STAY TUNED: Guns, Schools & The NRA (with Shannon Watts)
Preet Bharara: Shannon Watts, thank you for being on the show.
Shannon Watts: Thank you for having me.
Preet Bharara: So, it’s been an interesting week or two, right?
Shannon Watts: It has been both horrifically tragic and devastating, and at the same time, there feels like a silver lining of hope.
Preet Bharara: Well, are we in a real moment of change here? Is it a watershed, or is it just a fleeting moment, like lots of other fleeting moments have been?
Shannon Watts: It doesn’t feel fleeting, and you know, I’ll just say this. I’ve been working on this now for five years. I don’t know that any moment is fleeting. I think they all build upon one another. People get educated about what the problem is in this country. They decide to get off the sidelines, sometimes slowly, sometimes en masse. But to me, this feels different because I think Americans are so fed up. I mean, this horrific mass school shooting was a mass shooting in line with so many others over the past couple years, especially since Donald Trump was elected. I mean, we had the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history in Las Vegas.
So, I think Americans were already angry and outraged at the inaction of lawmakers, and when this happened, they were ready to go. Everyone is looking for a cathartic moment in Congress, where we can all sort of clap and say, okay, we did what we needed to do. I don’t know that this issue will result in that way. We have a Congress, too many of whom are beholden to the NRA, and a president who received over $30 million in campaign contributions from the NRA. To imagine that they’re all going to have a change of heart overnight is probably unrealistic. But what is realistic is to know that Americans have power in a democracy, and if we stay focused on this issue, if we get educated, if we use our voices and our votes, and we look at the midterms, we can enact real change and elect a Congress that won’t rely on thoughts and prayers every time there’s a mass shooting tragedy.
Preet Bharara: You talked about people getting off the sidelines. Why don’t you explain to folks who are not familiar how that happened to you five years ago? What you were doing, and what you started, and what you accomplished?
Shannon Watts: I’m a mom of five, and I can remember folding laundry as I was watching TV the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012. And CNN started saying it looks like there’s a school shooting. And it did not look good. And I remember saying out loud, dear God, please let this not be as bad as it seems. And in retrospect, as we all know it was a million times worse than really anyone can fathom. That 20 babies and six other educators would be slaughtered in the sanctity of an elementary school was devastating, but then to hear pundits and lawmakers immediately get on television and say, well, you know, the solution is more guns.
Preet Bharara: Right. And now’s not the time. Now’s not the time.
Shannon Watts: The now is not the time, and thoughts and prayers, and all of the pablum that goes along with shootings in this country, I then became very angry and agitated. And the next morning, I woke up and I thought, you know, I’m gonna look online for something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but for gun safety.
Preet Bharara: But had you been involved in anything relating to gun safety or gun shootings before?
Shannon Watts: No, I hadn’t even been political, other than to donate to campaigns. I was a communications executive at several Fortune 500 companies. I had taken a few years off because I had five kids. I had no knowledge of not only federal gun laws, but my own state. At the time, I lived in Indiana. I just knew that as a mom, our country was broken. And I had sort of two options, which was, one, to figure out how to move a family of seven to another country, or to stay and fight. And so, I spent about an hour looking online and I couldn’t find what I was looking for. And I thought, well, I know how to start a Facebook page. Maybe I can just have an online conversation with other like-minded moms and women.
And I had 75 Facebook friends at the time, so it wasn’t like I was super connected. But was happened was amazing. I can remember a man I knew on Facebook but didn’t know in person who lived in Virginia and was a gun owner connected me with a friend he had in Brooklyn who had just posted something similar on her own Facebook page, which was, we need moms to activate on this issue. And things like that just kept happening over and over and over. And a week later, I was on the cover of USA Today. And just weeks after that, we got a call from the White House who said, look, we’ve been waiting for women and moms to organize around this issue. Will you help us push background checks through Congress? And the rest is history. We are a huge grassroots movement now with a chapter in every single state of the country, over 100,000 active volunteers. And just to put that in context, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has been around since the ‘80s. They only have 15,000 active volunteers. And we have four million members in conjunction with Every Town for Gun Safety. We’re their grassroots arm.
Preet Bharara: But you take dads too.
Shannon Watts: We take all caring Americans. There’s nothing I love more than seeing a man wearing a Moms Demand Action shirt.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about Parkland, and then I want to talk about the NRA, and then I want to talk about various proposals and what the facts are around them, because I think there’s a lot of rhetoric swirling around. And a lot of people who are not as versed in this as you or the people who fight on the other side, there’s just a lot of misinformation out there. But first, on Parkland, how did you feel when you saw that unfolding, given that you have started your organization in the wake of Newtown?
