When I started Moms Demand Action more than seven years ago, gun safety was considered the third rail of politics. Passing strong gun laws was something that many thought could only be accomplished in blue states along the coasts. But thanks to the fierce persistence and tireless efforts of our volunteers in all 50 states, we’ve shown that life-saving legislation can be a reality in blue, red and purple states. We’ve also helped change how Americans view gun violence prevention, and made it a marquee issue for politicians to run—and win—on.
We know that in order to effect real change in how gun violence prevention measures are studied, legislated and enacted, we need to be in the halls of power ourselves and cultivate partnerships with politicians who are committed to standing up to the gun lobby like we are. One of them is New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has brought her public health expertise and fierce commitment to gun safety with her to the governor’s office.
You can watch my full Demanding Women conversation with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham here:
Ahead are just six of the many lessons that came out of my conversation with Gov. Lujan Grisham.
This fight is fundamentally about safety.
The fight to prevent gun violence isn’t about taking away anyone’s rights, it’s about keeping our families and our communities safe by encouraging and legislating for responsible gun ownership. That’s a message that resonates with Gov. Lujan Grisham. “We all have a constitutional right to be safe in our homes and communities,” she told me during our conversation.
And our students and educators have a right to be safe at school—which is why we must make gun safety a priority when schools reopen, Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “These tragedies are preventable, so we should be talking about them in the 2020 election. Because we need federal leadership to make sure every state has an opportunity to once and for all prevent the kind of violence that is occurring and playing out in all of our communities every day,” she said.
That includes gun violence that happens behind closed doors in American homes, too, including domestic abuse, unintentional shootings and firearm suicides. During our conversation, Gov. Lujan Grisham spoke about the need to strengthen the systems that protect our families, especially amid the isolation and economic stress of the COVID-19 crisis. “If you’re isolating families, we know that there is risk—that’s the behavioral health aspect of all of this,” she said. “And then you introduce a firearm, and you just enhance those risks.”
Do the groundwork.
Moms Demand Action’s strength comes from our diversity, and the fact that our volunteers live, work and raise their families in every state in the country. That gives us an edge when advocating for gun safety legislation, because we know that every state’s political landscape, history, experience with gun violence and culture of gun ownership is different. For example, the governor described a strong culture of gun ownership among generations of ranchers, farmers and hunters in New Mexico. But there is also an escalating problem of gun violence; there are nearly 400 gun deaths in the state every year, on average, and gun deaths have increased 43 percent in the last decade. Every year, more than 250 people die by gun suicide in New Mexico, with an average of 34 hours between gun suicide deaths.
Moms Demand Action volunteers in New Mexico and their partners armed themselves with facts and took what they know about their communities to help advocate for three major pieces of gun safety legislation: background checks on all gun sales, legislation protecting domestic violence victims from gun violence, and New Mexico’s extreme risk law, which allows law enforcement officers to petition a court for temporary removal of a firearm when a court finds that someone poses an extreme risk to themself or others. And the hard work paid off—the three bills were signed into law. “You had tested these legislative ideas, you had really set a narrative, and that made my job much easier, even though it took us two efforts to get all three bills passed,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said of our volunteers’ work in her state.
That strong foundation lets us feel confident that the laws we help pass will stand up to legal challenges—and they have, both in New Mexico and across the country. Gov. Lujan Grisham has stood behind her policies even in the face of challenges from the NRA. “We’re on solid legal ground. No governor, no person is suggesting to do something outside of these strong legal grounds,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “All of [these rights] have limitations. Your personal right cannot affect the rights and safety of other individuals, and the notion that these rights are unabridged in any way by anyone—including the NRA—are false. And we need to keep pushing that out so folks are clear that we’re on the right side of these issues.”
Make responsible gun owners your allies.
Because we’re fighting for something as important and universal as our families’ safety, people from all walks of life have joined our grassroots movement. Moms Demand Action is proudly mothers and others—dads, students, survivors and gun owners who want to see laws passed that keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. We know that what unites us is far greater than what divides us; for example, 87 percent of gun owners support background checks on all gun sales. And our Wear Orange movement partly takes its symbolic color from hunters, who have always worn orange to keep themselves and others safe in the woods.
