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10 Questions: The Gun Debate with Shannon Watts

April 19, 2014

By David Gregory, NBC NEWS

watts_df598f01b61e781c01919bcd5a0e2b23.nbcnews-ux-840-4401) What motivated you to get involved in the gun debate, especially in starting Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America?

The day after 26 Americans were slaughtered in the sanctity of an elementary school, I was so outraged that I started a Facebook page where moms concerned about gun violence in our country could talk. In just weeks, our online discussion quickly turned into an offline movement. And the more moms that learned about our lax federal and state gun laws – as well as the 86 Americans who are murdered or commit suicide with a gun every day – the more angry we became. We thought our elected officials were protecting us – we were wrong. For decades, too many of our elected officials have been doing the bidding of the Washington gun lobby without notice, but no longer – American moms are paying attention post-Newtown.

In just over a year, Moms Demand Action has grown into a national grassroots movement with a chapter in every state of the country, thousands of volunteers, and millions of supporters. Since Sandy Hook, we’ve been a ubiquitous presence pushing for sensible gun laws in city halls and statehouses, and we’ve already achieved some significant results.

Before Moms Demand Action, the voices of moms were missing from this debate, but that has finally changed. We’re excited to jumpstart a grassroots movement that is able to finally go toe-to-toe with the Washington gun lobby. Our opposition may have had a decades-long head start, but we’ll win because the passion of moms to protect their children will beat out the interests of the Washington gun lobby.

2) Do you think President Obama did enough to get new gun legislation passed last year?

The President and his administration have passionately supported common-sense gun laws like background checks and even beseeched Congress to do the right thing in the wake of Sandy Hook – to pass laws that would close the background check loophole that gives criminals and other dangerous people access to guns. Even after Congress failed to act, the President instituted 27 executive actions aimed at addressing gun violence.

Some seemed to think our nation’s gun laws would change overnight after Sandy Hook, but the Washington gun lobby has been insidious and the harm it’s inflicted can’t be undone in days or months. But like the fight for marriage equality, we are changing laws state-by-state and city-by-city and we believe Washington will eventually fall in line with what the American people want: stronger laws that will protect them from the dangers of easy access to guns.

3) Mayor Michael Bloomberg is investing $50 million and merging your organization into a nationwide grassroots movement. Of course the money is helpful but what about the argument that many gun owners regard him as a billionaire elitist out of touch with middle America? Could his involvement actually be counterproductive?

Unlike the millions spent by the very wealthy and well-funded Washington gun lobby to increase gun manufacturers’ profits, the Mayor’s investment is intended to save American lives. Eighty-six Americans are killed with guns every day, and whether you live in a big city or a small town, we all watch and read the news about gun violence in our streets, schools, shopping malls and wonder if it could happen in our communities, to our families too.

Mayor Bloomberg’s investment in gun violence prevention has, to date, already had an impact. In the year after Newtown, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware and New York closed the background check loophole. Ballot initiatives for background checks like the upcoming one in Washington State are another way we’re going to pass stronger gun laws. And places as diverse as Travis County, Texas; Pinellas County, Florida; Tucson, Arizona; and Sunnyvale, California are executing their authority to keep their local communities safer.

We’ve shown that we can make a difference in the voting booth too: Joe Baca in California. Robin Kelly in Nevada. And just look at the triple crown in the most recent elections in Virginia, also home to the NRA. Terry McAuliffe, the Lt. Governor and the Attorney General all won by making fixing Virginia’s gun laws a campaign issue. And they won because of – not in spite of – this position.

4) You released a powerful video encouraging safe storage of guns – who are you trying to politically motivate with this ad?

With the launch of Everytown for Gun Safety, we’re broadening our focus beyond background checks to include suicide prevention, domestic gun violence, Stand Your Ground, and child access prevention. Outreach on these gun-related issues – which affect millions of Americans – will help increase awareness of how it can impact the lives of everyday Americans. Our goal is to increase our membership by 1 million in 2014.

As a mom, I can no longer afford to sit back and watch the horrible toll that gun violence takes on our communities – particularly for our children. The video illustrates the very scary – but real – dangers of allowing guns to fall into the wrong hands. More than 2 million children face this danger every day: easy access to unsecured guns in the home.

5) What would you constitute as political success on gun reform?

Political success is getting Congress, along with state legislatures, to pass common-sense gun reforms like laws requiring background checks on all gun sales. Most Americans don’t realize that nearly 40 percent of all gun purchases are made without a background check – online or through private sales.