Shannon Watts: I think the texts started in late afternoon that there had been a shooting at a high school in Florida. And I thought, okay, let’s hope this is not as horrific as Sandy Hook. Let’s hope that this is a mistake, that maybe a gun went off. And then I remember getting the text that they were setting up tents. And having done this for five years, I know what that means. It means that they’re triaging bodies.
Every time this happens, I’m amazed and shocked. But at the same time, what people don’t realize is 96 Americans are shot and killed in this country every single day. You divide that by four, which is the definition of a mass shooting—four victims, not including the shooter—and you have over 20 mass shootings like this every single day in this country.
Preet Bharara: But individual shootings separated by time and by geography don’t focus and transfix the nation’s mind in the same way, right? So, when something like Parkland happens, everyone focuses. What did you think about the kids who began speaking about it?
Shannon Watts: I thought what was so amazing in the aftermath of this horrific tragedy was we suddenly saw a very clear call to action from the entire community. You know, in the past, in these horrific national shooting tragedies, you hear from a parent or two, or a survivor, or maybe a community member who says, we need stronger gun laws.
What we saw in the wake of Parkland was an entire community coming together with one very specific clear call to action, which was for lawmakers to pass stronger gun laws that would protect Americans. I think that’s why this shooting in particular has stayed in the national spotlight for so long.
Preet Bharara: It helps, though, to have really smart, passionate, articulate 16 and 17-year-olds sending the message out on television and on social media. I mean, it seems to me that that’s a little bit what’s different about the message going out. And the outrage and passion of those voices is really piercing, no?
Shannon Watts: When you think back to the shooting at Sandy Hook, these were babies, right? They were first, second, third-graders who were survivors. And they didn’t really have a voice. They couldn’t speak out for stronger gun laws. That was on their parents, who were dealing with unbelievable grief.
We’re talking from Parkland about teens who are almost adults, who have lived their whole lives believing that active shooters are acts of nature, like earthquakes or fires. And I think now that they’re adults, they are rightfully outraged that these are actually acts of man. They’re acts of cowardice. They’re in action by lawmakers, who decided that they would put gun lobby profits over the safety of people. And these teenagers who we’re hearing speak out and demand stronger gun laws are so eloquent and so passionate, so smart about this issue, it’s astounding.
Emma Gonzalez: The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of teenagers nowadays, saying that all we are is self-involved and trend-obsessed, and they hush us into submission. When our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS! Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA, telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS!
Preet Bharara: One of the high school students, Emma Gonzalez, who gave a powerful speech that went viral soon after the shooting, every time she surpasses a certain milestone in Twitter followers—people noted, I think she passed the NRA recently—and then a day later, she passed, in followers, the number that the NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch has. You’ve never seen anything like it, right? My question, though, is do you worry at all that people are putting too much pressure and weight on the words of these high school students to carry us forward? You know what I mean? I’m a parent too. I have—
Shannon Watts: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Do you have any concerns at all about—and I’m asking it in a good faith way.
Shannon Watts: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Because I’m incredibly moved and inspired by these kids. But do you worry a little bit that we’re putting too much of the weight on these kids, or is that the way it should be?
Shannon Watts: Of course I worry. I’m the mom of a 17-year-old boy whose biggest concern right now is what score he’ll get on his ACTs and where he’s gonna get into college. If he had just witnessed the murder of his friends and teachers, I can’t even imagine that horrific pressure, on top of being put in a national spotlight to talk about an incredibly complicated issue. I am amazed and very supportive of what these students are doing, but I also call on every American to get off the sidelines to do their part, right? This can’t all be put on a handful of students who have to heal from this horrific tragedy. We have to give them the space to do whatever it is they end up needing to do. And I’m so grateful that they stepped out in the aftermath of this tragedy and that they are leading this movement, and I’m happy to follow them. But as a parent, I also want people to protect them and to do their part, because this shouldn’t all be on these teens.
Preet Bharara: When the dust settles after one of these shootings, sometimes there are inconvenient truths about what happened that don’t serve one side or another, to the extent there are sides. You know, I tend to believe that there shouldn’t be, really, and that sometimes some facts that emerge don’t fit a narrative for the people who think that the solution is tougher gun laws, or for people who think the solution is more guns in schools, or whatever the case may be. And one unfortunate series of facts that have come out about this, and I think we need to be—I think no matter what side you’re on, you need to be very honest about the failures that happened. You want to be careful to make sure that all the facts have come out first. But I find it troubling. I can have a lot of views and share many of your views about how we should change the gun laws. But it also appears that you had a sheriff’s deputy, at least one and maybe others, who didn’t do what logic tells you they should have done, and there’s some debate about whether or not they got a stand down or whatever, but they didn’t go into the school. The sheriff, who in the first couple of days, Sheriff Israel, who I have a great deal of respect for and the way he was talking about things, it turns out that some of the things he may have done or some of the training that may have happened wasn’t sufficient.
What do you have to say about the Sheriff’s performance in this?
