No election cycle in recent memory has seen the guns issue heat up the way this year's has. The National Rifle Association, continuing a long-running strategy of campaign spending, earmarked over $11 million for this year's elections—but for the first time in decades the nation's leading gun lobby is facing some truly formidable opposition. Americans for Responsible Solutions, launched by former congresswoman and mass shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety, bankrolled by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, have spent millions of their own to try to vanquish the NRA's influence. How will it play out? Here are key races to watch on Tuesday:
Spending by gun control groups: Everytown/Bloomberg, $2.6 million; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $1 million. [Update: A new press release from Everytown lists their total Washington spending at $4 million.]
The showdown: In perhaps the most-watched race on guns, voters will decide on two competing ballot measures on the issue of background checks. Initiative 594 would expand background checks for gun purchases online, at gun shows, or through private transactions, closing the so-called loophole in federal law. The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is leading the campaign for I-594, has received financial support totaling more than $2.5 million from both Everytown for Gun Safety and from Bloomberg personally. Bill and Melinda Gates also gave more than $1 million.
The gun lobby counterattacked with Initiative 591, sponsored by Alan Gottlieb, president of the Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation. I-591 would prohibit the state from requiring background checks unless a "uniform national standard" for those checks is created. If passed, I-591 could create several confusing legal scenarios: This sort of state-level prohibition could contradict federal law, which already allows states to mandate additional background checks. And if both I-591 and I-594 pass, they may negate each other and lead to a protracted legal battle.
Ricochet: Speaking out against I-594 in July, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Washington state, Brian Judy, raised the specter of, what else, Nazi Germany. Referring to venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who pledged $500,000 to back I-594 and who is Jewish, Judy said: "Now, he has put half-a-million dollars toward this policy, the same policy that led to his family getting run out of Germany by the Nazis...It’s like any Jewish people that I meet who are anti-gun, I think, 'Are you serious? Do you not remember what happened?'"
The showdown: The NRA has spent millions on Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina house and GOP candidate for US Senate. That's the case despite the fact that Tillis' opponent, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, has been a strong supporter of gun rights, having voted against bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. She did, however, vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks. The two candidates are in a tight race that could decide control of the Senate. In September, the NRA made a $1.4 million TV ad buy highlighting Tillis' record on Second Amendment issues.
Ricochet: Tillis has an A+ rating from the NRA, not least because he supports the NRA's agenda of legalizing guns all over the place. During his tenure in the North Carolina house, Tillis helped pass a bill expanding concealed carry in North Carolina to school parking lots, public parks, and restaurants serving alcohol.
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $272,000
Bill Gold/ Warner Bros./ Wikipedia
The showdown: The NRA has worked vigorously against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in another of this year's key senate battlegrounds. A week after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, Udall came out in favor of stricter gun control legislation, and he voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill the following April. His opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, is decidely pro-gun rights; the NRA spent $1.3 million on a TV ad supporting Gardner. For its part, Americans for Responsible Solutions has targeted voters with digital and direct mail ads in support of Udall.
Ricochet: So-called "Make My Day" protections seek to allow Colorado homeowners to use deadly force if they feel threatened—and as a state representative, Gardner introduced a "Make My Day Better" law (a term he coined) no less than four times. Had it passed, it would have extended these self-defense protections to business-owners and employees.
The showdown: The NRA has spent big on this key Senate race, investing in Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, with $1.4 million going towards TV ads. In 2013, Cotton co-sponsored "The National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act," which would have allowed concealed carry license holders to pack heat in all states that permit concealed carry.
Ricochet: In 2013, the NRA ran radio ads praising Cotton's opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, after he voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill, which Pryor did in spite of direct pleas from family members of Sandy Hook victims. But gun control groups generally have not targeted Pryor for that vote, given his vulnerability in a deep-red state. (Everytown ran a TV ad in Arkansas criticizing Pryor shortly after his vote against Manchin-Toomey, but an Everytown spokesperson told Mother Jones that the group hasn't taken any action against Pryor this election season.)
Spending by the NRA: $663,000 (House) + $3.4 million (Senate)
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $269,000 (House) + $470,700 (Senate)
The showdown: The third congressional district race in Iowa is one of the most heated with respect to guns, with both Americans for Responsible Solutions and the NRA making six-figure buys for TV attack ads. The Republican candidate, David Young, helped block the Manchin-Toomey bill while working as Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) chief of staff. An ARS ad focuses on how that makes it easier for domestic abusers to get guns:
Young's challenger, former state Sen. Staci Appel, by contrast, voted for a law prohibiting gun possession by perpetrators of domestic violence in 2010. The NRA's ad goes after her by linking her with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In the state's tight Senate race, the NRA has so far spent more money against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley than on any other candidate this year, throwing its support behind Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst. Ernst has consistently voted for pro-gun policies. The NRA recently aired a provocative ad in her support: A mom is putting her kids to bed and texting with her spouse, who is on his way home from the airport. Suddenly a man breaks in, and the clip cuts to yellow caution tape, while a narrator intones, "Bruce Braley voted to take away your gun rights."
