Inexplicably, Shannon Watts was not looking miserable when I met her yesterday in Washington, even though the Beltway media’s been telling her she’s supposed to be. Watts, a former business executive and mother of five from Indianapolis, is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group that sprang up after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December and has since grown to more than 100,000 members, with chapters in every state. She had come to Washington this week for a Senate hearing on gun laws, which was canceled because of the Navy Yard shootings on Monday. “A gun violence hearing canceled due to gun violence,” Watts joked darkly.
We all know what came next: long before the first funeral was held, a chorus of declarations that the shootings would have no impact whatsoever in advancing new gun regulations. This chorus, as usual, came not from the gun lobby, which retreated into its customary post-massacre tortoise shell, but from the mainstream press in Washington, for which one key marker of sophistication seems to be assuming a knowing fatalism when it comes to gun control politics. There is an overlay of disapproval in this stance, to be sure, but also a kind of mordant glee in affirming the conventional wisdom: so it has been, and so it always shall be. And the net result, of course, is that lawmakers are essentially let off the hook. Why bother to take a risk on an issue if the press doesn’t even bother to challenge you on your stance, but simply rules it a loser out of the box?
Watts doesn’t get it. More than that, she finds it infuriating, so much so that she strays from her Fortune 500 decorum into occasional profanity. “Everyone says to me, ‘don’t you feel like shit? Don’t you feel hopeless?’ Actually, we don’t feel that way,” she said. “That’s what the gun lobby wants—to make you feel defeated…. But we don’t walk around all the time thinking, this is so hopeless. To the contrary—we feel awakened.”
She knows the litany: Even after the Newtown massacre, the Senate was unable to get a filibuster-proof majority for an impeccably moderate measure, expanding background checks on gun buyers to include purchases at gun shows and via private sales. Not only that, but a host of Republican-controlled states passed laws further loosening gun restrictions. And then came last week’s setback, when two state senators in Colorado who had voted for expanded background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines went down in a recall election.
Watts looks at it all differently. She sees a Senate vote that came closer to approving significant gun law reform than lawmakers have in two decades, with six senators with A ratings from the NRA, and two senators up for reelection next year in gun-friendly states, voting for the legislation. She sees the Senate having finally having confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, after years of attempts by the gun lobby to weaken the agency. She sees a strong gun control message having prevailed in a state senate special election in suburban Chicago and in the special election to fill John Kerry’s seat in the Senate, where the not particularly scintillating Ed Markey was aided by ads attacking his Republican opponent for favoring the gun lobby. She sees her group having led the charge to get Starbucks to discourage customers from open-carry of firearms on its premises. And she sees several states that have passed comprehensive new regulations—including, yes, Colorado, where the law remains on the books even as two senators who voted for it head home. Their defeat was a disappointment, no doubt—the gun control side would have dearly liked to prove that it could protect every legislator who casts a tough vote – but to declare the “death of gun control” on the basis of an election in two state legislative districts, one with 52,000 people voting in a state of 5.1 million, in which one of the senators lost by a few hundred votes? “Why is that a death knell for reform?” says Watts. “It’s almost like [the press] is writing from the playbook of the gun lobby.”
That’s not to say that Watts is sanguine about the chances for the background check legislation passing Congress anytime soon. After the successful filibuster in April, when several senators who voted to block the legislation were getting unexpectedly strong blowback back home, there was talk about bringing a revised form of the bill back for another try as soon as the Senate was done dealing with immigration reform—hopefully, in the weeks before the August recess. (This was around the time that I wrote a perhaps overly optimistic brief on the future of the gun control movement.) Well, we know how that went—now, immigration has itself been pushed to the back burner, and the senators pushing the background check bill say they won’t bring it back up until they have flipped the votes they need, which they haven’t managed yet.
Watts’ hope at this point is simply to get the legislation back up for a vote in both chambers sometime in the coming year, to get lawmakers on the record before the midterm elections. (Even this is easier said than done—Speaker John Boehner would have to come under considerable pressure to bring up a vote for a measure backed by only a small minority of his own caucus.) She is convinced that groups like her own can make candidates' stance on the legislation an issue, especially among moms who might not otherwise even vote in the midterms. “It may not pass, but if we could get them all on the record as being cowards before we go to the midterms, that would be ideal,” she said. Best case scenario, she said, a vote could be pegged to the anniversary of the Newtown massacre—she knows that the gun lobby will attack her side for seeking such a connection, and doesn’t care. “We’re so done with that. We’re done with being told it’s not an appropriate time to talk about gun reform… That’s such a load of bullshit.”
In the meantime, her group is plugging away, trying to build the sort of sustainable infrastructure that has made the NRA such a force over the past few decades. The Sierra Club and others have been advising the group on how best to organize an activist apparatus. Members are regularly showing up at town hall meetings peppering congressmen with questions about gun law reform. Several members were in Washington this week for meetings with the lawmakers that the movement most needs to win over—Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. And they’re getting ready for their next showdown with the open-carry crowd: a “Guns Next Door Day” being organized for October 19, in which gun owners are encouraged to go out in their front yards with their guns and offer candy or lemonade to their neighbors, in a gesture of well-armed goodwill. The moms’ goal is not just to change the laws, but to change the societal norms around guns. “It used to be OK to drink and drive, and now it’s distasteful,” she said. “We need to do the same thing with open carry.”
Bottom line, the moms are nowhere close to joining the Beltway press in jaded resignation. “I don’t know why everyone says this issue is over," Watts said. "It’s not over until we say it’s over. Do they say that about other issues? Did they say that with Mothers Against Drunk Driving?”
And with that, she headed back to the heartland, back to work, away from the doubters.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.