The worst fear lurking in the back of every mothers’ heads is “What if something terrible happens to my child?”
If you’re an American mother, add “What if my child gets shot?”
At school, at the mall, at a friend’s house where guns aren’t kept safely—Americans, and American children die from firearms at a far greater rate than in any other industrialized nation. This February, a high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, made clear just how difficult it is to protect kids from mass shootings under permissive US gun laws. Now parents are mobilizing to change those laws—especially the mothers.
From the mom whose son was fatally shot, to the aunt angry on behalf of her bereaved nieces, to the mom scared to send her kid to kindergarten, many American women are furious about the toll gun violence is taking on their families and communities. These activists are joining a long tradition of fed-up mothers who’ve battled dictatorships and entrenched political systems throughout history.
Clad in red t-shirts, the members of Moms Demand Action have become a fixture at gun bill hearings across the country, calling for stricter gun regulation and tougher lawmakers. After the Parkland shootings, their ranks swelled from 70,000 to over 200,000.
By its own count, the predominantly volunteer organization has racked up dozens of legislative victories in recent years, defeating NRA-backed bills to make guns easier to carry, and helping pass a growing number of state “red flag” laws to keep guns from the hands of troubled people.Their real test comes this November, when the entire 435 seat House of Representatives, 35 Senate seats, and hundreds in US states are up for grabs.
Moms Demand have become “a real engine for mobilization for gun control advocates, and an important reason why gun rights groups haven’t gotten more permissive laws enacted,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
The group is “evidence of what most of us already know—moms can and will move mountains to protect their kids, and they will continue to work hard to make sure no more innocent lives are lost to gun violence,” said Mark Warner, a Democratic senator from Virginia. “That’s incredibly powerful stuff.”
Moms Demand welcomes fathers, too, and uncles and brothers—but it remains predominantly mothers. They’re driven by what founder Shannon Watts says is “not a touchy-feely Hallmark emotion,” but a “badass warrior emotion.”
“There is something instinctual about women and mothers wanting to protect their children and their communities’ children, even strangers’ children,” she said. A mother’s love “knows no law, no pity,” she added, quoting Agatha Christie. “It dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path,” Christie’s quote continues.
The world has seen that remorseless, warrior mother instinct before. In 1989, a group of women founded the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, to fight the vicious and sometimes deadly hazing their sons faced during military service. It grew to a nationwide movement, and the women won the early return of thousands of soldiers, plus life and health insurance for them.
During Russia’s 1995 war with Chechnya, some Soldiers’ Mothers took the extraordinary step of heading into the military zone and negotiating with Russian commanders to take their sons home. Their sincerity made them effective as anti-war activists, said Rachel Denber, director of the Europe and Central Asia region for Human Rights Watch. “They weren’t egg-headed intellectuals, or trained activists,” she said, they were just mothers who wanted their sons back.
In China, the Tiananmen Mothers have been demanding for nearly 30 years that the Communist Party acknowledge having killed hundreds—or maybe thousands—of students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square Massacre. It’s a brave stand in a country where the historic massacre is strictly censored and human rights activists regularly jailed.
Dozens of the Tiananmen Mothers have died from old age. Some have been silenced, and the government has only become more authoritarian under president Xi Jinping. But last year’s annual letter still bristled with anger:
The culprit responsible for this unparalleled massacre is a government bereft of humanity, a government bloated with unchecked power that scorns the constitution and the will of the people!
Moms Demand itself is modeled on another powerful grassroots movement that changed the way Americans thought about alcohol and cars: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Candy Lightner, a real estate agent, started MADD in her kitchen after her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver while walking down a quiet country road. A police officer enraged Lightner when he pointed out that Cari’s killer might not be jailed at all, because drunk-driving sentences were so lenient.
“Death caused by drunk drivers is the only socially acceptable form of homicide,” she told People magazine in 1981.
MADD organized women to pushed for state-by-state changes, fighting the auto and alcohol lobbies in order to raise drinking ages and penalties for drunk driving. They were successful: In the 1970s, over 60% of fatal car crashes involved alcohol. That percentage has since fallen by half:
“You’re a pariah now if you drink and drive,” said Sarah Dachos, a former Navy pilot who runs the Moms Demand Washington, DC chapter.
If Moms Demand is successful, in five years, Americans will be similarly aware of basic gun safety, she said. “To not have universal background checks? People will be saying ‘What?’”
Hundreds of members of Moms Demand are survivors of gun violence, meaning they’ve lost a loved one, or been shot themselves. Chapter meetings usually start by asking the survivors in the room to raise their hands, and the rest thanking them for being there.
Karen Cobb’s only child, Kyle, was fatally shot 10 years ago. She started a Moms Demand group in Roanoke, Virginia, after attending a vigil for Parkland students. “I just can’t be silent anymore—I have a voice and I have to speak up,” she said.
Cobb says gun violence is so pervasive in her area that she has attended three funerals for young black men already this year. As her group’s leader, Cobb has met with Roanoke’s mayor and vice-mayor, is working with the police chief on a Mother’s Day education event, and is partnering with the city council. “I’m a believer in aggressive diplomacy,” she said.
Dawnee Giammittorio joined Moms Demand after her sister-in-law Ruthanne was murdered four years ago by a stranger in Alexandria, Virginia. Ruthanne was a music teacher, wife, and mother of three daughters.
“We’re a close-knit Italian family, and I was furious my nieces were not going to have their mother,” Giammittorio said. Moms Demand offered “a way to channel my anger.”
Like many others interviewed for this article, Giammittorio emphasized the far-reaching damage that even a single shooting has on a community. “You see gun violence on the news all the time, these mass shootings, and you do body counts,” she said. But news reports rarely show the wider repercussions. Many of Ruthanne’s young music students were completely devastated by her death, she said.
As the “survivor engagement lead” in Virginia, Giammittorio works with people who have reached out to Moms Demand after encountering gun violence.
Over 50 survivors are active in her group. “I find that a lot of people really want to talk about their loved ones,” Giammittorio said. “It’s very personal, and you form strong bonds doing this.”
Five years ago, the notion of a group of moms challenging the deep-pocketed National Rifle Association in their spare time seemed ludicrous. But by many measures, the NRA has shifted to its back foot in recent months.
Despite the fact that the US president and vice president showed support for the NRA by speaking at its annual convention this month, more Americans than ever before hold an unfavorable view of the group. Sparked by a post-Parkland student movement, national support for strengthening gun laws is the highest it has been since the mid-1990s.
“One of the NRA’s most powerful assets was their ability to mobilize and be noisy,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Mike Bloomberg-funded Everytown For Gun Safety, which was formed when Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns merged with Moms Demand in 2014. But angry parents and students are now out-shouting the gun industry and gun owners. Moms Demand, Feinblatt notes, is “driven by a ferocious desire to protect their children, and an ability and willingness to show up anytime, anywhere.”
The NRA declined to comment about Moms Demand’s influence on America’s ongoing gun safety debate.
Turnout for Moms Demand meetings with lawmakers has swelled this year, the group says.
Several Moms Demand members are running for local office, including former North Carolina chapter head Christy Clark. She and Eve Jorgensen, the Arkansas chapter leader, have tattoos of the group’s “One tough mother” slogan.
Cultural changes will happen “with education, patience, and perseverance,” Cobb said.
But for mothers who have lost their children, one thing is constant, she said: “You never stop grieving. You really have to work on not blaming yourself for what happened, because as mothers, we’re always questioning ourselves.”
Instead, Cobb says, “every day, I put my suit of armor on, and I get up, and I say to myself ‘Kyle, what am I going to do for you today?’ “