, McBath ran as a Democrat for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which archconservative Newt Gingrich once held—and won. She won reelection in 2020.

It would be easy to look at the events of 2022 and question whether gun violence is an intractable American reality. Gun deaths went up during the pandemic, as did gun ownership, with some 400 million guns now in circulation in the United States. But this time, unlike a decade ago, a well-prepared movement is in place to respond. “I think Shannon and I agree that our movement will go down in history as one of the nation’s great social change movements, just like the civil rights movement or the movement for marriage quality,” says Murphy, the senator from Connecticut. “We’re fighting against a very powerful status quo and a long history of the romanticization of gun ownership. I think we understand we’re going to fail a lot before we succeed, but the cause is worth it. It’s literally life-or-death.”

In the wake of that Supreme Court decision in June, advocates pointed to existing research that outlines how to rewrite laws to survive further legal challenges, and states moved quickly to pass new legislation. More volunteers, shocked by the spring’s violence, joined the movement. In this election cycle, 265 Moms Demand Action volunteers are running for office. Meanwhile, the NRA is floundering, beset by lawsuits, infighting, government investigations, and spending scandals. In 2021 the organization’s membership revenue hit a 15-year low. Watts likes to point out that when she started Moms Demand Action, about a quarter of Democrats in Congress boasted an A-rating from the NRA. Today none of them does.

Watts keeps going. “We have created what we needed to go toe to toe with one of the most powerful wealthy special interests that has ever existed,” she tells me. “We are beating them. And when we lose a battle, we’re able to get right back up and fight back.”

Emily Witt is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Future Sex.

Shannon Watts photographed by Michelle Watt. Stylist: Marisa Ellison; hair: Kien Hoang; makeup: Jason Alex; production: Anna Robertson. Office artwork: Theodore Waddell/Visions West Contemporary.