Shannon Watts: I don’t disagree with you. I think the details and the facts are still coming out, and we need to wait for the dust to settle and understand exactly what happened. My guess is this is a guard whose job mainly was to break up fights at a school. Most security is not expected to take on a teen with bulk ammo, semiautomatic rifles, and technical gear. And so, we don’t really know yet, I don’t think, why he didn’t go into that school, which was his job. The idea that the solution is to arm teachers or volunteers, as opposed to disarming dangerous people like this teenager, is putting it completely backwards. No other developed nation is dealing with this crisis.
Preet Bharara: Was there a failure in law enforcement, or a failure by law enforcement when we keep hearing every day additional red flags come to fore, and other warning signs were there, and calls were made? And I think we should be honest about it. Even if you think that the gun laws should be changed, the fact that there was a law enforcement failure, to my mind, doesn’t mean that we don’t need gun law changes. But I think in this debate, we should be honest when there’s a law enforcement failure. Was there one here?
Shannon Watts: I don’t know that we know that yet. I think all the facts aren’t out. But I would say that a lot of red flags were not acted on. That said, this was a 19-year-old who had legally been buying semiautomatic rifles and ammunition since he was 18. And if you look at the shooting at UCSB that happened in this country, the mass shooting, those parents knew that their son was armed and dangerous, either to himself and others, and they had told police in California over and over again. And the police said, look, there’s nothing we can do to remove this person’s guns. We’re not legally allowed.
And that’s why, after the shooting at UCSB, we went in and passed what’s called a red flag law, and we’ve passed them in other states since. Florida does not have that law.
Preet Bharara: And what is it—explain to the listeners what you mean by red flag law.
Shannon Watts: A red flag law allows families or police to petition a judge to get a restraining order to temporarily remove the guns of someone who seems to be a danger to themselves or others. And we have those laws in five states right now. We’ve helped pass three of them. They’re effective. I mean, if you look at the law in Connecticut, we know, for example, that it has stopped over 77 suicides from happening. But it also could have been deployed at this case in Florida, where police could have petitioned for a restraining order to remove this kid’s guns.
Preet Bharara: The laws as written in the various states, are they very similar in language?
Shannon Watts: They are. And they’re in place in California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana, and Connecticut. They are being considered in 18 other states right now.
Preet Bharara: And in Florida, in your view, if Florida had such a law, parents or others would have been able to act pursuant to the law to take away their—
Shannon Watts: Parents or police.
Preet Bharara: Or police, to take away, at least temporarily, the guns used by the shooter in Parkland?
Shannon Watts: Yes.
Preet Bharara: That wouldn’t have stopped that shooter from getting guns unlawfully or in some other way, though, right?
Shannon Watts: That’s right. But he had an arsenal lawfully at 18.
Preet Bharara: I keep hearing people from the NRA, including their spokesperson, say there’s certain people who shouldn’t have had a gun. And this guy, who was alternately described as a maniac, a monster, etc., which maybe he was, shouldn’t have had the gun. But on this question of red flag laws that allow a process by which you can take a gun away from somebody who seems dangerous to himself or others, what has been the NRA’s official position with respect to each red flag statute?
Shannon Watts: The NRA has opposed every single attempt in all five states to pass red flag laws. For example, in Oregon, when we helped pass the law last year, the NRA claimed it was anti-gun and a slippery slope to confiscation.
There is no law that I know of that the NRA actually does support that would address this issue. They’re saying they support Fix NICS, but they also said they supported the prohibition of bump stocks in the wake of Las Vegas, and we saw how that turned out. So, the NRA opposes red flag laws. They oppose laws to disarm domestic abusers. We recently fought the NRA for three years in Rhode Island to pass a law that would disarm domestic abusers, and they put out a press release saying that sometimes women lie about abuse, and so we would be taking from people who shouldn’t have them removed. They are insidious, and they are blocking any attempts at gun safety in this country.
Preet Bharara: Can we talk about—let’s talk about the NRA for a few minutes. I think there’s not as much information, understanding of the NRA, in part because of the nonsense that’s spewed by people who speak on behalf of the NRA to try to make themselves out to be something more innocuous than they are.
I got into an exchange with Dana Loesch on Twitter over this absurd pronouncement she made that the NRA is not a lobbying group. Lots and lots of people pointed out that the NRA is in fact a lobbying group. There is an arm of it that’s internal to the NRA called the Institute for Legislative Action that technically does the lobbying work. But the NRA is actually the registrant on lobbying forms filed with the federal government. The NRA has as its leader Wayne LaPierre, who is himself a registered lobbyist. So, part of the point of that—and it’s not the most important thing in the world that the NRA lobbies or doesn’t. It’s the lying and falsification of what the NRA does to try to make them seem innocuous, right? How do you describe what the NRA is?
