ATLANTA — A gun safety advocacy group that began in 2012 after 20 young children were shot down in their classrooms has grown since then and is increasingly focusing on getting its members into elected office.
More than a thousand volunteer leaders from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America gathered Friday at an Atlanta hotel for a two-day conference called Gun Sense University. The kickoff event included big-name supporters, like actress Julianne Moore and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as survivors of gun violence.
A common refrain Friday was a push to run for office. A "Running for Office 101" training session on Friday drew nearly four dozen people.
One of them was DeAndra Yates from Indianapolis who got involved after her 13-year-old son was shot at a birthday party in February 2014. Now 17, her son DeAndre is a non-verbal quadriplegic.
She has another son, 14-year-old Darrius, and three stepsons, and Yates said she fears every day for their safety. She can't bear the thought of another mother having to go through what she did.
Her involvement with Moms Demand Action has inspired her and she sees elected office as a way to take her activism to the next level.
"It's one thing as a survivor to go speak and pull on their heartstrings, but actually being the one with power to make things change means a lot to me," she said.
Yates said she plans to run in the next few years, though she's not ready yet to say which office she might seek.
Shannon Watts, a mother of five in Indiana, started the Moms Demand Action Facebook page that grew into a movement the day after those 20 students and six educators were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012. The group partnered with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by Bloomberg, under the umbrella of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Watts knew nothing about America's gun laws or community organizing, but felt she had to do something after Sandy Hook.
"We built the plane as we flew it," she said during the conference kickoff event.
Now, the effort is five million-strong and includes more than 300,000 active volunteers who work on "bringing the gun lobby to its knees through unglamorous, heavy lifting, grass roots activism," she said.
Along the way, as they learned more about laws and policy, figured out how the system works and lobbied lawmakers, the volunteers began to realize that they were as qualified as any of the people in office, Watts said in an interview.
Jennifer Lugar was one of those women. After her husband fatally shot himself in 2009, news reports about gun deaths suddenly felt more relevant to her. A common thread was often easy access to guns, she said.
"Having a gun sitting there turns an impulse that might go away in 30 seconds into a tragedy that lasts forever," she said.
During the 2016 election she served as a volunteer for Moms Demand Action, giving her insight into how the process works and making her realize it was accessible to her.
She then learned of vacancies on the borough council where she lives in Jenkintown, a Philadelphia suburb. She applied to be appointed to finish out one of the terms and then ran successfully for re-election last year.
Although gun policy tends to be made at the state and national levels, her elected position has allowed her to make important connections and given her a bigger platform to spread her message, she said.
Elizabeth Becker of Las Vegas fought hard in 2016 to get a background check initiative onto the ballot after the state's governor vetoed a similar measure passed by the legislature. It was approved by voters, and now she's thinking of running for office herself.
"Once you get involved, you realized how wrong we are getting it in this country," she said, referring to the nation's gun laws.
Becker participated in the conference's class on running for office, which gave participants a taste of the lessons available in an online course offered by Moms Demand Action. Instructors discussed mobilizing voters, fundraising and crafting a message.
"Being a part of this movement is so empowering," Becker said, fired up after the class. "You constantly hear, 'Yes, you can do that!'"