INDIANAPOLIS — For Shannon Watts, the shock of the Connecticut school shootings quickly turned to anger — and then to action.
The Zionsville, Ind., mother of five, drawing on her days as a public relations executive with Fortune 500 companies, used social media during the weekend to launch a new organization: One Million Moms for Gun Control. Her goal is to counter the powerful influence of the National Rifle Association.Watts envisions the new group as a digital-age counterpart to groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an “instant grass-roots” force to lobby local, state and federal officials for stronger gun laws.
She is off to a fast start. She has been joined by more than 1,600 others — mostly mothers like her — in the group she launched over the weekend via Facebook. Many volunteered to start local and state chapters, with interest stretching from New York to Atlanta to Chicago to San Francisco.
“The emails are flooding in,” Watts said. “It’s amazing what can happen and how quickly.”
Facebook provided the ideal forum, she said, for women like her who were incensed by the mass shooting but felt powerless and wondered, “how could a stay-at-home mom like me make a difference.”
“I knew there were other mothers across the country who felt the same way,” said Watts, 41. “I thought, what better way to react quickly, with action not just dialogue, than to harness the power of all those moms to say ‘Never again!'”
Mothers and women on social media sites can be a powerful contingent if they are united and organized, said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and CEO of momsrising.org, which was launched in 2006 and now has more than 1 million members.
“There are 36 million women writing and reading blogs, and 90 percent of the women online have children under 18,” she said. “There is a tremendous network of people who are able to communicate at lightning speed, and we’ve seen a lot of impact and community engagement. The power of women’s voices is tremendous.”
She said her group has had success mobilizing women online to lobby state and federal lawmakers on issues ranging from toy safety to tax deductions for breast-milk pumps.
But it takes more than a website to bring about change, Rowe-Finkbeiner said. Social media accelerates the spread of messages and search for like-minded individuals, but she said “that doesn’t mean you still don’t need strategies and traditional organization tools.”
Kim Russell, 44, Brooklyn, N.Y., is among those who responded to Watts’ call for action through One Million Moms for Gun Control. For the mother of two young children, the issue is personal — she was wounded in a robbery in which a friend was fatally shot just days after the 1999 school shooting at Columbine, Colo.
“I had wanted to do something like this, but it was just too raw for a long time,” Russell said. “Then, when things happened Friday, I thought, ‘This is enough. I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to do something for my dead friend, for my children and for me.'”
Russell said she found an outlet when she logged onto Facebook over the weekend. A friend had posted about Watts’ group, so she reached out to see how she could help.
“The next thing I knew, I was one of three administrators of the Brooklyn chapter and my computer hasn’t stopped dinging” with messages, she said.
Watts and Russell said they realize they have a limited window to capitalize before the nation’s horror and anger over the massacre of 20 elementary students at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., fades into holiday celebrations. They are pressing those who join the cause to take immediate action by reaching out to local, state and federal lawmakers.
Watts said that approach means starting with “low-hanging fruit,” such as calling for a revival of the federal ban on assault weapons and, in Indiana, tightening rules on sales at gun shows.
A tough road could lie ahead.
State Sen. Mike Delph, a Republican representing the 29th District, said he wouldn’t support any legislation that would change the provision in the state’s constitution that protects the right of people to bear arms “for the defense of themselves and the state.”
Instead, Delph said, the “evil that occurred” in Connecticut last Friday stemmed from an abandoning of traditional family and faith values.
“When we ban prayer from school, when we become hostile as a culture to traditional faith and values,” he said, “I think that has a negative coarsening effect on the culture, and it’s really sad.”
Delph has received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association in the past, including an “A+” rating while running for re-election in 2010.
That year, Delph voted in favor of a bill that allowed employees to leave their guns locked in their cars while parked at work. The bill passed and became law in July 2010.
Although Watts’ goal of countering the NRA may be lofty thinking, she said the numbers are on her side.
A message left with the NRA was not returned on Monday.
“The NRA has about 4 million members,” Watts said. “There are 84 million moms in the U.S., and we have a lot of power to wield if we can harness it.”
Evans also reports for The Indianapolis Star