Shannon Watts: The NRA calls itself the oldest civil rights organization in America, which is laughable. They’re absolutely a lobbying organization. They have an annual budget of $350 million.
Preet Bharara: When you say “they,” though, because it’s important when you argue with people who love semantics, and as a lawyer, you see that a lot—there’s the NRA. They have a lobbying arm that’s part of the NRA, and they have a political action committee, which is also connected, correct?
Shannon Watts: Yes. But overall, their budget is $350 million a year. That includes not just lobbying, but also television channels and magazines, a whole plethora of marketing efforts to sell guns. And they also gave about $55 million in campaign contributions in 2016, which they won’t say where most of it came from. They don’t have to. And in fact, they won’t say that it didn’t come from Russia. And loo, we don’t believe the NRA has five million members. They’ve been saying that number forever, and interestingly, it hasn’t gone up. Reporters have dug into this and found that they think many of the members are actually no longer living, or they signed up when they bought a gun for discounts. We do not believe the NRA has five million members.
And in fact, the NRA could have zero members and still be incredibly effective, because they have this huge budget from gun manufacturers. They do not rely on membership or dues. And in fact, the members have very little power themselves. They don’t decide on the agenda.
Preet Bharara: I think it’s important, and some of the students have been saying this, and I want to hear what you have to say. When people talk about the NRA, spokespeople for the NRA like to take that as an attack on individual gun owners who are law-abiding. How do you separate in your mind what you say about the NRA versus what you say about people who lawfully own guns?
Shannon Watts: Right. So, we always say NRA leaders or NRA lobbyists—we’re not talking about NRA members – 74 percent of whom support stronger gun laws, according to polling done by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. But I also want to make it clear that a vast majority of gun owners in this country don’t belong to the NRA. About one in ten of every gun owners belongs to the NRA.
So, again, they are not powerful because they have membership. In fact, when Moms Demand Action goes and advocates for stronger gun laws in state houses, it’s almost always dozens or hundreds of us versus one NRA lobbyist.
Preet Bharara: How much money does the NRA get from the profit motivated gun manufacturers in the country?
Shannon Watts: They are not very clear about how much money they get and where it comes from, and unfortunately, they don’t have to be very transparent. But we believe a vast majority of the $350 million annual budget the NRA has comes from gun manufacturers.
Preet Bharara: Does the NRA make any statement at all about what they get from gun manufacturers?
Shannon Watts: They don’t. The fact that they gave $55 million in campaign contributions in 2016 versus the $28 million they gave the year before, it seems very suspicious. And there is an investigation right now going on about how closely the NRA leaders are tied to Russia, and whether any of that money came from international sources. And they won’t say.
Preet Bharara: Here’s what I want to do, because there are so many proposals out there and so many different things people talk about, and I want to take advantage of your expertise and go through a whole list of them. And for each, if you could, give us a sense of whether it’s a good idea or not, and whether the prospect of achieving that particular change is good, bad, or ugly. We’ve talked a little bit already about the red flag statutes. Just give us a very quick rundown of what you think the outlook for that kind of statute is in other states and federally going forward.
Shannon Watts: I think that red flag laws are an incredibly effective way to disarm people who may be a danger to themselves or others that includes due process and it’s temporary. But it’s a very important tool for families and for law enforcement. We are working on promoting these laws across the country. Yesterday, the governor of Rhode Island, Governor Raimondo, signed an executive order.
Didn’t even pass it through the legislature. Signed an executive order. She said she hopes that the state legislature will pass this law, but she isn’t gonna wait. And this could be a federal law. Rubio, Senator Rubio has expressed his support.
Preet Bharara: But is there a bill pending? Is there a bill pending in the Congress?
Shannon Watts: I don’t believe a bill has been introduced yet, no. We are hearing that senators are working on a federal bill, but it will be interesting to see if the NRA leadership will support or oppose.
Preet Bharara: Okay, so that’s red flag statutes. How about the discussion about raising the age for gun ownership or certain kinds of gun ownership?
Shannon Watts: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s something that states and Congress should consider. We look at data, and it shows that adults between the ages of 18 and 20 are four times more likely to commit murder than those over the age of 21. But I also think it’s a cultural issue, right? We don’t allow 18-year-olds to buy alcohol, so why are we allowing them to buy rifles?
Preet Bharara: Well, alcohol consumption’s not a constitutional right.
Shannon Watts: Yeah, trust me, I’ve had that conversation a lot. But—
Preet Bharara: Well, look, sometimes—I’m with you. I think that the age should be raised. But when you debate the issue, it is true, and whether you like the Second Amendment or not, there it is.
Shannon Watts: Right. But the Heller decision also said the Second Amendment can be regulated. So, if we want the age to be 21 instead of 18, we can do that, especially if we’re seeing that allowing 18-year-olds access to rifles in causing horrific shooting tragedies, like in Parkland. And the President immediately after Parkland said he supported this raise in age limit, and then suspiciously went to lunch over the weekend with two main lobbyists from the NRA, and then now is saying he doesn’t necessarily support it, so.
