On Dec. 14, 2012, Shannon Watts experienced the worst kind of déjà vu.
Less than five months prior, after gunman James Holmes stormed a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., she was doing just about the same thing she’d have to do after school that day — try to explain another massacre.
Following Aurora, she was dealing with her 12-year-old’s reaction to a senseless, mind-numbing and unexplainable loss of human life; first, trying to assuage his worries about seeing the Dark Knight in a movie theater himself after he heard the news; second, watching his transition from the happy, safe oblivion that is childhood thrust into a reality that left him paralyzed by panic attacks and insomnia for months.
In the wake of Sandy Hook, she found herself preparing for a similar bout of reactions when she told her son that 20 innocent children and six teachers had been slaughtered in another shooting — this one on school grounds, what we’re taught is a universal “safe place.”
What happened next was even more sobering.
“His reaction was what happens to all Americans who are constantly exposed to mass shootings. It was, ‘OK, another shooting.’ The first one really terrifies you but then you kind of become numb to it: You’re not safe in America and you could be shot at any time,” she says.
That wasn’t a reality Watts wanted her son or any other child to have to accept. Her non-partisan campaign, Moms Demand Action (MDA), germinated that same day when she made a Facebook page, originally dubbed One Million Moms for Gun Control.
Now rebranded (to avoid confusion with One Million Moms, the ultra-conservative American Family Association subset), MDA has blossomed into a well-oiled grassroots machine that’s spread across 40 states and into 100 chapters, including one in Cincinnati
Karen Hillis-Skipper, mother of a 6-year-old and leader of the Cincinnati chapter of Moms Demand Action (MDA), was also moved by Sandy Hook, when she realized she could no longer be a passive participant in nationwide gun control dialogue.
“I remember really distinctly where I was when I saw the news alert come on my iPhone … it was like 9/11 for me. I’ll never forget what I was doing in that moment. ... My own kindergartner was in school that day and for me it was just too real. I know what a 6-year-old is like. I know how they think and what they believe ... and to be able to protect my own child in those circumstances and imagine what the parents have been experiencing — I couldn’t turn my back,” she says.
The Cincinnati chapter most recently organized an event called Faces of Courage, which took place April 12 at Fountain Square, featuring guest speakers including Nate Mueller, a survivor of the Chardon High School shooting, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and a first responder at the Arizona shooting involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to garner support for legislation reform by humanizing gun violence victims, who are too often defined by statistics, says Hillis-Skipper.
Nationally, MDA recently released a series of striking PSAs, created pro-bono by Toronto advertising firm Grey Advertising, which have garnered attention from the likes of Huffington Post and ABC News.
In one still image, two young girls sit cross-legged on the floor of what looks like a school library. One holds up a copy of Little Red Riding Hood; another grips an oversized assault rifle. The copy reads, “One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one?” Below: “We keep Little Red Riding Hood out of schools because of the bottle of wine in her basket. Why not assault weapons?”
Watts, who attests there are several gun-owning members of Moms Demand Action, describes the group’s goals as “middle-ground, common-sense” solutions, which include criminalizing gun trafficking, banning assault weapons and magazines holding more than 10 rounds, requiring universal background checks for gun and ammunition purchases, banning online ammunition sales, reporting suspicious purchases the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and countering gun industry lobbyists’ efforts to weaken gun laws at the state level.
The Senate vote on April 17 shut down the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have improved background checks for gun-buyers and prohibited anyone listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System from purchasing a gun. The amendment, which needed to garner at least 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, just barely failed even though it had a 54-46 majority.
The defeat came as a great loss to Watts, who describes the “no” votes as an act of cowardice. “Shame on every Senator who voted against anything that would keep our children and families safe because they are worried about losing the financial support of the NRA. I don’t know how they sleep at night, frankly.”
One of those “no” votes came from Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown voted “yes”), which came as a disappointment; by all indications, Ohioans support gun control reform. Ninety percent of Ohioans (including 86 percent of gun owners) support universal background checks, according to a March 2013 poll from Quinnipiac University, similar to national polling results.
Next up for Cincinnati’s MDA chapter is a Mother’s Day campaign, which will symbolically honor the eight children killed each day by gun violence in America — and the parents who must cope — by delivering hand-crafted paper flowers in groups of eight to local, state and federal legislators. ©