Women active in the post-Newtown effort to build voter support around stricter gun laws have an ambitious plan to turn “Gun Safety Moms” into the Soccer Moms of the 2014 election cycle.
But even with an infusion of $50 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, motivating American moms to vote on guns faces a steep uphill climb against the battle-hardened National Rifle Association and its voter-turnout machine.
Shannon Watts, an Indianapolis mother of five who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting by posting a Facebook page, is undaunted.
“The NRA has had a 30-year head start,” said Watts, who describes herself as an “accidental activist” on Twitter. “We’ve never before had a grassroots organization to go toe-to-toe with the gun lobby. We have that now.”
As part of the umbrella organization Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action has set its sights on turning out a million women to vote on gun issues. Watts and other leaders want to add gun-violence prevention to the list of issues that motivate female voters, including abortion, health care and the economy.
In anticipation of Mother’s Day next Sunday, the group this week is sponsoring 150 or more house parties in California, New York, Connecticut and elsewhere aimed at “electing leaders who will stand up to the Washington gun lobby.” Also on the schedule is a “Moms Take the Hill” round of lobbying Congress, coordinated by Sara Smirin of Los Altos, Calif.
“We haven’t had a voice at table on this issue, but we know when mothers get involved, things change,” said Watts, citing Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s success in reducing highway deaths. “Women tell me Sandy Hook was the 9/11 for them on this issue; they knew they had to do something.”
The potential of women as swing voters harkens back to the Soccer Moms who made their debut in the 1996 presidential election as a constituency of mostly suburban women voting on pocketbook issues. President Bill Clinton and GOP challenger Bob Dole vied for their votes and the same dynamic played out in the 2000 election that put George W. Bush in the White House via a Supreme Court ruling.
Watts insisted the Moms group is nonpartisan. “We are not antigun and we’re not anti-Second Amendment,” she said. “We just want to save lives.”
But Democrats – with the notable exceptions of those representing red states – have been more likely to support tougher gun laws, while Republicans generally have supported the NRA line. The combination of red state Democrats and Republicans was enough to derail expanded background checks in the Senate last year.
The 2014 off-year election is shaping up as a challenge for Democrats, with loss of their Senate majority a more-than-plausible outcome. President Obama’s low ratings plus Republican demonization of Obamacare all play into it.
But polls show women may be open to persuasion on guns. Many show a gender gap, with women more likely than men to support stricter gun laws.
A Quinnipiac University poll last year showed 61 percent of women supporting stricter laws, compared to 45 percent of men. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last December showed virtually identical results.
The key, experts say, may be whether the Moms movement succeeds in tapping into women’s concerns about family safety – a category that includes, for instance, prevention of children accidentally shooting other children while playing with unsecured firearms.
“You’re seeing all pieces come into place for this to be an important issue this year,” said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster. “The party that’s able to speak to women and moms more broadly, that stands up for them in their daily lives, is going to be successful.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“We’ve heard this before,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Just because Mike Bloomberg writes you a big check and you use the word `Mom' doesn’t mean you’re going to reverse decades of opinion on this issue.”
After Newtown, the San Francisco-based Women Donors Network commissioned a survey that concluded that the women who care the most about gun violence are on average less likely to vote in a non-presidential election. Many are minorities or younger and unmarried.
“I’d be hesitant to say it could be a Soccer Mom issue at this point,” said Donna Hall, the network’s CEO.
“A rising part of the electorate is disillusioned and doesn’t think it’s important to vote in non-presidential years. We need to change that paradigm.”
The NRA also has made major efforts to recruit women to its ranks. The organization’s Web site features tabs with videos on women and firearms titled “Armed and Fabulous” and “Love at First Shot.”
“There are a lot of Soccer Moms who are NRA members as well,” said NRA public affairs director Andrew Arulanandam. “Women are concerned about personal safety and the safety of loved ones. That’s why we’ve seen growing numbers of women starting to own firearms and taking a personal interest in self defense.”
Twenty-six states have strengthened gun laws since Newtown, but 28 have weakened them, according to data compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, also based in San Francisco.
But eight of the laws – including ones in California, New York and Connecticut – involved sweeping changes that made laws tougher while only 4 of the laws significantly diminished gun regulation, staff attorney Allison Anderman said.
Watts said she understands the long odds of success this fall, but insists the Moms group is in it for the long haul.
“It won’t happen in one election,” she said. “But we'll keep building the foundation till we get a Congress that does the right thing.”