When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Shannon Watts and Casey Weinstein: The Dangers of Fighting for Gun Safety
"I really had to make a decision quickly, which was, am I going to be intimidated and afraid and stand down and not do this work or am I going to double down and let that become white noise and just forge ahead and refuse to be silenced and intimidated and I chose the latter.” - Shannon Watts
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, and Casey Weinstein, state representative for Ohio’s District 37, talk about gun safety and the intimidation they have received for standing up for what they believe.
Shannon founded Moms Demand Action in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. It has since grown to a grassroots movement with nearly 6 million supporters in the Everytown for Gun Safety network. You can find Shannon herself on Twitter and Instagram at @ShannonRWatts and her organization at @MomsDemand.
Casey was elected to represent District 37 in the Ohio House of Representatives in 2018, flipping the seat from Republican to Democrat. You can find him on Twitter at @RepWeinstein.
Participate in our voting rights special episode! Naila Awan from Demos and Ben Guess from the ACLU of Ohio talk to us about the importance of full voting rights for all and we want to know what the right to vote means to you. Let us know by leaving a voicemail at 216-245-5461 or sending a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Shannon Watts: You don't get into this work thinking that it's going to be easy or being fearful. I'm in awe of our brave and courageous volunteers every single day, but at the same time, what's the other option? Is it to stand down and allow gun extremists to write our nation's gun laws? That's given us a 25 times higher gun homicide rate than any other high income country.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
Today I sat down with Casey Weinstein, a state representative for Ohio’s 37th district, and Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. Each of them spoke with me about the gun reform debate and intimidation they have received for standing up for what they believe.
I actually grew up hunting, in an NRA family. I’m not anti-gun. But I believe, and both of my guests agree, that when kids are dying and people are being threatened simply for advocating or introducing legislation, it’s our responsibility to speak out. We did reach out to the NRA to participate in this episode, but they declined.
Back in September, Casey introduced House Bill 349 in the Ohio statehouse. The goal of the bill is to prohibit possession of large capacity magazines - those that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. In the months since he proposed the bill, he has been the victim of not only social media trolling, but in-person intimidation and even death threats.
KH: Casey Weinstein, welcome to the show. You're the representative for Ohio's 37th district. An air force vet Academy grad. and no stranger to a fight. You have certainly picked a couple of battles in the state house, but the latest one has made headlines. Tell me about what got you into this conflict and why House Bill 349 is so important to you.
CW: Yeah, thanks Ken. Thanks for having me on. Just going back to the veteran angle, having an understanding of the deadliness of weapons and how impactful they can be, having been qualified on the M9 and the M16, that led me to really having a strong common sense gun control stance. But we hadn't actively pursued legislation until the shooting in Dayton. I lived in Dayton, I was assigned at Wright Patterson Air Force Base with my wife who I met at the Air Force Academy. And we were both assigned there and then after we got out, we stayed on for education and to start our careers. And so we really became ingrained in the Dayton community. So it's one of those shootings that hit really close to home for me. And I think the unique sort of thing that popped out about that shooting, besides the fact that I had to look at the list of people who were wounded or injured to see if I knew any of them, was the brutal efficiency which is such a scary word to use. But it was a brutally efficient murder. A mass murder. The shooter killed nine people in 32 seconds, wounded dozens of others. And we had essentially a perfect response. We had the proverbial good guy with a gun. The police acted.
KH: How quickly did they get there?
CW: They put the shooter down in 32 seconds and they were right there. They were trained, they had the absolutely perfect response. I mean, I don't think you could ask for more. No one else was hurt in their response. So, meanwhile, in that time we still had almost 10 people killed and we had dozens injured. And one of the reasons that happened was because the shooter had an effective 100 round magazine. He had two 50 round barrels, a double barrel magazine that he used. So, he didn't have to take that few seconds to reload or reorient himself. He was essentially just able to spray bullets into a crowd of people.
KH: So you have proposed legislation to limit the capacity of commercially available magazines like this?
