In light of the horrific loss of life in Las Vegas Sunday evening, when a lone wolf killed 59 people and wounded over 500 more during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, Billboard reconnected with Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (a part of Everytown for Gun Safety), which she founded after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Watts previously contributed to Billboard in the wake the Orlando tragedy of June 2016, when 49 people were killed by a lone shooter at the popular Pulse nightclub. At the time, Watts offered actionable steps and hope.
Now, she tells us what’s changed since then in terms of gun laws, how country stars can help and what more needs to be done.
What has or hasn’t changed since the Pulse nightclub shooting last year around gun legislation?
The good news is that at the state level, we have continued to pass strong laws and continued to stop bad bills. So we are building a lot of momentum in state legislature. Just this week we passed a bill after working on it for three years that keeps guns out of the hands of domestic abusers in Rhode Island. At the federal level, we just elected the candidate that the NRA supported and was Donald Trump’s largest outside donor. But in Congress, in 2016, we also were able to defeat lawmakers like Kelly Ayotte, who did the wrong thing on background checks. So I would say we’re making progress in some areas and some areas are a little tougher.
What are the areas that are a little tougher?
We have a president that is aligned with the NRA and we have a Congress that is lead by Republicans, many of whom are beholden to the gun lobby and won’t necessarily pass good bills like closing the background checks loopholes. But at the same time we’re hopeful — because we have this grassroots movement now post-Sandy Hook — that we can stop bad legislation like the bills that the NRA is promoting right now, like silencers and concealed carry reciprocity. And we have continued to grow. In 2014 we had about 4,500 active volunteers; today we have 60,000.
This happened in the middle of a country music festival. Can you talk about country music’s role now too, given its traditional silence around gun legislation change and also its NRA ties?
I think all entertainers, artists and celebrities have a role to play in this. We have something called the Creative Council with our organization, which Juilanne Moore is in charge of. It’s a huge list of celebrities and others who are committed to helping us with this issue. That’s new to this movement. Any country music stars who support common sense gun laws are welcome to join us and to stand up and say, “Gun violence is a crisis in America, and there’s more we can do.” It doesn’t have to be partisan.
Why aren’t more country music stars stepping up and saying that?
It’s a type of music that is particularly popular in areas where gun violence and gun laws may be a polarizing discussion. It probably makes it difficult to have this be the issue that you get most involved in and vocal about. I understand that. But, at the same time, when there’s a horrific tragedy like this, it’s an opportunity for people to say, “Saving American lives should be everyone’s goal.”
Can you give us a brief overview of Nevada’s gun laws and how they may have played into the shooter getting access to his cache of guns?
I think that that’s still being sussed out. Newsweek wrote a great piece about how open carry is legal in Nevada, which could contribute to how he moved the guns around so publicly. We passed background checks legislation in 2016 by ballot initiative; that has not been implemented by the state government yet. So background checks are not required on every single gun purchase but it’s still unclear if [the shooter] has a criminal history or not. And also it looks like there is some aspect to automatic weapons — and again, we don’t know if this was an automatic weapon or a semi-automatic weapon that was rigged to fire like an automatic weapon, there’s a lot that is just not clear.
But I will tell you this: someone wrote today that gun safety laws are like antibiotics. They’re not the perfect, holistic solution, but when applied, they work very effectively. We know that to address gun violence, it’s going to have to be a holistic set of solutions. Just like when we decreased car deaths in this country. It wasn’t just about seat belts. It was seat belts, it was air bags, it was safer cars generally, it was a whole host of things and all of them contributed to dramatically decreasing the amount of driving deaths every year. The same kinds of solutions would work, if we applied them: Background checks on every gun sale, keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people, using gun safety technology, requiring gun owners to store their guns responsible, it’s a whole host of things that we know could work and we really haven’t tried any of them because of our gun laws.
What can readers do to help enact change?
The first thing is that we all need to call our members of Congress and say that they absolutely should vote no on NRA priority legislation, like silencers and concealed carry reciprocity, which are two bills that are making their way right now to Congress. Those bills should not go through; they’re opposed by police, they’re opposed by constituents and they are dangerous. They are the NRA’s dream and a public safety nightmare and people should call and oppose those bills. The other thing they can do is join us. We are fighting gun violence where people live, in every single state of the country. And you can do that by texting “ready” to 64433. And also be educated about this issue when you go to vote. Heidi Heitkamp is a Democratic senator who voted the wrong way on this issue after Sandy Hook. She voted against background checks even though she’s a Democrat. Those are not people we should be giving money to or voting for and people need to understand where their lawmakers stand on this issue before they vote. Do they have an A rating from the NRA? Well that means that they probably support guns for domestic abusers and they don’t support background checks on every gun sale… That should be a litmus test.
We are really the only developed country that has a gun lobby. There’s been an experiment in our country now for a couple of decades: what happens when we have a lot of guns and very few gun laws. And it’s very clear that that’s a failed experiment, the outcome of it is we have a 20-times higher gun homicide rate than any other developed nation. It is up to Americans to put an end to it.