"This is an issue that really transcends all of the labels that we put on one another," say Watts, one of PEOPLE's 25 Women Changing the World

By Michelle Tauber
October 31, 2018 08:00 AM

There are 80 million moms in America — and together, they have the power to end gun violence in this country.

That’s the message behind Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the group founded by Shannon Watts in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“I absolutely believe that women and moms in this country are the secret sauce to social activism and advocacy,” Watts, 47, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “They multitask; they do everything from make snacks to create our strategy to stand in the spotlight. And I really think when you look at activism in this country, from its very inception, women have been at the forefront of making things happen.”

Watts leads PEOPLE’s annual 25 Women Changing the World, along with fellow gun violence prevention activists including Oscar winner Julianne Moore, Moore’s 16-year-old daughter, Liv Freundlich, Shenee Johnson and Ryan Pascal.

Left to right: Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action activists Liv Freundlich, Julianne Moore, Ryan Pascal, Shannon Watts and Shenee Johnson, photographed for PEOPLE in New York City on September 17, 2018.
Julian Dufort

As America mourns yet another mass shooting — the October 27 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pa. — the country is again examining the unique toll of gun violence in this country.

“Gun violence is not an issue that is Republican versus Democrat,” Watts, a mother of five, says of her work with the nonpartisan Moms Demand Action. “It’s not gun owner versus non-gun owner. It is the vast majority of Americans versus some lawmakers who are beholden to the gun lobby. And it’s really important to keep that in perspective. This is an issue that really transcends all of the labels that we put on one another. And if we all come together and address the issue, which is that Americans are dying, we can have a much more polite conversation.”

In the United States, an average of 96 people a day die from gun violence. Along with Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action is now the largest gun violence prevention movement in the country.

“This is everybody’s issue,” says Moore, 57. “And we are making ourselves heard.”

Left to right: Ryan Pascal, Shannon Watts and Shenee Johnson.

Many of the loudest voices are coming from Students Demand Action activists like Moore’s daughter, Liv, and Ryan Pascal, both 16.

“My mom created a path for me to build my confidence and join the movement,” says Liv. Adds Ryan: “I want to see people from our generation running for Congress, Senate, City Hall. I want to see us all taking action.”

Johnson, 45, knows the anguish of gun violence better than most: Her 17-year-old son Kedrick was killed by a gun in 2010. “Advocacy is therapy,” she says. “When I’m sharing my story and talking about Kedrick, I’m telling people what happened and what could potentially happen to you and others. To me, Kedrick’s memory lives on that way.”

For full coverage of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Watts had no experience with activism prior to founding Moms Demand Action six years ago. Since then, it has grown to include more than five million members.

“Once you do decide to get off the sidelines about whatever issue you’re passionate about, when you find your people, you will find a tribe of women who will hold you up,” she says. “And you won’t feel so vulnerable; you won’t feel scared to be an activist.

“I would just say to any woman who’s thinking about getting involved in an issue that speaks to them: Find your tribe. Find the people who also feel passionately about it. And you will feel emboldened to achieve amazing things.”