KH: Which in the aftermath of a massacre like Dayton seems to make complete sense. Yet the pushback you've gotten has been vociferous to put it mildly. I mean it has been borderline threatening. What is the counter argument that's being articulated by the other side?
CW: It's really interesting. It becomes a very binary conversation. You either have all the guns and all the things with the guns or you have none. That's essentially what I've interpreted it as. We don't end up talking a lot about the magazines themselves. We don't talk about my specific bill.
KH: That suggests to me that it's not really about the specific issue. It's not about magazine capacity, it's about losing your Second Amendment rights. It's about a larger paranoia, a larger fear of the slippery slope. Is that what you're picking up when they come after you?
CW: Absolutely. Because I try to frame an argument around the magazine specifically and talk about the fact that my family are gun owners and that I actually support the Second Amendment and the right for people to bear arms for protective purposes, for sporting, for hunting, whatever they want to do. It's the specific peripheral weaponry that enables so much death and mass murder and casualties that I'm trying to limit. I'm trying to save some lives. That's what I say. And it immediately becomes this, what if the government's coming to try to overthrow us? How do we push back on tyranny? It immediately moves into a holistic Second Amendment argument and I can't seem to get away. I say, "I’m not coming for your guns." It's two ships passing through the night. It's two spaceships in two different time continuums in two different galaxies. That's it's-
KH: Spoken like a true academy grad.
CW: Thank you.
KH: Well, I'm struck by your invocation of this idea of tyranny because that has been thrown at you. I mean you've been called a tyrant and I want to get to really the thing that brought you in today, which is the intimidation you've been on the receiving end of. I commented on one of your posts and that was enough to be lit up myself. I can't imagine being in the crosshairs like you are and I unfortunately don't mean that metaphorically. They have found where you've lived. They have come by your house, and they have threatened you for what you are trying to do: simply limit the capacity of magazines. Can you talk a little bit about how those threats began and what you’re doing about it?
CW: Yeah, there are actually several gun bills that were released. My colleagues on the democratic side of the house joined with me and we have quite a range of gun bills that have been released. But I've gotten the most public pushback on mine and I think where it started was a confrontation that was caught on video as I was walking into the house floor a few months ago, I guess it was about October. Alarge guy who runs an extremist Ohio gun rights group confronted me while running Facebook Live and he has a very large social media following and started talking about my “dirty gun bill” and my “nasty bill” in a really aggressive way. And I walked past, went onto the floor and immediately, I mean that streamed right to social media. So, immediately started getting a lot of comments and threats and nasty messages directed at me.
KH: But over social media?
CW: Over social media.
CW: Didn't report those. I think I alerted the Sergeant at Arms of the Ohio house at that time that this guy was standing out intimidating legislators as they walked in, which is not something that you're supposed to be using that space for. Just to make them aware of it. But what happened a couple of weeks ago is I got home and my wife was actually the person who pulled it out of the mailbox and she always leaves my mail on my desk at home. And she mentioned this weird thing that she found in the mail, which was like a scroll, rolled up paper wrapped and tied up in gold ribbon. And so I saw that on my desk, sat down, started going through it, unwrapped it and it was pages and pages front and back of like right wing memes and sort of run of the mill stuff that you see there. And then a few of them really caught my eye and I got concerned when one in particular that alluded to when the British had tried to take away their guns, we shot them.
CW: So, there were a couple of along those lines.
KH: And then your staff is getting meanwhile emails like this: "Hey, dumb f***. Leave the guns out of it. Put the blame where it belongs on the person. Wake up. You can be taken out." There aren't many ways to interpret that other than as a threat, a death threat more likely. There's something different about the debate over guns - the object of the debate is itself a tool of intimidation. It's not like any other issue we have a political discussion about. I mean in Cleveland recently there was an argument about how to limit plastic bags, right? And no one was saying, "I'm going to come at you with my plastic bag." But guns themselves are an instrument of intimidation and terror. How do you have then a rational debate about them when at the back of your mind you have to be thinking that the extremists on the opposing side might use what you're arguing about to kill you?
