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Sonoma Speaker Series features ‘gun sense’ advocate

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Traumatic events fundamentally mark memory in a way that ordinary events do not. What a person is doing at historic moments tends to cauterize in the mind, indelibly imprinting individual memory. The day the towers fell in Manhattan. The night wildfires broke out in Wine Country.

For Shannon Watts, 48, Dec. 12, 2012 stands alone. It was an ordinary Wednesday, until it wasn’t.

“I was folding laundry, which is a full-time job for a mom of five, when news started coming in over the TV,” Watts said. Something terrible was happening at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Watts sat down hard and turned up the TV.

“I prayed ‘Dear God don’t let this be as bad as it seems,’” Watts said. “Twenty first-graders and six educators slaughtered in the sanctity of their school.”

As the news dribbled out, bad turned to worse.

Sandy Hook was the deadliest mass school shooting in United States history, and it knocked much of America back on its heels. Watts mourned the tragedy, like so many others, her grief amplified by the helplessness she felt. “I had to do something. I had to either leave the country, or stay and fight. I believe in my country. I believe you can fix things that are broken, but I didn’t know how,” she said.

A stay-at-home mom, Watts thought social media might be a good place to start mobilizing people who wanted to affect sensible restructuring of American gun laws.

“I only had 76 friends on Facebook at that point,” Watts said.

But she created a dedicated page called “Moms Demand Action,” and it became ground zero for a national movement. “It was like lightning in a bottle,” Watts said. “Women started calling, emailing, wanting to know how they could start something where they lived.”

Seven years later, with Watts’ online effort now migrated ambitiously offline, “Moms Demand Action” is “the largest grassroots organization in the country, full stop,” Watts said. “We have hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Five million supporters. A chapter in every state.”

She has written a book titled “Fight Like a Mother,” and is a relentless burr in the saddle of the National Rifle Association (NRA). “I’m suddenly serving as the tip of the spear. The NRA had created an army of extremists who were afraid that their guns would be taken away,” Watts said. “We are an army of moms who are afraid that our children will be taken away. We are the yin to the gun lobby’s yang.”

The pro-gun lobby is exceptionally well-funded and organized, and they have not taken kindly to the housewife with the active Facebook account.

“There were threats of death and sexual violence within days (of starting the dedicated Facebook group). People drove by my home. I got letters in the mail,” Watts said.

Recently, she was tagged again by the NRA online, triggering a fresh round of threats and disparagements. Some are scary, others ridiculous, like the ammoland.com webpage that argues Watt’s intention to “get rid of gun violence by getting rid of guns” is akin to getting “rid of hospital deaths by getting rid of hospitals.”

Undeterred, Watts continues to organize for change. “Moms Demand Action” has helped flip the political make-up of seven gun-friendly state legislatures, and helped tighten gun laws in 20 states, nine of which have or had Republican governors. An early volunteer, Lucy McBath, whose son, Jordan, died by gun violence, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Georgia in what once was Newt Gingrich’s seat.

Watts wants people to understand that the movement she founded is not anti-gun. “Gun sense is our priority. There are responsibilities that go along with gun rights,” Watt said. “We are not against the second amendment. We even have a group of camo-moms who hunt. It’s the NRA leadership who have become so radicalized over the last decades. Seventy-four percent of its members support stronger laws.”

Working to capitalize on that shifting mentality, Watts said the organization is beginning to see an observable trend. “We’ve seen hearts and minds change,” Watts said.

Meanwhile, American schoolchildren are acclimating to a new normal, where shelter in place drills are built into school curriculum and run-hide-fight is the new mantra. “Women send their toddlers and kindergarteners to school and they’ve had to essentially rehearse their deaths there,” Watts said. “We are traumatizing an entire generation of children. Drilling instead of disarming is insane.”

Watts will be in Sonoma on June 11 at 7 p.m. as part of the Sonoma Speaker Series at the Hanna Boys Center Auditorium, 17000 Arnold Drive. Tickets are $35 to $85. sonomaspeakerseries.com.

For more information, visit the Moms Demand Action website.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com

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