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Angela Ferrell-Zabala assumes leadership of Moms Demand Action, one of the nation’s largest gun safety advocacy groups, in the midst of a particularly unrelenting news cycle. In the weeks since the group announced that she would replace its founder, Shannon Watts, and take on the newly created role of executive director, there have been 52 mass shootings in America.
In addition to mass shootings — classified by the Gun Violence Archive as those that result in the deaths of four or more people, not counting the shooter — there have been what feel like countless shootings on a smaller scale: a 6-year-old girl shot when her basketball rolled into a neighbor’s yard; a 20-year-old woman killed after turning her car around in a stranger’s driveway; a 16-year old boy shot after he rang the wrong doorbell when he went to pick up his younger siblings; two teenage girls were shot after mistakenly entering the wrong car in a parking lot.
Guns are now the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States, having surpassed car accidents in 2020. The work of groups like Moms Demand Action, a member of the Everytown for Gun Safety network that grew out of the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, exists at an intense moment in American history. With the 2024 presidential election cycle already underway, Moms Demand Action is now poised to activate a critical voting block: parents who see the ballot box as a means of ensuring their children’s safety, today and in the future.
Ferrell-Zabala spoke with The 19th about what’s on her mind as she leads Moms Demand Action and looks toward the future of advocating for gun safety in America through pushes around new legislative initiatives in statehouses and over texts as moms coordinate playdates.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer Gerson: What is top of mind for you as you step into this role at Moms Demand Action when it feels like there’s a different shooting in the news every day? What do you think most needs to be a part of the conversation on gun safety right now?
It is true that stories of gun violence dominate our news cycle, because that is how pervasive and systemic this country’s gun violence epidemic is — it is everywhere you look, from malls, to grocery stores, to schools, to our homes and our neighborhoods. It impacts every generation, every ZIP code, every community. Every day in the U.S., more than 120 people are killed by guns and more than 200 are shot and wounded. And most of these shootings you never hear about on the news.
But our grassroots army of volunteers has worked tirelessly over the last decade to shift the culture on gun safety in this country, and while there is still so much work to do, we are making progress. And that progress is top of mind for me as I lean into my new role.
While I am transitioning into a new role, it’s the volunteers, the advocates, the survivors, the young people — the same ones who have been showing up day in and day out for years — who are driving this work forward in their communities.
Because while the tragic headlines may seem endless, what needs to be a part of the conversation right now is that our gun violence crisis is not inevitable. We don’t have to live like this, and there is a powerful, growing movement of mothers and others that is working to end gun violence in America. We all have a role to play in ending our gun violence epidemic.
Historically, so much of the lobbying around gun safety has focused on sales. What areas do you think lobbying and legislation can and need to shift and expand in the current climate?
In addition to passing common-sense gun safety policies at the local, state and federal levels, we’re also working to shed light on the role the gun industry plays in our country’s gun violence crisis. Year after year, while communities bear the weight of our gun violence epidemic, this industry has been allowed to operate unchecked in the shadows. They are one of the only industries that benefits from broad legal immunity thanks to a gun lobby that’s been writing our gun laws for decades. The result has been that they have watched their sales skyrocket as guns have become the number one killer of kids and teens.
So we’re working to hold the gun industry accountable for the uniquely American crisis we’re living through right now. We know this is not the reality the American people want, and it’s not a reality American people will settle for.
We also need to recognize important intervention measures like extreme risk laws, also known as red flag laws, which empower loved ones and law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from someone in crisis. We’ve been advocating for these since the start and now 19 states and D.C. have these laws on the books. Just this year, Moms Demand Action volunteers helped Michigan lawmakers pass their own extreme risk law, and Minnesota is currently moving a bill through the state legislature.
How do you think about gun safety as an intersectional issue? How do you see this work existing alongside organizing on other issues, especially as we look ahead at the 2024 election cycle?
There is not a single public health crisis in this country that doesn’t intersect with issues of racism, misogyny and socioeconomics. We consistently see that in marginalized communities, including Black and Brown communities, queer communities and low-income communities, that are disproportionately impacted by our gun violence crisis.
We also know that the communities most impacted by gun violence are often closest to the solutions. That’s why we’re committed to working with and within impacted communities and working hand-in-hand with community organizations already leading this life-saving work.
We’re also committed to supporting the work of local organizations through grants and other forms of support because these types of community-based programs have historically been underfunded. The Everytown Community Safety Fund was launched in 2019. It has granted $8 million in support of 72 organizations implementing promising strategies including street outreach, hospital-based violence intervention and youth development and counseling in more than 57 American cities. This program will continue to grow.
Gun safety is not just good policy, it’s good politics. Polls show us over and over again that a vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, support common-sense gun safety measures. As we look ahead to the next elections, we also know that gun safety is top of mind for voters across the country — particularly young voters. We saw that reflected in the midterms, and we will continue to see gun safety drive Americans to the voting booth. Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund launched “Demand a Seat,” a program to train grassroots volunteers and gun violence survivors to take the next step in their advocacy efforts by running for office and working on campaigns to elect gun sense candidates in 2021. Since 2017, hundreds of Moms Demand Action volunteer leaders have run for elected office and dozens have won seats — from town council and school board to U.S. Congress. More than 275 volunteers and gun violence survivors ran in the 2021-22 election cycle and 158 won their races.
Almost every parent has texted their parenting group text at some point asking what they should say and how they should say it when it comes to asking about guns in the home when organizing playdates and sleepovers for their kids. How much do you hear this concern from Moms Demand members and what does this work look like when it takes place one-on-one, parent to parent in people’s home communities?
Real change doesn’t just happen in statehouses and on Capitol Hill. Real change starts at home, with individuals. Our work is not just legislative and electoral — it’s cultural, too. It’s hard to overstate the impact that one-on-one conversations between friends, family and neighbors can have on keeping communities safe. Sure, it might seem like an awkward question, but it’s a truly simple — and critical — one to ask before a playdate. Just like you need to make sure an adult will be home at all times, if your kid has a peanut allergy or a pickup time to make it home for dinner, ask if they have a gun in the home and if so, is it properly stored? It’s a question I have asked myself when my kids have gone to a friend’s house. If you’d like tools and resources on how to have conversations around gun safety and secure storage visit BeSmartForKids.Org.
I often get the “what can I do” question. You can always get involved with your local Moms Demand Action chapter. But for parents who aren’t quite ready to take that step, starting by having real conversations with each other and normalizing conversations around keeping our kids and our communities safe can make all the difference.
What do you think is most important to stress about what gun violence looks and feels like today as a child wellness issue specifically and how communities are feeling this impact?
Guns are the number one of young people in America. Children, teens, college-aged people — it’s the reality for all of them. That is absolutely unacceptable. Behind the statistics are real lives — futures and dreams that are stolen, families torn apart and communities that are permanently altered. The toll is impossible to quantify. And beyond those physically impacted, the strain of living in constant fear of gun violence in places that should be safe is impacting entire generations of young people.
But nothing stands between a mother wanting to protect their child, which is the power of Moms Demand Action volunteers across the country. And one thing that gives me incredible hope is our young people who are also bravely leading the fight to end it. They’re showing up and speaking out in their schools, communities and statehouses, and they’re taking their advocacy to the ballot box, too. Even when this work gets tough, I see young people fighting to take their futures back into their own hands, and I know change is coming.