During our conversation, Gov. Lujan Grisham and I were joined by Robin Brulé, a New Mexico Moms Demand Action volunteer and member of the Everytown Survivor Network whose mother was taken by gun violence. Robin’s family owns guns, and she asked how lawmakers could better engage with gun owners on gun safety. Gov. Lujan Grisham said that in New Mexico, she knows that people hunt to put food on their tables and keep guns to protect themselves and their livestock from predators.
She spoke about the work she’s done to engage gun owners in the conversation. “I want to understand: how can I make it easy for you to do public safety, to do your job and work, to get effective gun safety training, to protect others?” she said. “When you start from that perspective instead of, ‘I have all of these gun violence and gun safety pieces of legislation, can I explain them to you?’ I think it does change the conversation. I need folks who are responsible gun owners to make sure I understand those issues and that we aren’t going to create an environment where unnecessarily, their rights get abridged in any way.” Moms Demand Action has always been proud to stand with responsible gun owners who know firsthand how crucial gun safety is.
Let science and facts guide your policies.
Before she was elected governor, Gov. Lujan Grisham served as her state’s secretary of public health, and she has always viewed gun violence as the public health emergency it is. That has also informed her approach to gun safety legislation. “We should be following science and we should be fact-based,” she said during our conversation. “If you want a successful advocacy campaign, people want to know that you’re telling them the truth and that you’re addressing problems using evidence-based strategies so you’ll know that they’ll work.”
That means funding gun violence research, she said, as well as understanding the behavioral aspects of the issue, such as why people rushed out to buy a record 4.2 million guns in March and April as coronavirus lockdown orders went into effect. “Before even food purchases early on, people were rushing to buy firearms. So we need to understand that response and find ways to deal with people’s earnest fear,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “And we don’t like folks like the NRA building on that fear by giving them false facts and a false agenda.” The facts are on our side, however, which is why the NRA doesn’t stand a chance.
Don’t be intimidated by the gun lobby.
Gov. Lujan Grisham spoke about how both advocates and lawmakers must work together to pass gun safety laws, even when it means taking on well-funded, vocal or entrenched interests. Going up against the NRA involves fact-checking its “scare tactics that we are taking everybody’s guns away, that we are creating a registry to somehow punish you,” she said. It’s also about busting the NRA’s false narrative that gun safety “really is a hidden agenda not to deal with gun violence but just to reduce and restrict people’s individual rights. And that’s not true,” she added.
We also discussed the armed protests that have popped up in states across the country against coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Gov. Lujan Grisham said it’s important to recognize that while we have the right of freedom of speech, armed protests serve to intimidate others rather than engage in discourse. “I’ve worried and been concerned that that’s not an effective way to demonstrate your opinion against the decisions of any administration, including ours,” she said. Instead, public health policies and data should drive reopening efforts in states battling the coronavirus so that our families can be safe, she said.
Be unafraid and unabashed.
Gov. Lujan Grisham shared her story of going undercover in her fight for nursing home reform—a demanding woman move if there ever was one. Her efforts ultimately helped pass important safety policies, she said, but that work isn’t finished yet, especially as the coronavirus affects nursing home residents across the country. So that’s why it’s important to remember that any fight worth our time is a marathon, not a sprint.
But we have strong partners in this fight, and the energy to keep going. Gov. Lujan Grisham’s final piece of advice to our volunteers was one that I loved, from one demanding woman to another: “Let’s go win it all, everywhere we can.”
Demanding Women: Quarantine Conversations About Gun Violence
I’ve been hosting conversations with women leaders from around the country. Catch up on the conversations!Watch here
Shannon Watts is a mother of five who, prior to founding Moms Demand Action, was a stay-at-home mom and former communications executive. The day after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Shannon started a Facebook group with the message that all Americans can and should do more to reduce gun violence. The online conversation turned into a grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures that protect people from gun violence. Moms Demand Action has established a chapter in every state of the country and is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country, with nearly 6 million supporters. In addition to her work with Moms Demand Action, Watts is an active board member of Emerge America, one of the nation’s leading organizations for recruiting and training women to run for office.