By: Natalie Gontcharova
There are about a million reasons for women to run for office these days. For these moms, it’s to protect children from gun violence — an imperative that seems more pressing than ever in the current moment.
Over 75,000 would-be volunteers have reached out to gun-violence prevention group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in the week-plus since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and faculty were fatally gunned down.
“Moms,” as its members call it for short, is already four million supporters strong. Moms volunteers aren’t always “volunteers” in the conventional sense. They attend advocacy days at their state capitols, work with local law enforcement, and work with businesses to encourage gun safety. Hundreds of them have also recently expressed interest in running for office in order to overturn National Rifle Association-forced legislation that allows guns in places like schools and college campuses.
The group, which is the grassroots arm of Everytown For Gun Safety, funnels its volunteers into campaigns on the premise that political problem-solving requires many of the same skills as community organizing.
“They get training just by being a volunteer — everything from fundraising to canvassing to messaging to doing interviews — you’re naturally creating this network around you because you have like-minded volunteers,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told Refinery29. “It’s really encouraged women to get off the sidelines on a variety of issues. It’s going to energize the electorate and keep the focus on gun safety. And I think it will eventually flip Congress and our state houses, so it’ll be easier to pass good bills.”
On Friday, Moms held another call for volunteers interested in running. It has a track record, already, too: Since its inception in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Moms has had some major legislative wins, like getting background checks passed in eight states. Watts said that in November, 13 members of Moms Demand Action, from state reps to city council members, ran for office across the nation and nine won.
As the raw, anger-filled post-Sandy Hook response shows, mothers undoubtedly experience school shootings in a particularly personal way. The moms we interviewed ahead are running for office because they want to make school shootings — and all mass shootings — a thing of the past. And they’re ready to win big.
Lucy McBath, District 37, Georgia
McBath’s 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was gunned down in 2012 by a white man who was complaining about the rap music coming from the car Jordan and his friends were in. That’s when she knew she had to join the movement against gun violence.
“This [campaign] has been my therapy,” said McBath, who is running for the Georgia House in a suburban Atlanta district. “This has been the best therapy in the world for me because it makes me feel like Jordan didn’t die in vain, because we can change the culture that he died under. Jordan’s death was the catalyst for me becoming the person that I have always been — but maybe I would never have taken a leap of faith if not for that.”
If she is elected — and McBath, a 58-year-old two-time survivor of breast cancer, is the type of person who says, “I intend to win” with conviction — her main priority is to abolish Georgia’s concealed campus carry law, which makes it legal for licensed students over 21 to bring guns to certain parts of campus. If Jordan were still alive, she said, she would oppose him attending a college in Georgia because of it. Currently, 10 states including Georgia have provisions that allow people to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
“You spend all your life as a parent protecting and sheltering them, and then you’re sending them off to a college campus that has deliberately decided you can have firearms?!”
McBath, from speaking with Black students about it, said she’s come to view carrying arms on campus as a point of privilege for certain white students. “You’re a walking target if you’re a young Black male...the gun gives them more empowerment, which puts students of color at a disadvantage.” She says she’s also spoken to Muslim families who are “scared to death” of campus carry, and have decided to send their kids to school out of state after it was passed.
“As the raw, anger-filled post-Sandy Hook response shows, mothers undoubtedly experience school shootings in a particularly personal way.”
In addition to Jordan’s death, two other things buoy McBath to run and win: her deep faith and her childhood in the civil rights movement. She grew up watching her father, then the president of the NAACP’s Illinois branch, edit the state’s civil rights newspaper.
Watching her father work has informed her own activism. She reminisced:
“I remember the volunteers coming to my house at night with their cocktails and cigarettes, strategizing... I remember holding my mom’s hand, walking down the street, signing spirituals... I remember one year during the Black Power movement, my father got us a black Christmas tree. My momma and I were like, ‘What is that?!’”
Her dad responded: “Our Christmas tree is black because it represents who we are.”
Amber Gustafson, District 19, Iowa
Gustafson, a 41-year-old mother of three kids (14, 12 and 8) who is running for Iowa State Senate, was a Republican until 2008. She became a member of the Democratic Party in 2016, when she caucused for Hillary Clinton. Two things made her leave the GOP: guns and healthcare.
While she grew up on a farm in a gun-owning family, she was never an NRA member and said the organization’s rhetoric didn’t line up with her beliefs. “They’re very hardline. And among my friends at the time, there was one way to talk about guns and no opportunity for thoughtful discussion. That frustrated me, because if kids are endangered we need to put every option on the table.”
Like it did to many moms, the Sandy Hook massacre put Gustafson over the edge. At the time, she had two kids in school and her middle daughter was the same age as the kids who were murdered in the Newtown, CT, elementary school.
She wanted to join the conversation as a person who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to guns. “Quite frankly, at the time, my opinion was, ‘These liberals don’t know anything about guns; they need me to get into the conversation so they don’t get anything wrong.’”