CW: It's ironic, isn't it?
CW: I'm afraid the irony is lost on some of those that are on the other side of that debate. I think that there is still a middle ground and a lot of folks who may be gun owners themselves or sportsmen or hunters who understand responsible gun ownership and who are perfectly willing to take on additional safeguards - instead of restrictions, I try to use the term safeguards for others. But unfortunately that's not where the debate seems to happen on this issue. The space, the air in the debate is gobbled up by this militia group. I mean it's the militia echo sphere is the best way I can put it.
KH: There's a hopeful suggestion there, which is that that is a fringe element. That the silent majority if you will, are open to sensible reforms. But the ones who get the most attention are the ones who are loudest or in this day and age who take advantage of open carry laws and get their marches covered. But are you suggesting that that is not really representative even of those on the other side of the aisle who have a different interpretation of the Second Amendment?
CW: Well, when this happened to my family, I got a lot of positivity that came out of it. So, I don't want to make this a black and white issue. It wasn't all bad. There ended up being a positive conversation about gun control and I posted the threat that I saw on social media and got a lot of support including from gun owners. What I think has happened, and I think this is a positive take, is the ground has shifted in the debate. Groups like Moms Demand Action, EveryTown for Gun Safety, the children, the next generation who have lived their whole lives with this existential kind of threat going to school, living their lives in this era of mass shootings have shifted the ground on the debate. So, I think we are on the offensive on the debate and we are making more gains now. The folks in favor of safeguards for guns to protect people. And that I think has put the other side on the defensive and I think made them resort to some of these more overt rallies or actions like you described or threats or intimidation. I think that's where we're at.
KH: Is there still a persuasive argument to be made though? Because what you're describing is a political dynamic where you're just marshaling the energy and resources on one side to move the needle legislatively. But when it comes to continuing to engage the other side, is there a persuasive argument or are we approaching the point where you give up on civic discourse and persuasion and you just go for the win?
CW: Well, I think one argument that has resonated when I brought it up with people and is really hard to push back on is this notion of rights and Second Amendment rights balanced with First Amendment rights. Well, I'm Jewish and I go to temple and in October of 2018, we had a mass shooting at a temple in Pittsburgh. So, it struck me that as I sit in temple now, with my family and my children, that in the back of my mind I'm concerned. I have that fear or that worry about what happens if we're attacked here. What would I do? How would we escape? Those thoughts go through my mind now.
KH: In temple?
CW: In temple.
CW: We've had churches shot up. We've had threats against mosques. So, that's our First Amendment right. Freedom of assembly, right of expression, right to worship freely. Where's the balance between our ability to do that and someone else's Second Amendment right to have their gun and their high capacity magazines anytime, anywhere?
KH: Are you able to have that nuanced of a conversation? Can you actually invoke the Second Amendment with people who say they have a constitutional right to a high capacity magazine?
CW: Yes, you can. That's a good question. It's a loaded thing to bring into the conversation. If you're going to talk about the Second Amendment, this is my humble advice with my experience, bring your own amendment to the discussion. I like to bring the First Amendment because it's before the Second Amendment and if you want to have that discussion about inalienable constitutional rights, then let's talk about all of them. We can't just talk about one. That's where I find that I have the most success in moving the needle even on the edges.
KH: When people that you are hoping to persuade invoke the Second Amendment as a defense for killing technologies that weren't even conceivable, much less available when the Bill of Rights was drafted. How do you counter that? How do you bring an academic argument to such an emotional topic? Let's put you on the floor of the Ohio house making this argument with the assumption that there is at least the pretense of thoughtful argument there. How do you make a convincing case that the Second Amendment was not written to give individuals unfettered access to any killing technology they wanted?
CW: I think if you shift the conversation to where we're at today in Ohio, which is background checks, red flag laws, high capacity magazines. And you really stay out of the core of the issue, which is just too wrapped up in emotion and ultimately, like I said, too binary. Then you can try to keep the conversation at that level.
