Shannon Watts knew she was heading into a rough neighborhood when she became an activist in the battle over gun control. A former corporate executive and mother of five children, Watts launched a gun-control group, now called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, not long after the Newtown shootings. As the new push to restrict guns grabbed attention over the ensuing year, Watts and other activists experienced the blowback up close, in sometimes frightening detail.
At protest rallies, they have been met by men carrying rifles. (It's legal: many states permit the open carry of “long guns.”) Watts has had her home address in Indianapolis posted online along with the suggestion that “people show up and show why it’s important to have a gun.” She has gotten letters at home saying that the sender knows where her kids go to school and where her husband works. On the lighter side, an ironist has been sending her free issues of Guns & Ammo.
She has a harder time finding irony in images floating around online featuring her head bloodied by a huge knife stuck into her skull.
As the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre nears, the gun politics battle is playing out not only in Washington and state capitals, but on the Internet, where some gun-rights defenders have decided to counter the social-media strength of gun-control supporters (Moms Demand Action now has more than 127,000 followers on Facebook) by resorting to aggressive online harassment. The targets of the harassment are taking it mostly in stride, viewing it as a sign that they’re having more impact than downbeat media assessments of the gun control movement typically assume.
“The more traction we get, the more it becomes very, very aggressive,” Watts said in an interview. “Their concern level is so heightened that they’re going to fight back with everything they have.”
All the same, the tone and substance of the online vituperation is telling.
The harassment comes from multiple sources, but much of it centers around a few Facebook pages, one of them called Hypocrisy and Stupidity of Gun Control Advocates and another called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is a Fraud. For Colette Martin, a Moms Demand Action member in Queens, the chief nemesis has been someone who goes by the nom de Facebook of Manly McBeefington (“Paging Dr. Freud,” she quips). Martin's sleuthing leads her to believe that McBeefington, in real life, is a tattoo artist in Long Island.
On the Facebook page of Starbucks—a battleground, thanks to Moms Demand Action’s successful effort to get Starbucks to discourage open carry of weapons in its shops—McBeefington posted a map of Martin’s neighborhood with the message: “I saw there was a recent incident where an NYPD officer got shot by someone—in the middle of Bloomberg’s gun-free utopia—and quite near your home, to boot.” (The image, in fact, depicted Martin's old neighborhood.) On the same page, he posted another message noting that Martin's son was about to turn four: “I went to Starbucks and had an early celebration for his upcoming birthday,” he wrote, with an accompanying photo of a birthday cake set beside an NRA membership card. (He’d apparently deduced the child's age from years-old postings by Martin elsewhere online.) Also on Facebook, someone else sent Martin a direct message with a gory picture of a badly wounded foot. “BTW, this is what happens when careless people tread on coiled, venomous snakes,” the message read.
Martin says she has notified police in Long Island about the man she thinks is Manly McBeefington. She has reported him to Facebook, as well, but says she was told that Facebook does not block fictional “character pages.” Similarly, Shannon Watts says she has had difficulty getting protection against harassment on Facebook because she is deemed a “public person” by virtue of leading Moms Demand Action. (Asked for comment Monday, a Facebook spokesman pointed to the company's Community Standards, which do not create special exemptions for fictional accounts, and in fact discourage them, which would seem to contradict what Martin says she was told. But the standards for abusive behavior do make a distinction between postings impugning "private individuals" and public ones, as Watts was told. Regardless, after I made my inquiries to Facebook, it suddenly shut down the page for the "Fraud" group.) Watts has also reported the most serious threats to the FBI, though she is not overly worried for her safety: “I am not afraid, because if something did happen to me it would only rally hundreds of thousands of moms to make this [movement] continue.” And, she adds, she has dogs and burglar alarms at home.
Like Watts, Martin is relatively unperturbed by the harassment. But she does worry others could be dissuaded from getting involved in gun control activism by the online nastiness or by the open-carry protesters, like the large group that gathered recently outside a strip-mall restaurant near Dallas where a few Moms Demand Action members were meeting for a strategy session. “I’m not worried about any of this stuff. But what about the mom in Texas who’s scared shitless?" said Martin. "If I were younger and less vocal and more easily intimidated…who are they stopping from sharing their thoughts?”
While much of the threatening imagery floating around online has a not-so-subtle misogynistic cast—one shows a man slapping a woman, and another shows a man spanking a blonde in high heels flopped across his lap—several male gun-control activists have also reported being harassed online. For Bill Robertson, in Manhattan, the missives from the “Hypocrisy” page have included an image of fecal matter in a toilet bowl and the caption, “Hey Bill, can I get your opinion on this?” and, separately, the suggestion that he “take two steps back and literally fuck your own face.” Robertson says he might find the harassment more threatening if it wasn’t so juvenile: “Half the time they’re talking about the Constitution and half the time they’re talking about Grand Theft Auto.”
For Bob Borrell, of Phoenix, the harassment included this mocking picture of himself posted on the “Hypocrisy” page. He sees a silver lining in the harassment: The more it goes on, the more the true character of hard-line gun-rights defenders is revealed, which only helps his side. “A lot of people have agreed that they’re kind of shooting themselves in the foot, the more they do this,” he says. “The only people they’ve got is their little group.”
A request for comment from the “Hypocrisy” page went unanswered. A request to the “Fraud” page got this reply, attached to a report on the Dallas open-carry showdown: “You report shit like this and you have the balls to ask me for an interview?”