The day after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., a mother of five and former public relations executive, Shannon Watts, sat in her Indiana home and brainstormed how she could make a difference to help prevent future acts of gun violence.
Little did she know that creating a small Facebook group would evolve into her founding the largest grassroots movement in the country. Her group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, now has 6 million supporters nationwide, with chapters in all 50 states.
“I had 75 friends on Facebook,” said Watts, who now resides in Boulder. “I was not that social media savvy. I thought I would have conversations with people that I knew and maybe some strangers. It was like lightning in a bottle from the beginning. It was clear there were many moms out there just like me that knew it was time to get off the sidelines and take action.”
Watts has more than 10,000 followers on Instagram and more than 360,000 followers on Twitter. Creating a mom-led advocacy group, in the vein of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, she’s managed to become the unlikely face of an ever-growing movement to reform gun laws. The efforts of Watts and Moms Demand Action have resulted in 20 states passing gun-safety legislation, with nine of those particular bills signed into law by Republican governors.
Her book “Fight Like A Mother,” which is just as much a memoir as it is a manifesto, hit shelves last month and actress Julianne Moore — a celebrity who has been at the forefront of this crusade — wrote the forward for the book. On Tuesday, Watts spoke to a packed house at the Boulder Book Store in support of the book, which a majority of its sales will benefit gun-safety groups.
“The major takeaway from the book is that any major social issue that is important is winnable if people get off the sidelines and get involved,” said Watts.
Watts has been named one of the “NRA’s worst nightmares,” which she considers an “honor.”
“The NRA’s leadership has a deadly agenda that is fueled by greed,” said Watts, noting that her groups are not against the Second Amendment. “We are not anti-gun.”
Yet standing behind a cause doesn’t come without backlash from the public. At Wednesday’s book signing at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store, protesters gathered and one man had to be removed from the scene, Watts said. And ever since Watts started Moms Demand Action, she has received death threats and threats of sexual violence against her and her daughter — but refuses to let the outside noise deter her activist journey.
“I’m just a mom of five who thinks there should be background checks on each gun sale in America,” said Watts. “I don’t see how that’s so controversial.”
Since Friday marks Gun Violence Awareness Day, Boulder County will join the nation with “Wear Orange” rallies. In addition to Saturday rallies in Longmont and Lafayette, on Friday the Boulder Bandshell will be lit with orange lights as a tribute to Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed in Chicago one week after performing at former President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade in 2013.
The East Boulder County rally will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at Festival Plaza, 311 S. Public Road, Lafayette, and will feature singers, speakers and family-friendly activities. The Longmont rally will meet at 10 a.m. Saturday at Kanemoto Park, 1151 Pratt St., Longmont.
While Watts won’t be in her home state for the festivities, she will speak at events in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Baltimore throughout the weekend.
“I’m heartbroken by the gun violence that takes the lives of 100 people every day in this country,” said Watts. “So many lives are lost. I feel that urgency. We can’t wait for the next generation to do something about it. It’s up to us. The time is now.”
The unrelentingly strong voices of millions of mothers throughout the U.S. have also caught the attention of numerous retailers. Dick’s Sporting Goods, Panera Bread, Starbucks, Levi’s and Target are among the businesses that have banned firearms.
“The expression is, ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,’” said Watts. “It should be ‘if you’re hopeless, you’re not paying attention.’”
Watts said she praises the significant laws and changes that have been implemented during the advocacy group’s seven-year run. Fifteen states have passed Red Flag Laws, a measure that allows law enforcement and family members to work with a court to temporarily restrict someone’s access to guns when that person is deemed potentially harmful to themselves or others.
“After the attack that took 32 lives in 2007, I, along with the whole Hokie Nation, vowed that those lives would never be forgotten,” said Virginia Tech alumna Nicole Liabraaten, who now serves as volunteer leader for Boulder’s Moms Demand Action. “While I was not on campus that day, when a place that you love is attacked like that, it changes you. It took me a few years, and sadly more shooting headlines, to get involved in the movement to end gun violence. But having two children of my own now, this is a cause that is very near and dear. I want to be able to say to them that I did everything I could to prevent them from experiencing gun violence.”
Following each fatal shooting, Liabraaten said gun control groups experience an influx of financial support and an increase in volunteers looking to help the mission.
“We do keep growing,” said Liabraaten. “After each tragedy, more people want to get involved. Our efforts are having an impact too, so people are feeling more heard and want to be part of a changing tide. We are a movement with momentum that keeps building.”
If you go
What: East Boulder County Wear Orange Rally
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Festival Plaza, 311 S. Public Road, Lafayette
What: Longmont Wear Orange Rally
When: 10 a.m. Saturday
Where: Kanemoto Park, 1151 Pratt St., Longmont