KH: It sounds like you can still have an intellectual argument with somebody who was diametrically opposed on an issue as emotional as this one and make some headway.
CW: Those kinds of conversations do happen but they are overshadowed by the reality that no Republican in the Ohio House of Representatives would consider supporting or co-sponsoring my legislation. So-
KH: Well, they won't even talk about it. We attempted multiple times to get a counterpoint on this show and there was zero appetite to have that conversation. So, I can sympathize where you're coming from.
CW: I think it's just a reflection of to be a Republican party member today, you pretty much just have to have a very locked in stance on guns. There's just no wiggle room there. There's just not.
KH: My fear about just how ossified that stance has become is that the factor of an argument or the constitutional argument no longer works. You really can't reason with a zealot and it seems to have become almost an article of faith within the Republican party that we're not going to budge on this. One of the things that struck me most about the attacks you received is the accusation that you made it all up. On the left there is this tendency, often justified, when there's an extremist element that crosses a line to say, "Listen, don't make me apologize for that act, for that person. We had nothing to do with it." On the right, that goes to a whole new place where the reaction is that it didn't even happen. And in the case of the threats that you received, a lot of the reaction has been, you know, “he put those threats in his own mailbox. He's making all of this up. It's not actually happening.” And that to me suggests just an intellectual breakdown of the ability to argue on the other side. How did you respond to the accusation that this wasn't really happening?
CW: So, the ironic thing that I found with this incident that happened to me was I will respond to any form of communication basically. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, email, text, phone call. Raven, send me a raven, I'll respond to it, but I won't respond to threats and I can't respond to anonymous threats. So, it wasn't about starting a dialogue. It was about intimidation and threat. And then in the aftermath of that, there was good, fair conversation to be had. I have a lot of Air Force Academy classmates who reached out, they're pro gun folks but wanted to offer their support and say, "Hey, I agree with you. We need to find some middle ground here." And then just a whole host of folks who immediately retrenched and said, "Nope. Can't even have the discussion because this didn't even really happen." Well, the FBI has this stuff now, so if I made it up, I'm in really, really serious trouble because the FBI are involved.
So, that is just a slap in the face. A punch to the gut, slap the face, whatever you want to say. I'm not going to make up stuff about threats to-
KH: To your family.
CW: To my family. No. I'm not going to do that. And you're absolutely right, Ken, that it is very telling that they can't even engage in the thought arena on this topic. That they have to retrench to “we're going to shift the ground to make an argument about whether this even happened before we'll grant you an argument on whether it should have happened.” And then I don't engage further on that. I don't have time. I'm trying to move the ball down the field and I'm trying to save some lives and I really don't have time to argue conspiracy theories.
KH: Well, I got to be honest. This was the first show I've ever done where I had, albeit briefly, but a moment's pause about whether to do it. And that is intimidation manifest. Right?
KH: The idea that you would think twice about having a conversation with someone because of an air of menace around a particular issue, which is my segue into the question we always end with, which is what is the bravest thing you've ever done or been a part of?
CW: When I was at the Air Force Academy, we had instances of religious intolerance that were going on and I dealt with it for about four years and then was about to graduate. My brother came in as a freshman or fourth class cadet and started getting it worse than I had it and just couldn't live with myself to leave the Academy in the same situation that I found it and know that he would go through four years of that.
So, I joined with other cadets, Christian, non-denominational, Jewish and sued the Air Force Academy for religious equality and equal treatment. At the time maybe didn't realize-
KH: You sued the Air Force? Can we bold and underline and italicize that?
KH: You sued the Air Force?
CW: I did as an incoming Lieutenant and wore that like a scarlet letter for sure in my first couple of assignments. But in the time since, I can say that that starting action has resulted in a lot of change for cadets and midshipmen and service men and women today and much more awareness of the issue. I'm glad I did it. I don't think maybe at the age of 21 when I decided to do it, didn't have as full an understanding as to what I was getting into and what I was doing. But I just knew that for me it was about my brother at the time and personalizing it and leaving the place better than I found it. So, I'd say in retrospect, that's even braver than I maybe knew that I was at the time.