We’re also working to change our country’s culture of gun violence by wielding our economic power to encourage American businesses to put policies in place that protect our children and communities from guns. American moms make nearly 80 percent of all spending decisions for our families. We can make a significant impact – like we did with Starbucks, Facebook and Instagram – when we act collectively.

The Washington gun lobby has a 30 year head start on creating laws and policies that protect and enhance their profits, but their ability to run roughshod over our legislators and policy makers is about to change.

6) Some argue that any amount of laws or governmental action would be ineffective, that it comes down to personal responsibility. What do you think?

Relying on “personal responsibility” has resulted in America having a gun murder rate that is 20 times higher than any other developed country. Most countries rely on laws – and enforcing those laws – to encourage firearm responsibility and to help protect citizens. For example, we don’t rely on ‘personal responsibility’ when it comes to drinking and driving: In fact, in the 1980s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) helped pass federal and state laws to address a growing epidemic of drunk driving related deaths. And since MADD was founded in 1980, the number of drunk driving deaths in the U.S. has been cut in half.

Data shows that laws work. In 2013, lawmakers passed critical gun laws in New York, Connecticut, California, Delaware and Colorado. In Colorado alone, their new comprehensive background check requirement has stopped more than 160 gun sales to prohibited purchasers.

7) If the gun amendment proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey comes up for a vote again, would you support its passage? Or does it not go far enough?

In the year since a minority of Senators blocked the Manchin-Toomey amendment, the movement for common-sense gun laws has grown significantly. And while that movement continues to grow state-by-state, we’ll continue to remind Congress that they should follow what 90 percent of Americans want – common-sense gun laws.

There is no silver bullet solution to stopping gun violence, but Manchin-Toomey presented real and actionable gun laws that would significantly reduce gun violence in America. When it comes back for a vote, we will of course support its passage and we’ll support those elected leaders who vote to support these kind of laws.

8) To what extent is this first ad a recognition that money spent on gun safety advocacy could be more effective than money spent on political advertising?

We know that nothing will be done to change our gun laws unless the public demands it from our elected leaders. That’s why Everytown for Gun Safety was launched – to harness the grassroots power of moms, mayors and all Americans into action.

It’s going to be a combination of efforts – gun safety advocacy, field and advertising – we’ll do whatever it takes to make our voices heard loud and clear.

9) You said in Wednesday’s New York Times, “Right now, women, when they go to the polls, they vote on abortion, they vote on jobs, they vote on health care … We want one of those things to be gun violence prevention.” What will it take to make women vote on the issue of guns?

I’ve seen clearly in the last year that the issue of gun violence is as important to moms – but not only moms – as any issue. We’re going to harness that passion that drives us to keep our children safe and turn it into votes. As part of the launch of Everytown, we kicked off a new Guns Sense Voter campaign, marking the first time there will be a movement of single-issue voters who go to the polls in November on this side of the gun debate. Gun sense is the simple idea that we can do much more to keep our families and communities safe from gun violence.

We’ll be educating people throughout the country about gun violence, the common-sense solutions to addressing the problem, and where their lawmakers stand on this critical issue. Respecting rights is as important as protecting people and starting now, Americans across the country will begin pledging to vote for laws and political leaders that support common-sense efforts to end gun violence.

10) This is definitely a voting issue for gun rights advocates. What evidence do you have that suggests proponents of new gun restrictions will be equally as motivated to vote on the issue?

The reason the NRA has political influence is that it has scared elected officials into believing that voters will oppose them unless they follow the NRA’s Washington leadership, which has grown increasingly extreme and increasingly out of touch with its own members. In fact, polls show that 74 percent of NRA members and 82 percent of gun owners believe in the need for basic gun background checks – a view NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre supported himself barely more than a decade ago.

And the extremism of the NRA’s leadership goes further than opposition to background checks. The gun lobby’s arguments to arm domestic abusers and to allow people under 18 to purchase guns from dealers proved too extreme for the Supreme Court.

But the NRA’s dominance has been exaggerated. In the 2012 election cycle, in the 26 Senate races where the NRA rated candidates, 20 candidates with lower ratings than their opponents won – a sign that the NRA “A” rating isn’t as important as they’d like us to believe it is.

We believe the days of this discussion being dominated by gun manufacturers and their lobbyists are over. Every American has been touched by gun violence – you don’t have to have been shot or know someone who has been killed. We all watch and read the news about the gun violence happening in our streets, in our schools and shopping malls – even in our places of worship – and wonder if it could happen in our communities too.

And that’s why mayors from big cities and small towns, mothers from across the country and Americans of every political leaning have come together to join faith leaders, law enforcement officials, educators, hunters, gun owners, and other everyday Americans to put an end to the madness.

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