Gun bullying? Gun-toting protesters deny intent is to intimidate

Since school shooting in Newtown, Conn., gun advocates have ramped up public displays of firearms

A man sits outside a Starbucks in Seattle while children participate in an anti-gun protest.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

When four members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (MDA) were having lunch at a suburban Dallas restaurant last month, a couple of dozen men, women and children rolled up toting rifles and shotguns, posed for some group photos in the restaurant parking lot, then reportedly scooted off to a nearby Hooters. The women inside were aghast.

The message from the pro-gun activists — members of Open Carry Texas — was clear: I see your diaper bag and umbrella stroller and raise you an AR-15 and AK-47.

This and other demonstrations like it in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings a year ago are what some call gun bullying: Pro-gun activists show up heavily armed, flaunting laws that allow them to carry openly, at counterdemonstrations to intimidate their opponents.

“Open carry refers to wearing a handgun in a holster where people can see it,” said Dan Baum, the liberal, gun-loving author of “Gun Guys.”

“Guys showing up with rifles is intimidation,“ he added.

Robert Farago, who runs the Truth About Guns blog and supports the Dallas protesters, said open-carry activists are controversial even within the gun-rights community.

“A lot of people who are pro-gun rights feel open carry is antagonizing people and hurting the cause,” he said. “And (there are) other people who believe open carry is the cause (they’re fighting for) and … we need to expose people to firearms to normalize them.”

Baum said that because the pro-gun community feels so beleaguered as a group, its members are hesitant to criticize anyone within their ranks.

“We’re not stating they’re doing anything wrong,” said John Pierce, who founded OpenCarry.org, an online portal for the open-carry movement, in 2005. “We believe there are issues with long-gun open carry that are outside what we want to address — muzzle control, etc.”

But he said the differences don’t represent a split in the open-carry movement.

“It’s very much along the lines as if you had an organization that might be advocating for children’s meals for disadvantaged children and another group advocating for health care for disadvantaged children,” he said. “Their missions are different, but it doesn’t mean they don’t share a common belief that children need greater protection.”

Farago believes the Dallas demonstrators were not bullying Moms Demand Action.

“Yeah, there’s some anger there,” he said, “but none of them are talking about threatening, bullying, intimidating or harassing people that have a different opinion.”

The 'weapons effect'

Texas is one of five states (plus Washington, D.C.) where openly carrying holstered handguns is illegal, according to OpenCarry.org, but openly carrying long guns — rifles, shotguns and the like — is permitted.

If the four moms or anyone else felt intimidated, Open Carry Texas supporters say, it just shows their irrational fear of seeing law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

But Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, said the “weapons effect” is very real.

“In our brains, weapons are closely linked to aggression and violence,” he said. “Numerous studies have shown the mere presence of guns can increase aggressive behavior. So it’s not unreasonable to want guns to not be displayed.”

While the Dallas incident might seem militant, open carry has always been a confrontational grassroots movement with a flair for drama.

From Reagan to Obama

Its early pioneers were the Oakland-born Black Panthers. On May 2, 1967, a group of Panthers burst through the doors of the California State Assembly chamber, guns in hand, to protest a Republican-sponsored bill that ultimately barred carrying loaded firearms within any city in the state. Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale said the law was “aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless.”

Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan told reporters he saw “no reason why, on the street today, a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

Other skirmishes flared over the years. But the movement began to get broad attention in the summer of 2009, when gun owners carried weapons openly outside President Barack Obama’s health care town-hall meetings across the country.

“Where we really saw it ramp up was Starbucks,” said Shannon Watts, founder of MDA.

Open-carry groups began holding meet-ups in Starbucks branches. After initially looking the other way, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz published an open letter on Sept. 17 requesting that customers not take firearms into its stores.

“We’ve seen the ‘open carry’ debate become increasingly uncivil and, in some cases, even threatening,” he wrote. “Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called ‘Starbucks Appreciation Days’ that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of ‘open carry.’ To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores.” 

Threats of violence

Then there’s the online harassment. A recent Internet meme posted by an anti-MDA Facebook group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America Is a Fraud showed a man having just slapped a woman. The caption beneath reads, "Slap a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Because you too can own this look of satisfaction.” That Facebook page has since been shut down.

“I didn’t even know that underbelly of America existed,” Watts said of the sexist, misogynistic online comments directed at her as the MDA spokeswoman. “The sexuality that seems to be intertwined with guns. The threats of rape and constant sexual insults and threats seem to be tied in with the very aggressive gun activists.”

Pierce said such aggression on social media is typical of American politics “on both sides of the aisle.”

“You have people who perhaps have strong feelings about a particular topic but either don’t have the facts to debate or perhaps don’t feel articulate enough or want to do drive-by sniping on someone’s social media page,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s any more prevalent in the gun control debate than health care or immigration or marriage equality.”

Whether or not open-carry tactics are becoming more aggressive, both gun rights and gun control advocates say the movement is becoming more popular.

“After Newtown, gun owners are feeling very set upon, that their rights are being challenged,” Farago said. “They feel like they’re being punished for people acting illegally.” 

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