KH: Thanks Casey. Been an honor having you on.
CW: Thanks, Ken. Thanks for having me.
Like Casey, my next guest has been the victim of intimidation at the hands of gun extremists. Shannon Watts has been involved in gun safety activism since 2012 and now often travels with a bodyguard due to the many threats she has received.
KH: Shannon Watts, welcome to the show. You are the founder of Moms Demand Action, which is a grassroots movement of Americans fighting for gun safety. I pulled that from the website, but I don't think it nearly does justice to the movement you have built because everywhere I go, at least every political event I have attended in the last year, those red shirts are ubiquitous. They're everywhere. You have built something that spans the entire country. Tell me how it started.
SW: I was a stay at home mom for about five years after having a long career in corporate communications and it was just sort of a typical day folding laundry and was watching the news absently in the background and there was this breaking urgent interruption that there was an active shooter in an elementary school in a place called Newtown, Connecticut, a place I'd never heard of. I kind of just sat on the bed and watched this whole tragedy unfold. And I thought, I'm going to join something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving but for this issue specifically for gun safety, having watched all these shooting tragedies over the years and not getting involved and that didn't exist. And I thought, okay, I'm just going to have a conversation with other women about this, other mothers. So I started a Facebook page the day after the tragedy and it really was just meant to be an online conversation but if you know anything about Type A women, it very quickly became an offline movement.
KH: There is a reason I am sure, you've labeled the movement Moms Demand Action. I'd hazard a guess that it's because you have identified women and mothers in particular as a tremendous political force in our country that hasn't been leveraged the way it needs to be.
SW: I know intuitively and I think many mothers and women feel this way, that we're really the secret sauce to organizing in this country. If you want something done, you ask a busy mom. And the multitasking and the passion that goes along with raising children for their safety and really the singular focus on correcting wrongs I think is what makes us such incredibly strong advocates on any issue. And we've seen that whether it's prohibition, civil rights, child labor laws, all the way up to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and this issue has been no different.
KH: I love your phrase that being a mom is the one job you never clock out of. You talked about the passion that moms bring to a movement like this, the ability to multitask, but there's a fierceness as well. A fierceness that I would submit is often underestimated by the folks you are taking on by incredibly powerful and entrenched interests like the NRA that have underestimated moms at their peril.
SW: Yea, I really do think that the NRA's worst nightmare was that moms would organize against them. We are the really important counterweight. So they've spent all these years making gun extremists afraid their guns would be taken away, but 80 million moms in this country, regardless of political party, are afraid their children will be taken away. I knew and felt intuitively that that was the opposite reaction. Something based on love and not hate that would win this fight. And clearly we were the David to the NRA's Goliath at the beginning, we're going up against one of the strongest, most powerful, most wealthy lobbying interests that has ever existed in this country.
And here we are seven years later. We outspent them and outmaneuvered them in the 2018 midterm elections and then we just won in their own backyard in Virginia in November, flipping both chambers of the general assembly to be gun sense majorities and we're already passing stronger laws there. So there's so many examples of how this volunteer network, and I assure you, I am a full-time volunteer. Not only do I not take any money, I give it to the organization, this organization of volunteer women and moms and now we're mothers and others just like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We have lots of men and non moms but we have used our passion to take on this gun lobby and to win.
KH: You've racked up a number of victories that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Are your victories a result of mobilizing a base that just needs some direction and energy or are they the result of winning over people in the middle or are you actually finding you can convert people?
