Shannon Watts sat down at her kitchen table in Indianapolis days after a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut claimed the lives of 20 children. She had a plan to create an organization that would be so loud, so unrelenting that Congress could no longer remain silent on the issue of gun control. She gathered the best naggers out there who had a solid reputation of getting a job done; moms.
"The horrible massacre in Sandy Hook changed the opinions and feelings of moms," says Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "We are not going to send our kids to school with bulletproof backpacks and shields. We need a lot done in Congress, and if it doesn't happen, we are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the midterms."
Polling shows a wide gender gap on gun control. Women overwhelmingly support stronger gun control measures, while men are more divided. A Pew poll released in January showed nearly 70 percent of women supported reinstating an assault weapons ban and support for stronger background checks was topping out an nearly 90 percent.
In just three months, Watts says the outpouring from North Dakota to Texas has led to the creation of an organization with 80,000 members and 80 chapters nationwide. Moms Demand Action is working to train moms how to become activists to force a limit on high-capacity magazines and so-called assault weapons as well as to pass universal background checks.
But with almost two years until the 2014 elections it's unclear if groups like Moms Demand Action will be able to keep the gun-control debate in the spotlight long enough for it to take center stage in the midterm election.
After a violent tragedy, the conversation always turns to how to curb gun violence, but the sense of urgency can fade quickly on Capitol Hill—especially when Congress operates in an era navigating from one fiscal crisis to the next.
Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on four gun-control measures. The most likely to pass is a bipartisan bill that would make gun trafficking a federal crime. But the committee will also test the waters on legislation that would ban so-called assault weapons, create a system for universal background checks and increase security in schools. The votes will force members to get on record on gun control.
"The more you talk about these issues and bring public opinion around and begin to hold legislators accountable on votes such as an assault weapons ban, you are going to have more support," says New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. "If there are members of Congress who refuse to act, who refuse to find a common sense solution, they will be held accountable in those elections."
Since the 1994 assault weapons ban expired, Republican and Democratic politicians have been reluctant to pull the trigger on limiting high-capacity magazines or assault weapons, and a closer look at the congressional map may reveal why.
If Democrats want to retake the House in 2014, Republican strategists argue gun control is not a winning issue for them. The districts where gun control may be an appealing topic are traditionally liberal-leaning ones where a Democrat is likely already holding the seat. And in order to take the House, Democrats will have to win 17 seats, some of them in much more conservative areas. Not to mention they will need to keep nine conservative-leaning districts like Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre's in North Carolina and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson's in Utah. In the Senate, Democrats must hold onto seats in states like Montana, South Dakota and Alaska in the midterm—places GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012.
Democratic strategists argue, however, that the gun-control debate is a powerful one with moms and dads in some of the suburban districts outside of Philadelphia, Orlando and Minneapolis, places they see as prime for pick ups in 2014.
"The battle field for competitive races are in suburban areas, which are the exact places Republicans are vulnerable for being too extreme on gun violence," one Democratic election strategist says. "People are hungry for common sense solutions on gun violence in suburban areas. Republicans are in some real danger electorally on this."
A new influx of money may keep the debate alive too, says Bill Allison, the editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. A congressional race in Illinois' 2nd Congressional District revealed just how much the gun-control movement is willing to spend on the fight. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super PAC Independence USA spent over $2 million on a primary to elect gun-control candidate Robin Kelly last week.
"Michael Bloomberg has some pretty deep pockets," Allison says. "Part of what Bloomberg's group is doing is to get notoriety and keep the issue in the center. There has not been much movement, and part of it was to make a display that there is money out there that will hit you in the next election if you don't do something."
While its still unclear how Independence USA will use its resources in the midterm elections, Allison says Democrats and Republicans alike might be at risk. Even if a candidate thinks they are safe because they are in a Republican-leaning state or district where gun rights are important to constituents, Allison says Bloomberg's group could still attack candidates.
"There are all kinds of ways he can hurt lawmakers who are more on the fence," Allison says. "He can punish those members who are wavering with ads that are not related to gun control but to another sensitive issue in their district. There is not obligation when you have a lot of money to tell people why you are trying to tear down a candidate."
Bloomberg's group is one of half a dozen that have pledged to make elections uncomfortable for lawmakers who fail to act on gun-control legislation. Yet, the powerful NRA isn't expected to stay on the sidelines.
"Bloomberg is trying to manufacture a story line and use it as a means of saying his agenda is alive and well," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told U.S. News last week. "We are involved in thousands of races in a given election year and we will continue to do so."
While the gun-control debate is hot now, University of Virginia election expert Kyle Kondik expects the debate will cool and gun control will be a footnote in the storyline of 2014.
"I do not see it being a big national issue next year. I don't know if the Bloomberg super PAC is enough to keep this issue on the national forefront." Kondik says.
He argues that Bloomberg's actions in the Democratic primary attracted a disproportionate amount of attention to gun control.
"It was the only game in town. They knew they were going to get some PR bang for their buck," Kondik says.
But that won't keep constituents like Watts and moms from her group from pushing the issue. More than 200 moms will gather in Washington next week to meet with lawmakers, warn them about 2014 and urge them to act.
"Our goal is to put pressure on Congress. If you don't talk about this ... then you will be more at risk," Watts says.
Sen. Gillibrand says the issue won't be forgotten on Capitol hill either.
"For every parent who watched the horror of what happened in Newtown, Conn., this isn't going away," Gillibrand says.