Preet Bharara: My reaction to that on social media and to all sorts of things the president says that sound reasonable when he then retreats from it is, you know, he was joking. That’s what his aides tend to say.
Shannon Watts: That he’s joking, right.
Preet Bharara: About things. When he says something awful and terrible and unbecoming of a president, oh, he was just joking.
Shannon Watts: Mm-hmm.
Preet Bharara: It also applies apparently when he’s saying something that’s actually reasonable and presidential. Oh, it was just jokes. Okay, let’s move on to waiting periods. Currently, a quick overview of whether or not there is and in what context, a waiting period for buying a firearm, and what further can be done about that.
Shannon Watts: You know, waiting periods have kind of gone out of popularity, because I don’t know that they’ve been proven to be that effective.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s interesting. So, because you think the science and empirical studies show that they’re not effective? Because some people think—
Shannon Watts: Exactly.
Preet Bharara: Off the top of their head, it might prevent more suicides because people—or crimes of passion because people impulsively go and get the gun to commit a crime. But you don’t find—that’s an interesting thing, that you don’t find that so effective.
Shannon Watts: Everything we do is based on research and data. Waiting periods do not necessarily bear out that they are going to prevent suicides or murders with guns.
So, in many ways, that background check does serve the same purpose.
Preet Bharara: Got it. I’m gonna get to background checks in a moment. You mentioned research, and that you make your recommendations based on research. One controversial issue is that the CDC, Centers for Disease Control, are by law not permitted to do any kind of research into the damage that guns do as a public health matter. Does that matter at all? Can that change? Should that research be allowed, or is that sort of just a talk point that doesn’t matter so much?
Shannon Watts: Of course it should be allowed. So, interestingly, the NRA put pressure on Congress to stop funding CDC research after the CDC found that having a gun actually makes you less safe. And as soon as that research data came out decades ago, the NRA very quickly moved into action to put a quash on that research. And as a result, we have a very hard time in this country understanding exactly what our gun violence crisis is and how we solve it.
And it’s really up to organizations like ours to do that research now.
Preet Bharara: What about bump stocks? A lot of people didn’t know what a bump stock was until the massacre in Las Vegas. Explain very quickly what it is and whether there can be some change there, and does it matter so much?
Shannon Watts: Bump stocks are a technology that can be put on semiautomatic rifles to essentially turn them into automatic weapons or machine guns. And of course, they should not be legal, especially after they were used during the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history in Las Vegas. The fact that Congress and the president still haven’t acted four months later is disgraceful. The president continues to act as though he supports a ban, and yet what he’s done is turned this over to the DOJ. It will remain to be seen if they will act. This is something Congress could vote on and outlaw immediately, and they haven’t.
Preet Bharara: But are you relatively optimistic about that? I feel like, just in listening to the airwaves, that there seems to be more consensus, perhaps because it’s such a simple, narrow thing, but more consensus on banning bump stocks than a lot of other things.
Shannon Watts: I don’t disagree. But my impression is that Congress does not trust the DOJ to own and make this happen, and instead would like a vote, and that’s not happening.
Preet Bharara: Okay. All right. Now let’s talk about background checks. It’s complicated, because there are some kinds of sales that require a background check and other kinds of sales that don’t. Explain quickly to the uninitiated what the current state of play is.
Shannon Watts: When the Brady bill was passed in the ‘90s, there was no online marketplace. And the NRA fought very hard for a carve out for gun shows so that they wouldn’t have to perform background checks. As a result, background checks in this country are only required on licensed sales. So, if you go to Wal-Mart, you have to have a background check. However, if you go to a gun show or make a purchase online and arrange to meet that person in person and make the transaction, even in some states at garage sales, you can sell guns with absolutely no background check.
And that’s how millions of guns are sold every year.
Preet Bharara: Right. So, a retail sale via an outlet requires a background check, but gun shows do not and private sales do not.
Shannon Watts: Right. They are not considered licensed dealers, even though a person at a gun show may sell thousands of guns every year.
Preet Bharara: And do you have a sense backed by data of what percentage of gun sales fall into those loopholes—in other words, that do not require a background check?
Shannon Watts: It’s very difficult to quantify because there’s no track record, but we believe millions of guns are sold that way every year. And if you are a prohibited purchaser, if you are a domestic abuser or a felon, or you’ve been adjudicated mentally ill, the best way to get a gun, the easiest way to get a gun is to go to a gun show or to arrange it online.
Preet Bharara: There’s a statute that we enforced—I tried my first trial as an assistant U.S. attorney—which prevents a prior felon from possessing a firearm. But obviously, as you point out, if there’s a whole market that doesn’t require a background check, if you have one of those prohibited characteristics, you can go there pretty easily.