SW: It's really all of the above. We are a moderate, nonpartisan research based organization. And we realized early on after the Manchin-Toomey Bill, which would have closed the background check loophole, when that failed in the spring of 2013 even after the Sandy Hook shooting, that we realized we needed to pivot and do this work in state houses and in board rooms to really focus on how do we change this legislatively, how do we change it electorally, and then how do we change it culturally? And so we immediately started working in state houses because even though Congress wouldn't do the right thing, there were governors who would and did. But we also realized in those early days that we were going to spend so much time pushing back against bad laws the NRA was proposing. I mean, their agenda was sailing through state houses across this country. And so a huge amount of our energy was to stop that. We grew in each state depending on what was going on, whether it was that we were winning and passing bills or whether it was that these egregious bills were going through state houses and angering moms and women across the state and that was what got them off the sidelines.
KH: I would love an example of a bill like that that you successfully opposed. I can think of one from my own personal experience running for Congress when as I'm sure you know, every candidate is provoked or enticed by the NRA depending on where you sit to sign on to their legislative priorities. And in 2018 one of their top legislative priorities was to allow the sale of silencers over the counter. I mean, in the same shelf as deodorant at Walmart, which I found nuts. That's one example. But you've dealt with them across multiple states and municipalities. What are the egregious examples you've seen?
SW: Well, every year the same bills come up in every state. Guns on college campuses, arming teachers, stand your ground. These bills are basically part of the NRA's agenda to allow guns for anyone, anywhere, anytime, no questions asked. And so we would have to show up and either water these bills down, which we've done in many instances. Stop them altogether, which we've also done, but they pop up every year and so it's about being vigilant. When the NRA gave Donald Trump $30 million, they should have had their way with the president and Congress for two years, completely Republican, right, at the top of the ticket, president down to the house. And we were able to stop them from passing any of their priority legislation, including deregulating silencers and also something called concealed carry reciprocity. That's pretty staggering that we were able to do that. But what I find interesting is that often we grow because we fail. In my book I call it ‘losing forward’ and Arkansas is a great example of that. I would go to the state and I would visit and it would be sort of the same handful of very nice women every time. They weren't growing because I think people thought this issue is a waste of time in this state. And then what happened was that a bill forcing guns onto college campuses passed, sailed through the state house. The governor signed it standing next to the NRA's chief lobbyists and it enraged people in Arkansas. And suddenly we grew from about two local groups to a dozen overnight. We were able to use that new political power to go in and carve out an exemption so you couldn't bring guns into Razorback Stadium. And then the next year, two of our volunteers ran for office and won. One of them ran against the guy who put this bill forward and beat him by 12 points. And then the year after that we beat back Stand Your Ground twice with a Republican supermajority.
KH: It sounds like part of your success must be coming as a result of persuasion. In a state like Arkansas, where the gun extremists would have had their way not long ago, you must be winning converts over to your side of the argument. Can you give me an example of one of your Moms Demand Action groups actually engaging and winning over the skeptics or I would imagine occasionally even the extremists?
SW: Yeah, it does. It happens all the time based on these conversations. I mean, there were some Republicans in the state of Massachusetts for example, who had never been approached. They just sort of voted with the NRA and our Moms Demand Action volunteers went in and had conversations and they literally said, "We didn't know that we had constituents who cared about this issue and now we will vote because we get what you're saying." In States like Pennsylvania, we helped elect some Republicans in that state who are supporting us both at a federal and a state level and I mentioned Arkansas. After we stopped that Stand Your Ground vote, lawmakers did interviews and said, "The NRA's agenda is too extreme for the state of Arkansas." So it is all about creating these relationships across the aisle because they know their constituents support this. In a state like Texas, there are a lot of Republican mayors who support us and recent polling in Texas shows 86% of constituents now support stronger gun laws. So this is a winning issue. It's an issue that has broad consensus and any lawmaker who is doing the bidding of the gun lobby is not part of mainstream America.
KH: I want to believe though that it's not just a political calculation on the part of those politicians, that there's an emotional piece to it as well.