What she wanted liberals to know: “Gun owners are not the enemy. The vast majority support good, responsible gun legislation, but they’re afraid to speak out on it because of the clapback they get. Let’s reach out to gun owners as allies, not marginalize them, and acknowledge that the Constitution guarantees an inherent right to defend yourself.”
Gustafson’s legislative priorities are mental healthcare funding and access — Iowa ranks among the bottom states in the nation for mental health treatment and has a higher than average suicide rate — making sure people with a history of domestic violence don’t have access to weapons, and curbing the types of gun regulations the NRA loves to dismantle.
Right now, there’s a law making its way through the state legislature that would allow people to carry loaded guns in the carpool lanes of Iowa schools, where parents drop kids off and pick them up — even though the state currently prohibits guns on school grounds. Gustafson plans to take that on.
When asked why legalizing guns in school carpool lanes is anybody’s legislative priority, Gustafson said: “It comes down to the issue of wanting to normalize openly carrying guns absolutely everywhere.”
Nicole Clowney, District 86, Arkansas
Just like for the other moms, for 35-year-old Clowney, who's running for a House seat in Arkansas' District 86, the fight is personal. She has two daughters: Evie, 7, and Kit, 3.
"After the Florida shooting, that night, I was just lying in bed and staring at my ceiling for hours because I was thinking about my own daughter," she said. "Those kids hid in the closet. I was thinking, My daughter's classroom doesn't have a closet. I'm getting choked up even talking about it... That will give me fuel for years."
It was a conversation with her daughter that inspired Clowney to run this past fall. "I was talking to Evie about my day. I said, 'I met with our legislator.' And she said, 'So you met with a boy? That sounds to me like one of those all-boy jobs.'"
Clowney realized that her daughter wasn't completely wrong; after all, all of the legislators from their city of Fayetteville, AR, were men.
"As soon as I heard that, I said, 'Well, mommy's going to do the job.'"
Clowney's grassroots campaign, supported by Moms Demand Action — she's the founding leader of the Northwest Arkansas branch — started with a few friends in her living room and has grown from there. Most of the members had no political experience before volunteering for her. "We're just regular people standing up for our kids."
Like McBath in Georgia, Clowney, who is a professor at the University of Arkansas, wants to take on the state's new concealed campus carry law.
In 2013, a bill was passed allowing guns on college campuses, but individual campuses were allowed to opt out at first. Subsequently, almost all of the over 30 campuses in the state opted out "because they know it's a terrible idea," Clowney said. But after many iterations, legislators forced through a bill in 2017 that ended the opt-out option. There are many worrisome parts in it, said Clowney, including that you don't even need to keep a gun holstered. Guns are also now allowed not only on campuses, but in bars, churches, and many other public places in Arkansas.
"Many responsible gun owners say this is a recipe for disaster," Clowney said. Part of her goal is making people recognize that the vast majority of Americans support sensible gun policy (over 90% support universal background checks, including gun owners).
"The more and more out-of-touch the NRA gets, the more extreme their message gets, the more gun owners look at them and say, 'Oh, that's not me, and they're making me look bad.' There's a lot of that happening; there's a lot of discomfort with the message."
Nancy de Pastino, District 91, Montana
At the time of Sandy Hook, 42-year-old de Pastino’s daughter Sofia Eve, now 11, was in first grade. “That shooting absolutely broke my heart, but it also opened my eyes to the epidemic of gun violence in this country and the stranglehold the gun lobby has on our legislators,” she said.
That’s how de Pastino, who also has an 8-year-old son named Zane, started the Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action, and consequently got to know the Montana legislature and gained alliances and friends who care about gun safety. Before running, she worked full-time for Moms Demand Action, managing the group’s work in 17 other states after founding the Montana chapter.
She decided to run for office last year because “it was time for a seat at the table,” she said. She already had a number of legislative wins under her belt, including an expanded background check ordinance in Missoula, MT, in 2016.
“A lot of running is getting the word out and talking to people about issues they care about, knocking on doors, making phone calls, holding events — that’s all stuff we do at Moms Demand Action,” she said. “I was very well-prepared.”
Working on gun violence prevention in Montana for the past five years, her group has been successful in defeating “every bad bill” that has been brought in the past two legislative sessions — “and that’s like 10 bills,” she said. A lot of the work she’s done is keeping the laws that are already on the books and not letting them get dismantled.
If she wins the seat, she said, she wants to help pass a bill that gets guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, as well as work on suicide prevention — a problem that plagues many rural areas. Montana has the second highest suicide rate in the country.
Like the other candidates, she thinks it’s crucial to work with gun owners. “The conversation is so extreme and when you really have one-on-one conversations with people, you realize there’s so much more common ground than you give people credit for.”
It’s with Republican support, she said, that Moms has kept guns away from college campuses, banks, offices, and more in Montana. Guns also aren’t allowed in K-12 schools in the state — “not that the gun lobby hasn’t tried that... But we have fought those bills super-hard.”
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