On Dec. 14, 2012, Shannon Watts was transfixed by the news.
Terrified children were marching out of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Inside, 20 kids, ages 6 and 7, had been shot and killed, along with six adult staff members.
Watts, a stay-at-home mom of five in Indiana, started to flash through all the mass shootings that had haunted her:
Dallas, Texas, 1991, 23 killed at Luby's Cafeteria. Jefferson County, Colorado, 1999, 12 students and one teacher murdered at Columbine High School. Blacksburg, Virginia, 2007, 32 people killed at Virginia Tech. Tucson, Arizona, 2011, six dead in a supermarket parking lot — U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords survived being shot in the head. Aurora, 2012, 12 dead at a movie theater.
"When Sandy Hook happened, for me, it was really the straw that broke the camel's back," Watts, now 45, remembers. "I thought, I have two choices. I can leave the country, which is very difficult with a family of seven, or I can stay and fight."
Watts responded in modern fashion: She started a Facebook page for a group she envisioned as the "MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] of gun safety." Four years later, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (MDA) has 3 million supporters, chapters in every state, and is partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety and Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Watts, a former corporate communications executive who now lives in Boulder, says the group is not anti-gun but does advocate for "common sense gun laws." MDA has recently focused on passing two laws in states across the nation, either by citizen-driven initiative or through legislatures. The first ensures all gun buyers pass a background check — whether buying from a licensed gun dealer, a private citizen or a gun show. The second states that domestic abusers cannot own guns, even if a state classifies domestic abuse as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and even if the abuser in question was just dating the victim.
MDA has fast become a national political force by lobbying state and federal legislatures, companies and educational institutions, as well as helping to introduce citizen-driven initiatives across the country. It also throws its support and grassroots efforts behind candidates who support gun safety laws. Together with its coalition, it has racked up impressive victories.
Watts notes that the so-called "background check loophole" has been closed in six states since Sandy Hook. Nevada and Maine have ballot initiatives targeting the loophole this November. More than a dozen state legislatures have strengthened their domestic abuser laws since Sandy Hook at MDA's urging, Watts says. The group also takes credit for defeating some 200 "bad laws" in states, including those that would allow guns on college campuses or in K-12 schools.
Even when MDA loses a battle, it continues to fight. Take Texas. In January, the state legalized open carry, much to the chagrin of MDA members. They responded by asking businesses to put up signs that prohibit open carry in their establishments. The group notes that thousands of business locations across Texas now have the signs.
"Now that we have this army, we can do what the NRA has done for decades," Watts says, "which is flip a switch and generate emails and calls and outrage and rallies."
This election season, Watts' group is backing Hillary Clinton, who has made ending gun violence a part of her platform. It will also back or oppose U.S. Senate candidates based on their vote on a failed 2013 bill to expand background checks. (Watts says they'll take on Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, for instance, but help Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania.)
In Colorado, MDA has been working hard on behalf of three Democrats: Tom Sullivan in Colorado Senate District 12; Morgan Carroll, running for the U.S. House against incumbent Mike Coffman; and incumbent state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger in Senate District 19. The group also supports Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs.
Amy Chambers, a Denver mom of two and co-chair of MDA's Colorado chapter, says the group isn't just looking at elections. Colorado MDA is planning an "educators for gun sense campaign." Chambers says many teachers — whether parents or not — are "very concerned about the changes in their workplace, the shift in responsibility moving away from educating to protecting." That, she says, makes them a great group to work with pushing new gun safety laws.
State Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, a former teacher, is familiar with MDA, saying the group lobbies the Legislature every year. He hopes they get more traction.
Colorado passed a package of gun control laws in 2013, including expanded background checks and limits on ammunition magazines. Those led to a recall of two state senators, including Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, though the seats were taken back by progressives in 2014.
While Senate Republicans have blocked more gun control laws in Colorado, Merrifield says he thinks MDA can make a difference.