SW: Yeah. We've certainly seen people impacted, lawmakers impacted. A good example of that I think is after the horrific mass shooting in Dayton this summer, Republicans from a federal and state level said that they no longer supported the NRA's agenda. Now that hasn't necessarily born out in a change in the legislative agenda yet, but from members of Congress, to the governor, to state elected officials, that certainly shook their belief system and has resulted in a more moderate approach. And I hope that's born out in legislation.
KH: As you know, we're having Casey Weinstein on the show as well, who was spearheading that effort in the Ohio state house to limit the capacity of magazines and the reaction has been terrifying frankly. The death threats he has received. The first observation I have is that in terms of defending their position on programs like this, the NRA seems to have gone to ground. But their proxies are doing the ugly work of intimidation. And that has got to have an effect on you, I know it does on Casey. What has your interaction with the NRA been like and then how has that filtered out to the fringes of that movement and their interactions with you?
SW: Well, that all began in the early days. All of my information was online. I never imagined that I would do this and needed to be more private about my address and my phone number. And so, everything from letters to my home, to phone calls, to texts, to people driving by my home. And I really had to make a decision quickly, which was, am I going to be intimidated and afraid and stand down and not do this work or am I going to double down and let that become white noise and just forge ahead and refuse to be silenced and intimidated and I chose the latter. It's not because I'm incredibly brave. It was sort of a decision and I was angry that people were trying to make me be quiet and that's what I've done. I mean, I do not pay attention to all of the backlash. In fact, I think I've become pretty good at using it to my advantage when the NRA, they've started attacking me personally in the last year online. And so all of that to me now is just in the background and I refuse to let it dissuade me.
KH: Have you observed the same behavior on the part of the NRA and their, I wouldn't quite call it a retreat, but going to ground and letting others throw punches?
SW: For a long time that's what they did and then they started attacking me, I think to try to change the subject from their own issues. They are under investigation on many fronts, whether it's their ties to Russia, inappropriately spending members’ money, all of the things that have hobbled them. And so I think I'm a woman and I'm opinionated and I think in many ways I'm their worst nightmare. And so they started taking me on directly and it resulted in many more death threats, threats of sexual violence to me, to my children and made me much less safe. But I think it shows the last desperate gasps for power.
KH: Have you found an argument that is even partially persuasive to that extremist who believes that any law whatsoever, as you said, that affects their ability to amass weapons is an infringement of their Second Amendment rights? Is there a constitutional argument to be made or does that require from both parties a basic understanding of the constitution, which you're not going to get?
SW: Well, I mean even Justice Scalia said in the Heller case that every single right can be regulated to some extent. And the laws that we're talking about, like a background check on every gun sale, a red flag law that allows family or police depending on the state, to petition a judge for a temporary restraining order that removes guns from someone who's a danger to themselves or others, secure storage. All of these laws have been found to be constitutionally sound. And so this argument is bogus. Even these sanctuary cities we're seeing around the Second Amendment don't hold water. The resolutions are not worth the paper they're printed on. So this is not an argument that is typically held up that said, as we've seen in the Trump administration, the courts are changing significantly because of the judges that are being appointed. And so we're just waiting to see what the result of that is down the line of whether judges will continue to feel that way.
KH: But even our most conservative judges and you invoke Scalia have acknowledged that the Second Amendment doesn't guarantee an unlimited right to own any type of weapon. There are limits to be drawn but I fear you cannot make that argument when engaging with zealots. The constitutional argument doesn't work, which gets me back to my-
SW: You really don't need to. I mean, we win when Americans who support us vote on this issue and for so long this was not a primary voting issue. It was jobs, it was the economy, it was healthcare, all these different priorities but not many of them included gun safety. Now going into the 2020 election, it's in the top three issues for Democratic voters. And we're seeing that at a state level too because of the gun violence in this country and how it has increased and really become part of the national conversation. So we don't need this small vocal minority of gun extremists to see things our way. We just need to outvote them.
KH: Do you have a counter to the red herring argument, that movements like yours are coming for all of the guns?