So, what should change with respect to background checks in this country?
Shannon Watts: There was a Manchin-Toomey bill between the senators Bill Manchin and Pat Toomey that would have closed that loophole. And it was put forth after the shooting at Sandy Hook School. It failed after a handful of votes in the Senate. Senator Toomey was on television over the weekend saying that he was going to try bring it back for a vote. But it would close that loophole on a federal level. 19 states have closed that background check loophole, eight since Sandy Hook.
Preet Bharara: When you say they closed it, you mean they have passed laws that require background checks with respect to all gun sales?
Shannon Watts: Exactly.
Preet Bharara: What is the argument that opponents use to vote against that?
Shannon Watts: The NRA leader’s argument is that background checks aren’t effective and don’t work. Now, I do want to say that in 1999, the NRA absolutely did support a background check on every gun sale. And as they began to sell more guns to fewer people, they realized that they had to open up the marketplace in every way in order to maintain their profit margins. And so, that is why the NRA no longer supports background checks on every gun sale. In fact, they want to make it easy to get guns without a background check at all, which is why they’ve pushed for a permitless carry and helped pass it in a dozen states in this country.
Preet Bharara: Has the NRA become more—I’m trying to think of what the word it to use—more militant in its opposition?
Shannon Watts: Oh, yes.
Preet Bharara: Over the years? And why is that? Is it because of the reason you just described, that part of the agenda is to make sure that gun manufacturers continue to have robust sales, they have to be on record as being opposed to things that might reduce sales?
Shannon Watts: Mm-hmm. In the late ‘90s, the NRA supported background checks on every gun sale. They opposed guns in schools. And then what happened is they began to be pulled more to the right, because there were other gun lobbying groups because Congress was pulled to the right. But they also started selling more guns to fewer people. They’ve convinced their demographic, which is basically a white man in their 50s or 60s, that they need an arsenal. They need seven AR-15s and six Glocks. And yet, other Americans weren’t buying guns. And so, they started to support guns in schools because they have to essentially market guns to the next generation by putting guns in K through 12 schools, guns on college campuses. They have to sell guns to women. And they have to make guns easily available, and thus, background checks are just an additional barrier that would prohibit them from selling guns.
Preet Bharara: So, let’s predict the likelihood of success on fixing the loopholes with respect to background checks. How do you feel about that?
Shannon Watts: We’ve closed the background check loophole in eight states since Sandy Hook, and it is something we can do state by state and do through ballot initiative and through state legislatures. And that’s the work we’re doing until we get the right Congress and president in place who will do that. The NRA opposes it. And they gave $30 million in campaign contributions to Donald Trump. They were one of the largest outside donors to his campaign. So, the idea that Donald Trump is going to support background checks closing that loophole is probably unlikely. What we have to do is focus on the midterms and get the right Congress and eventually the right president in place who will do that.
Preet Bharara: What about the banning of certain kinds of weapons? I mean, there was an assault weapon ban in place for a number of years, but then it sunset. And there are people who say, and I think they’re backed up by some evidence, that it didn’t reduce the rate of violent crime or gun crime in the country. What’s your view on the effectiveness of any kind of assault weapon ban and the likelihood of success?
Shannon Watts: Certainly, semiautomatic rifles put the mass in mass shootings. However, rifles are responsible for less than three percent of all gun homicides in this country, right? We know that background checks would actually save many more lives. In fact, in the 19 states where we passed background checks, gun violence is cut almost in half across the board. So, while we don’t oppose a so-called assault weapons ban, it is not a priority for us right now. And given the makeup of this Congress and our president, it is very unlikely to get very far. It’s also a cultural issue, right? I mean, should civilians be walking around with semiautomatic rifles? Here where I live in Boulder, you can walk up and down Pearl Street, which is sort of the college thoroughfare, with an AR-15, but not with a dog. That seems a bit bizarre.
Preet Bharara: So, there is a database that anybody in law enforcement knows very well called NICS. And there is a great bill that rhymes, has a name that rhymes, called Fix NICS. Explain quickly what that is and whether that makes sense, and what the likelihood of success there is?
Shannon Watts: I think that bill has a pretty strong possibility of passing. It’s basically a modest bipartisan bill. It would incentivize states and federal agencies to put all prohibiting records into the background check system, right? It’s a baby step that enhances the background check system, but it doesn’t do enough. It is a baby step when we need a big stride.
Preet Bharara: But just to explain it again further what it is, there are certain kinds of people who, even under current law, are not permitted to have a firearm. The problem is, the databases against which even the subset of background checks are done sometimes don’t have that information in it.
Shannon Watts: Right. A good example is this shooting in Sutherland Springs, where this man’s domestic abuse history had not been put into the system.
