Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She’s also the mom of a 13-year-old boy (and four girls). I connected with her after my Parade article, Is Gun Play OK?, began attracting national attention. I wanted to know where she stood on the issue of boys & gun play — but I learned a whole lot more.
Jennifer Fink: What is Moms Demand Action?
Shannon Watts: The day after the Sandy Hook shooting, I started a Facebook page, really out of anger and frustration, after watching the multitudes of mass shootings happening and our country doing nothing. Within days, I had thousands of likes and offers of support and donations from across the country. So now here we are, almost 10 months later, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has more than 100 thousand members and a chapter in every state of the country. One thing that’s unique about our organization is that it’s run by moms and I’ve never met more organized people in my life.
JF: What are some of the goals of Moms Demand Action?
SW: First of all, we believe in background checks for every gun purchase and want that to happen at a Federal level. Right now, the state laws are all different.
We do not believe that civilians need assault weapons, so we support the assault weapons ban and also believe that high capacity magazines need to be limited to 10 rounds.
We believe that there should be a tracking and regulation of ammunition. It should not be harder to buy Sudafed then it is to buy six thousand rounds online of ammunition.
We support personalization technology –– technology that would make sure that someone has a gun, only they could use it and children would not be able to use it.
JF: That technology doesn’t currently exist, does it?
SW: It does exist. It’s very James Bond. There’s technology already that has been developed, but the gun lobby has fought for years against the technology. In fact, a representative from Massachusetts recently introduced a law asking for this personalization technology to go into effect for every single gun over the next decade. What it would do is recognize the fingerprint, recognize that the person who has bought the gun is using the gun and it would make it impossible for anyone else to use that weapon. But the gun lobby is opposed to anything that would make it more difficult for anybody to have or use a gun, so they have fought this for a very long time.
JF: Do you have any other platform points that you’d like to mention?
SW: One is that we’re working at the state level, because that’s really where the gun lobby is insidious and has been so effective. In many states, they write the laws themselves and have them introduced by legislators that they give money to. So we’re very vigilant at state level.
We also agree that American businesses have a role to play in our country’s out of control gun culture and we are asking the American businesses to do the right thing and to be gun-free.
JF: Let’s go back a bit. You mentioned personalization so kids can’t get use guns. I’m sure you saw the New York Times article this week, about kids and guns, and kids accidentally killing people. That stuff scares me. I have four boys. Fact of the matter is, kids are fascinated with guns.
JF: We can talk to them all we want about proper gun handling and how to stay safe and don’t touch it until an adult is around, but truth is, push comes to shove, I do wonder what my kids would do in that circumstance. I hope I never find out.
SW: Twice as many children now die from gunshots than from cancer in this country. So we have a serious problem because the gun owners in America are not as responsible as gun owners in other countries.
You know, I get really frustrated because we hear so much about so-called accidental shootings, where a child finds a gun and kills himself or kills another friend, or even about an adult who accidentally kills a child. The word “accidental” is something that we see all the time in the media and really what that is, is negligence and these people should be held accountable. If you own a gun, you should be held accountable if someone uses it the wrong way.
Because of the gun lobby, people can’t really be sued. The laws do not hold them accountable and they can’t be punished for what really should be considered a crime.
JF: As I shared with you, I am personally very concerned about people being shot and people being killed in this country. I don’t want any more mass shootings. I don’t want any more people to die, but at the same time, I want my children to be able to play and some of the policies that have been enacted because people are scared of guns inhibit kids. Do you feel any of that push-pull in your own life? What do you think about some common sense ways of handling that dichotomy?
SW: The reality is, our culture in this country is really very strange. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of common sense. So you’re either reading about children who are getting suspended for having gun key chains, or you’re hearing about elementary schools that are raffling rifles to raise money for a public school. It really runs the gamut of insanity.
As someone who has a son, I saw a difference right away with having a boy vs. having four girls. My son, when he was little, would turn anything into a gun, even though he didn’t play video games, didn’t watch violet movies and all those things. I think some of that is inherent and genetic, and I think that all of that is a teachable moment. I certainly wouldn’t let my son pretend to shoot me, but that doesn’t mean that when he’s playing with other kids, that they’re not going to pretend that guns are part of the play.
I think it’s about having common sense and that’s something we lack right now as a country.
JF: What are some things parents can do to teach their sons responsibility and safety, especially regarding guns?
SW: We have a Moms Pledge. It asks parents to commit to live with gun sense, and to have conversations with other people regareding guns and guns in the house. It’s a weird conversation to have, but I have it now. When my son goes over to friends’ homes, I ask the parents, “Do you have guns in your house, and if so, are they locked and unloaded?”
Those are important conversations to have because as you read in the New York Times article, there’ are too many accidental deaths. Boys are fascinated by guns and if they see one, the likelihood is that they’re going to pick it up.
The reality is, if you have a gun in your home, it is much more likely to be used against you, or against a family member or to commit suicide or hurt someone else. I would never have a gun in my home because the risks are so much more likely that it will be used in a negative way.
JF: There are those that say that we need to be do is to teach our kids and adults responsible gun ownership and responsible gun handling so that they can defend themselves should the case arise. How do you respond to that?
SW: Everyone is a responsible gun owner until they’re not, right? What the data shows,over and over again, is despite the fact that we have so many guns in this society — more, really, than any other developed nation — an armed society is not in fact a polite society. It is a dangerous society.
People can argue all they want that guns make them safer, but what the data shows, over and over and over again, is that a gun will not make you safer. It actually puts you in danger and puts your family in danger. And if the data says that people are more likely to be harmed by guns then to use them responsibly, why would you have one?
JF: I live in a rural area that has a strong hunting tradition. A lot of people feel that this is an important cultural and family tradition to pass down. Do you have any thoughts or comments on that?
SW: That is part of American culture. My grandfathers were hunters and they were also very responsible gun owners. This is not about banning guns at all, or changing the Second Amendment. This is about saying there should be common sense, so we want a background check on every single gun, regulation of ammunition. A hunter does not need to buy thousands of rounds of ammunition. A hunter does not need an assault weapon. They don’t’ need to go shoot deer with an AK-47 or an AR-15.
There has to be middle ground. People think that just because you are for gun reform that you’re for banning guns and that isn’t the case.
One thing that has changed in this country is there’s no gentleman’scode of conduct around guns anymore. It used to be, let’s protect women and children and let’s have responsibility around guns. I can tell you that both my grandfathers would be brokenhearted if they knew that every time I go to a rally, asking for new and stronger gun laws, I am surrounded by American men, typically white, typically around 40 years old, who have loaded assault weapons strapped to their chest, protesting moms and children asking for new and stronger gun laws. That is a new American phenomenon.
JF: What tips or suggestions do you have for people who want to move past this polarization, towards finding middle ground, civility and common sense?
SW: They have to be involved. Part of the problem is that the people who are so passionate and aggressive on this issue are part of the gun lobby who think something’s being taken away from them, whether it’s their guns or their rights. They are the most vocal. They are the ones making calls to legislators. The people who are in the middle are not waking up every morning and making this an issue that they’re focused on and passionate about, because maybe they haven’t been affected by gun violence and don’t realize that one out of three Americans are.
You don’t want to wait until you have been affected by gun violence to feel passionately about it. The most important thing you can do is get involved and be relentless.
Want to get involved? The Moms Demand Action website has info on local chapters, a link to their Facebook page, the Moms’ Pledge and links to help you connect with your government officials.