SW: That has not been true. It's always been an NRA talking point. We are not against the second amendment. We're not anti-gun. Many of our volunteers are gun owners or their partners are, I mean there's 400 million guns in this country, so that's a red herring as are many of the NRA's talking points. And you can look at states that have passed stronger gun laws and see that that has not led to confiscation.
KH: One of the accusations I've seen thrown at you by the gun extremist fringe is that you are leading a movement to take away everyone's guns and yet you walk around with armed security. How do you answer that?
SW: So I actually don't have armed security. The job of the person who travels with me and I have to use an alias and travel to public events with this person all because I want a background check on every gun sale, which is bizarre, but his job is to find the closest hospital in case something were to happen to me. That said, I have no issue with people who have armed security. We're asking for a background check on every gun sale and training. And if you look at any armed security, they have had all of those things. And if the NRA wants to support that kind of training and rigorous proofing for the average gun owner, great.
KH: What about the good guys with guns argument, which again appeals to that twisted notion of masculinity, but it also appeals to the gun market and this idea that you better load up on guns and you better buy them from the people who fund the NRA.
SW: I mean that's just an absurd idea that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. When you look at where the incidents of gun violence are happening in this country, so often it starts with a gun that was a legal gun and was stolen and becomes an illegal gun or it's an incident of domestic gun violence. The majority of mass shootings in this country are spurred by an incident of domestic violence and they occur in a private residence. Over and over again we see for example, with incidences of road rage. These are just normal people who have a gun around and something spurs them to be angry or to want revenge and when a gun is involved it makes it all too easy to kill. And also, if you look at gun suicide in this country, two thirds of the gun deaths in this country are gun suicide. I wouldn't consider those a bad guy with a gun. Those are people who had easy access to guns in a time of crisis.
KH: Do you worry about the issue erupting into violence? Obviously we are already suffering violence from those lone wolf shooters and the school shooters, but do you worry about a more organized attempt by the extremists to fight back beyond the marches?
SW: Sure. We're always worried about violence. I mean we saw in Virginia after we started to pass these laws, started to go through committee, this huge rally of armed insurrectionists from all over the country showed up in Richmond and we know many of them were white supremacists or had threatened violence in advance of coming. We have seen threats to lawmakers. Our volunteers have been doxxed and threatened. And so you don't get into this work thinking that it's going to be easy or being fearful. I'm in awe of our brave and courageous volunteers every single day, but at the same time, what's the other option? Is it to stand down and allow gun extremists to write our nation's gun laws? That's given us a 25 times higher gun homicide rate than any other high income country. And so given that many of us are parents and our whole life is oriented around keeping our kids safe. That's just not an option.
KH: Well, we always end with the same question, Shannon. I'm fairly confident I have some sense of what the answer's going to be, but what is the bravest decision you've ever made and been a part of?
SW: Obviously it's to keep going with this organization, even though it was overwhelming and I honestly didn't know what I was doing in the early days and had no experience in organizing or in politics, trusted these women who reached out to me, perfect strangers from all across the country and refused to give in to all of the opposition who didn't want us to do this and we succeeded. And so, I look back in awe of the volunteers who have made this organization what it is. And I'm so grateful that I made that decision to start a Facebook page because it's been life changing and I know it's been lifesaving.
KH: Well thank you Shannon and I think you have proven the truism that you share in your book- moms are scarier than gun lobbyists. It's been great having you on the show.
SW: Thanks for having me.
KH: Thanks again to Shannon and Casey for joining me. You can find Shannon on Twitter and Instagram at @ShannonRWatts and her organization, Moms Demand Action, is on social media at @MomsDemand. You can find Casey on Twitter at @RepWeinstein.
Next time on Burn the Boats, we have a special episode for you. It’s primary season and elections are in the news across the country. More than half of states have a primary election during March. But how can we be sure that our votes are being counted fairly and accurately when we go to cast our ballot?
I'll talk to two people who are trying to make sure that they are. Naila Awan from Demos and Ben Guess from the ACLU join me to talk about the right to vote.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.