As their numbers surge, Washtenaw County gun control activists' motto is "Keep going"

On a recent Monday night, about 50 women and 10 men packed into a parlor inside Ypsilanti's First United Methodist Church. Theresa Reid, local group lead for the Washtenaw County branch of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, tried to both wrap up a new member orientation session and launch into the organization's monthly general meeting.


Despite the time crunch, Reid invited attendees to take a few moments to grab some coffee or water, and maybe an Oreo or two from a nearby table, and chat with the people seated around them.


"Tell each other why you're here," she said.


The answers differed from person to person, but the one word that seemed to echo around the room was "Parkland." The Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which resulted in 17 deaths, has launched a national, student-led activist movement. But it's also caused Washtenaw County's Moms Demand Action chapter to nearly double in size to approximately 2,000 members.


That's a huge jump in a short time, of course, so Moms Demand Action Washtenaw leaders have been working doubletime to keep pace with the organization's growth. At one point, after Reid asked the organization’s leads to stand and be recognized, she told the meeting's attendees, "The work is hard. It hurts a lot to think about these things on a regular basis."


In a separate interview, Reid confesses that her volunteer work for Moms Demand Action has become a full-time job.


"But a lot of our members work full-time and have kids, so we try really hard to make it easy for people to take effective action quickly," Reid says.


Reid's involvement in Moms Demand Action began about 18 months ago.


"It wasn't any particular incident that got me off the couch," Reid says. "I found out about (Moms Demand Action), and I was happy to find them. By far, it's the largest grassroots organization in the country, and it's really effective. I can't remember how I found them, but I joined up on the national website and a couple of weeks later I got a call, inviting me to get involved."


At the national level, Moms Demand Action began life as a modest Facebook page created by Shannon Watts, a former PR exec and mother of five in Indianapolis, just one day after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. The page quickly grew into a movement. Moms Demand Action now reportedly consists of 6 million members nationwide, with chapters in all 50 states. Its website states that the organization supports the Second Amendment, "but we believe common-sense solutions can help decrease the escalating epidemic of gun violence that kills too many of our children and loved ones every day."


Though some members feel this mission doesn't go far enough, Reid – who previously founded the University of Michigan's ArtsEngine program, which fosters cross-disciplinary artistic collaborations – understands the importance of presenting a unified front.


"Many people have more radical positions than (Moms Demand Action) does, but we're very clear about our organization's aims and we won't tolerate going off-script, because message discipline is power," Reid says. "The national organization states that we support the Second Amendment, but that we have to address questions about where, when, and how we carry guns."


Celeste Kanpurwala is a 35-year-old Ann Arbor mother of two who was inspired to join Moms Demand Action Washtenaw after a Kalamazoo-based Uber driver shot and killed six people in March 2016. Kanpurwala holds a unique role in Moms Demand Action that's rooted in personal tragedy; her father shot himself four years ago, the day after her birthday. Now, as an Moms Demand Action Survivor Network Fellow, she speaks directly to lawmakers about her experience.


"Sometimes it's hard for me to talk about, … but when I met with lawmakers, I could feel my story had an impact on them," Kanpurwala says.


During one trip to meet with lawmakers in D.C., Kanpurwala met a gun-owning Survivor Network Fellow who joined the NRA at the same time she joined Moms Demand Action.


"We certainly do have people who are responsible gun owners in the group," says Kanpurwala, who is also the events lead for Moms Demand Action Washtenaw. "And we're willing to talk with anyone who wants to have a real conversation with us."


Moms Demand Action Washtenaw's work has also inspired the next generation to get involved in activism. A talk Reid gave in February made an impact on Huron High School junior Gabriel Necula, who has stepped up to help launch a Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America chapter in Washtenaw County.


"As soon as I heard what (Reid) had to say, I became more interested and passionate about using our voices to demand change," Necula says.


Necula recently had a meeting with Reid and other leaders to talk about getting Students Demand Action up and running, by way of posters, flyers, rallies, and reaching out to already-established student groups.


"Mothers Demand Action is sponsoring Students Demand Action, but we'll advocate for our own agenda," Necula says. "They're mainly there to guide us. … I believe every student has a voice of their own, and I'd like to have those voices heard. … A lot of young students are politically active already, so that's fortunate for our group."


Moms Demand Action worked to support local students involved in Ann Arbor's March for Our Lives event in March, many of whom are members of the independent, student-led group Washtenaw Youth Initiative. Moms Demand Action helped them reserve space for the rally, line up speakers, and get insurance.


"(Moms Demand Action) at the national level told us to just support the students in any way we could," said Reid. "It was so exciting. There were thousands of people there, and some really fabulous signs."


Change can be a very slow business in our democracy, especially when it comes to gun legislation. Do the people investing so much time in this effort struggle to stay positive and keep going?


"There are many obstacles, but I agree with the message Moms Demand Action conveys about it being a marathon, not a sprint," Necula says. "There's a lot more to do, and it's a long road ahead."


Reid, meanwhile, has been encouraged by small victories she feels the organization has helped facilitate, like Florida's new legislation that raises the minimum age for firearm purchases to 21 and extends the firearm purchasing waiting period to three days. Here at home, all hands on deck are currently focused on getting out the word about a family-oriented Wear Orange event in Ann Arbor’s Liberty Plaza at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 2 (which is National Gun Violence Awareness Day).


"(Moms Demand Action) has had tremendous successes across the country, legislatively speaking," Reid says. "Our motto is 'Keep going.'"


Kanpurwala confesses that when nothing seems to change after mass shootings, like the one at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas last October, "I just want to pull my hair out."


"But after Parkland, there was all this momentum," she says. "I hope it sticks. We have a lot going for us now, and all those students will be able to vote soon."


As Moms Demand Action Washtenaw's events lead, Kanpurwala worked with Eastern Michigan University student Kennedy Dixon to plan the local March for Our Lives, and a photo Dixon posted on social media recently made Kanpurwala tear up. Why?


"It was Kennedy holding up her new voter registration card," Kanpurwala says.


Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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