Relentless Incrementalism

Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts


When a heavily armed gunman fired 154 rounds at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, it took him less than five minutes to take 26 lives. Twenty children and six adults were killed that day in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. 

At the time, Shannon Watts had taken a break from her corporate career in communication to spend time with her five children but planned to soon return to work. When news of the shooting started unfolding on television, hearts broke across the country.

“I was so devastated that day — like everyone in America — but the next day I wasn’t just angry, I was outraged,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I want to do something.’ Something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which was very influential to me as a kid growing up in the ‘80s. MADD changed the culture around drinking and driving and responsibility.”

Much to her surprise there was no similar group for curtailing guns and promoting gun safety. “There were some think tanks and there were some one-off state organizations that were almost all run by men,” Watts says. “I knew what affects change in this country: it’s a bad-ass army of women. I’ve seen it over and over again.”

Naturally, she turned to social media. “I thought, ‘I’ll start a Facebook page to have a conversation about the need for this kind of organization. I never intended to start it myself. I only had about 75 Facebook friends at the time, but it was like lightning in a bottle. People — mostly women and moms from all across the country — started emailing me, calling me, texting me.”

They all wanted to know one thing. “They were asking, ‘How do I do this where I live?’ I don’t think any of us really knew what ‘this’ was, but we just intuitively started organizing in our communities and in our states.” Ten years later, that initial Facebook page has grown into what Watts says is the largest grassroots organization in the country. The group she founded, Moms Demand Action, has more than 10 million supporters — twice as many than are members of the  National Rifle Association. Watts has been a full-time volunteer at Moms Demand Action since she founded the group. 

Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts in Washington, D.C., at a podium with a crowd looking onWhile the successes have gathered momentum along the way, there were also roadblocks. For example, the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill in 2013 requiring background checks for every gun sale failed in the Senate by a handful of votes. 

“Honestly, I thought, ‘America’s not ready for this. We’ve done our best, it’s time to go back to our normal lives.’ And our very brilliant volunteers said, ‘No, let’s just start doing this at school boards, at city councils, at state houses and even corporate boardrooms.’ And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing now for a decade.”

The need for the work that Watts and Moms Demand Action does is clear: According to the Gun Violence Archive — an independent data collection and research group with no affiliation with any advocacy organization — the U.S. has had 416 mass shootings in 2022 (at press time).  

Despite the enormity of the challenge, the effect of the group’s work is measurable.

“I’m very proud that we’ve passed hundreds of good gun laws at the state level: Everything from requiring background checks on all gun sales to California’s red flag law to laws that disarm domestic abusers to laws that require secure gun storage inside the home.”

Members and supporters are putting their money where their mouths are. “In 2018, our organization outspent the NRA for the first time,” she notes. That milestone had a lasting effect: “We elected our own volunteer to Congress, Lucy McBath from Georgia. Her son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed by a white man who said [Jordan’s] music was too loud.” 

Other successes include the 2022 federal bipartisan gun safety bill. “No one imagined we would be able to pass legislation at the federal level. It was really because we had built this grassroots machinery to put pressure on every single U.S. Senator to do the right thing after the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde.”

Watts’ son, Sam Troughton ‘23, is a business major at USD looking forward to his senior year on campus. She vividly recalls their first visit to Alcalá Park. 

“At the time, we were living in Colorado. He knew he wanted to go to college in California. Sam is 6’8” and about 200 pounds, and he’d just broken his leg playing basketball,” she says, with a rueful laugh. “I had to push him in a wheelchair all around the USD campus, which was a big workout for me, but we both loved the school. The grounds were so beautiful and the people were so friendly. It was cozy. This was the first school that when he was accepted, he said, ‘I want to go there,’ even though he’d only visited once.”

When asked what advice she’d give those who want to stop being mad and start making a difference, she advises patience.

“People get frustrated by incrementalism, but that’s the way the system is set up. I really do think relentless incrementalism is what leads to revolutions. The most intractable issues can be addressed through incremental change. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s like drips on a rock; it all adds up.” — Julene Snyder

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In October 2022, Watts was named  one of Glamour magazine’s “women of the year”

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