Preet Bharara: And the likelihood of success, you think, is high.
Shannon Watts: I do.
Preet Bharara: So, what’s the top priority, having talked about a lot of different options, for groups like Moms Demand?
Shannon Watts: Our priority as an organization is absolutely closing the background check loophole. When you look at the 19 states that have passed this law, you see gun violence almost cut in half, whether it’s shootings of police, whether it’s gun homicides, whether it’s domestic homicides—even suicides. We know that background checks are an incredibly effective way to halt gun violence. And it needs to be a federal law. But in the meantime, we’re going state by state.
Preet Bharara: Can we predict a little bit? And you can be realistic or you can be very optimistic, between now and six months from now, or now and 12 months from now, which of these things that you’re talking about and advocating for do you think has a real shot at becoming a law?
Shannon Watts: It is very hard to predict, and it will depend on which way the winds are blowing for Congress and what they think the right thing to do is prior to the midterms for their own job protection purposes.
We’re hearing Jeff Flake talk about a federal law that would raise the age on gun buyers. We’re hearing Manchin and Toomey talk about reigniting their bill to close the background check loophole. We’re hearing about a Fix NICS law, which seems to have overwhelming support. So, I am always hopeful that Congress will act in the wake of a tragedy. But I also want to point out, there are two very dangerous gun bills, NRA priority bills, winding their way through Congress right now. One would deregulate silencers, and one would permit concealed carry reciprocity.
Preet Bharara: Explain the reciprocity one first, because I’ve been hearing from a lot of people being very upset about that.
Shannon Watts: Yes. So, concealed carry reciprocity would basically make the weakest link the law of the land to carry your permitted gun across the country. So, for example, in Alabama, you can get a gun permit without safety training, without live fire experience. You don’t have to be 21 years old. You can be a convicted stalker. You can have a history of violence convictions. You can have a history of abusing your dating partners, and you can have DUIs in your history, and still get a permit in the state of Alabama.
You would then be able to take that permit anywhere in the country.
Preet Bharara: Like my state, New York, that has much stronger prohibitions on going a license.
Shannon Watts: Any state, yes. And so suddenly, these people who may be dangerous and armed are everywhere. And we’re talking about millions of tourists who go not only to New York and San Francisco and other cities, but even places like New Mexico, right? It could triple the amount of gun carriers up to three million per year—
Preet Bharara: Yeah, terrible bill.
Shannon Watts: Who are visiting from out of state.
Preet Bharara: Who’s responsible for that bill?
Shannon Watts: This is the NRA’s dream. They have been trying to pass it for almost 20 years. They have failed at it every single time, but they’ve never had a Republican Congress and president in place before. As you heard Donald Trump when he was talking to survivors the other day after the Parkland shooting, he brought it up as a solution, when in fact, it is just a money maker for gun manufacturers.
Preet Bharara: But who are the principal Congressional sponsorers?
Shannon Watts: Cornyn in Texas, Senator Cornyn.
Preet Bharara: Okay. So, people can call John Cornyn’s office about that, right?
Shannon Watts: That’s right. But more importantly, they can call every Dem senator to vote against it, because if we can get senators like Senator Donnelly in Indiana and Senator Tester in Montana and other places where this isn’t necessarily an easy vote to do the right thing, then we can kill this bill.
Preet Bharara: I just want to make one thing clear, that a lot of what we’re talking about here is not necessarily a partisan Democrat versus Republican issue. There are a lot of Democratic senators who, I’m guessing, are not tops in your book because they come from places where there’s a very significant gun culture. So, it’s not always true, I think—and correct me if I’m wrong, because it’s been a while since I worked in the Senate—that for the kinds of things that you’re advocating, that every Democrat is a guaranteed vote in favor. Am I wrong?
Shannon Watts: No, you’re right, but let me give you an example of someone who’s been, I think, a hero in this. Senator Claire McCaskill is in a tough state. She’s in Missouri. They passed permitless carry just a couple of years ago. And Donald Trump won by, I think, 17 percent in the state of Missouri. And yet, she’s already gone on record saying she will vote against concealed carry reciprocity.
Preet Bharara: It might jeopardize her seat.
Shannon Watts: Absolutely. But we’re hopeful—you know, that’s the benefit of having a grassroots army, is that when she comes out and says she’ll do the right thing, we will have her back when she’s up for reelection.
Preet Bharara: What about the silencer bill?
Shannon Watts: So, the NRA would like to deregulate silencers. There’s something called the Trump Sump right now.
Preet Bharara: Is it because they’re in favor of less noise pollution?
Shannon Watts: Right. They want to protect everyone’s hearing, so they’re actually a medical organization, not just a fellowship. But they’re very worried about your hearing. No. So, gun sales are down $100 million since Donald Trump was elected because there’s no boogeyman in the White House that will make—they can use to make people afraid their guns are gonna be taken away.
So, gun sales are down 10 percent, about $100 million. There are different ways they can make up that money. One is to deregulate silencers. So, for all the people who already have arsenals, I liken it to, as a parent, we have 100 Barbies. I’m not in the market for Barbies. But then kids want Barbie shoes, and they want Barbie cars, they want Barbie Dream Houses.
Preet Bharara: The accessories.
Shannon Watts: That’s what silencers are. They’re the accessories. And they can make a lot of money off of those. So, they want to deregulate those. And another way the NRA can make money is by arming even just a fraction of the 3.2 million teachers in this country. So, deregulating silencers is really about a profit motive.
Preet Bharara: So, there’s this discussion about a mass shooting in Australia that happened, and then they changed the laws in some ways that I’m not fully familiar with, and then there are no more shootings. Is that just a feel good anecdote about a country that has a completely different population, a completely different set of political values? They don’t have a Second Amendment, they don’t have the same number of guns. Is that a useful argument to make, or is it not?
Shannon Watts: I think it’s useful in that when a country takes action, they actually can stop or slow the rate of gun violence. But to your point, it is a very different country. They don’t have a Second Amendment, and guess what? They also don’t have an incredibly powerful gun lobby. If you look at a country like Israel, where there are a lot of guns, and you have to be in the military and be trained to use a gun, and then you have to put your gun in a safe by sundown, there are very strong training laws. There are very strong gun safety laws in Israel. And they act when there is a shooting. I mean, there was a—I think it was a shooting at a bank several years ago, and they put stricter laws in place in the days following. And they do not have a high rate of civilian gun violence in Israel. So, we haven’t even tried trying. That’s the whole issue with America. Not only have we not tried trying, we’ve actually undone a lot of our gun laws to make them looser.
And look, if more guns and fewer gun laws was going to make us safer, we would be the safest country in the world. Instead, we have the highest rate of gun violence—25 times higher rate of gun homicide—than our peer nations; that the experiment that we have allowed the gun lobby to commit on our country is a failure. It didn’t work. And it’s time for us to say that.
Preet Bharara: Speaking of argument, I’m a big fan of the hopefulness that argument can make a difference, combined with people’s emotional connection with something that happens. So, if you had to tell people when they discuss things with their neighbors who may feel differently from how they feel, or when they go to town halls, or they become politically active, and in particular, have a chance to ask someone who’s running for office and requesting their vote, to make an argument in favor of the highest priority new gun measures that you think would be effective, what’s the best argument that you think people should make to other people who don’t agree with them so that a consensus can be formed?
Shannon Watts: Well, that’s such a—it’s a broad question. I mean, I would start with the people you’re gonna have conversations with who aren’t going to agree on any kind of gun law, no matter how small, because it’s a slippery slope, are gun extremists. They make up a very vocal minority of this country. The vast majority, too many of whom are silent, support stronger gun laws, like a background check on every gun sale. Polling shows us that, right? I’m not sure there’s any issue that Americans agree on more than the need for a background check on every gun sale or stronger gun laws. It really is about a handful of lawmakers in our state legislatures, in our Congress, who are beholden to the gun lobby and refuse to vote for anything that would be seen as an affront to them. But reducing gun violence in this country, if you equate it, for example, to the changes we made to make driving safer, one law did not solve all of our traffic fatalities.
Passing the seat belt law did not stop everyone from dying in a car crash. And yet, we didn’t roll back seat belt laws. Instead, we added airbags, and we put speed limits in place, and we put rumble strips on our roads. And we did a whole variety of things. It’s an evolution.
Preet Bharara: How much of this is politics versus changing culturally how people think about safety? Just like—that’s a great analogy. Just like people had to undergo some transformation in how they thought about cars.
Shannon Watts: Well, I think it’s politics that’s even prohibiting us from making the cultural change. The NRA leadership absolutely opposes gun safety technology. Again, saying it’s a slippery slope, or that it won’t work. Imagine how much gun violence we would prevent if a gun could only be used by that gun owner, particularly the crisis we have in this country of children getting easy access to firearms and shooting themselves or others.
I mean, that doesn’t happen in any other high-income country.
Preet Bharara: So, say something to someone who is frustrated, passionate about the issue, wants to make a difference. A mom, a dad, a teenager, anyone in any part of the country. What can they do after listening to this to get involved, make a difference, get some sensible gun legislation passed?
Shannon Watts: We need every American to use their voice and their vote on this issue. Take it off the sidelines. If people want to join us, they can text the word “act” to 64433. We will immediately connect you to a chapter where you live. All caring Americans are welcome, men and women. And we will involve you immediately in our efforts to pass and kill bills in Congress, as well as their own state legislatures.
Preet Bharara: Shannon Watts, really appreciate your being on the show on this important issue at this important time.
Shannon Watts: Thank you so much.