Americans for Responsible Solutions fired back a few days ago with its own ad, which features a county sheriff and highlights Ernst's opposition to universal background checks.
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.8 million
The showdown: Gabby Giffords represented Arizona's 2nd congressional district before she was shot in the head during a community event in Tucson in January 2011. Now, in what is shaping up to be one of the nation's tightest House races, Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions has spent more money opposing Republican Martha McSally than it has spent on any other candidate. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Ron Barber beat McSally in the 2012 House race. Barber had served as Giffords' district director,and was also wounded in the 2011 mass shooting.
ARS aired two commercials in September highlighting McSally's opposition to closing the loophole on background checks at gun shows and online. The group debuted another ad this week.
Ricochet: In September, ARS ran a controversial ad criticizing McSally's stance on laws that would have made it harder for convicted stalkers to get a gun. ARS yanked the ad after McSally announcedthat she had been a stalking victim and would support laws that would make it illegal for misdemeanant stalkers to buy guns.
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.1 million
The showdown: In the first and second congressional districts, ARS has spent big on TV ads that highlight former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta and state Rep. Marilinda Garcia’s opposition to universal background checks. While in Congress, Guinta cosponsored a bill for reciprocity of conceal carry permits across state lines.
Ricochet: In 2011, Republican congressmen read the Constitution aloud in its entirety on the House floor for the first time. Guinta read the Second Amendment, to the envy of some colleagues.
Before Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers took the court Friday to play the Dallas Mavericks, Allie Clifton, a Fox News Ohio reporter, tried to interview him about his game strategy.
After haphazardly answering one of her questions, Thompson calls her "Tina," winks at the camera, and then kisses her on the cheek before running away.
Here's video of the incident:
Contrary to some of the sports media's reporting, kissing a reporter on air while she is working is not "an unexpected gift" or "harmless, and nothing more than an awkward one-sided exchange." It's downright uncomfortable and belittling, even if Clifton maintained utter professionalism throughout. As Kelly Dwyer at Yahoo Sports put it: "This isn't cute or funny or meme-worthy…Just because you're working with someone of the opposite sex, it doesn't mean a sly innuendo, pat on the rear, or kiss on national television is in any way appropriate."
Video game critic and feminist author Anita Sarkeesian canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University on Tuesday after an email from an unknown source promised "the deadliest school shooting in American history" and threatened that Sarkeesian would "die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU." Sarkeesian is the creator of an online video series that critiques mainstream video games for misogyny; she has long been the target of violent threats from online trolls. Despite that Sarkeesian had every reason to be concerned about the specter of vicious misogyny mixed with guns, USU officials said that under state law concealed weapons could not be barred from the event. She blasted the university late Wednesday for how it handled the situation:
USU acted irresponsibly. They did not even inform me of the threat. I learned about it via news stories on Twitter after I landed in Utah.
Sarkeesian noted recently that she has been "subjected to the worst harassment I've ever faced" as part of a convoluted conflict known as #Gamergate, which has been roiling the gaming industry since August. Playing out primarily on social media, #Gamergate centers around several women who work in the industry and have criticized its dominant macho culture and frequent sexualization of women. Their critique has met with intense harassment and bullying. The FBI is currently investigating the threats against Sarkeesian and others, according to Vice.
On one level, #Gamergate is an internal squabble between ideologically opposed factions within the gaming world. But now, disturbing developments such as Sarkeesian's canceled appearance reflect how the controversy has blown up beyond the familiar trappings of online nastiness and spilled into real life—with serious consequences. At least two women involved in #Gamergate have said that they had to flee their homes, fearing for their safety. Kyle Wagner at Deadspinsuggests that #Gamergate may be no less than "the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online."
So what is #Gamergate and how did this all start?
#Gamergate is essentially an escalating fight about the direction of gaming culture. It pits a group of feminists and their supporters—who advocate for expanding beyond the testosterone-fueled games that dominate the industry—against a vocal faction that is openly hostile toward their views. The conflict first blew up in August after a programmer named Eron Gonji wrote a revenge post about his breakup with developer Zoe Quinn, the creator of Depression Quest, a critically acclaimed game whose purpose is to illustrate the challenges of coping with depression.
The post implied Quinn had a romantic relationship with a writer for Kotaku, the gaming site run by Gawker Media, supposedly to receive favorable coverage of Depression Quest. In fact, Kotaku never reviewed the game, but nasty attacks against Quinn—including the circulation of nude photos, death threats, and rape threats—quickly flooded sites like Reddit and 4chan. Sarkeesian experienced similar threats just a few days later, after publishing a new video in her series on women and gaming. Brianna Wu, a developer behind a game with all female lead characters, has written about harassment of women in the industry; she received a series of graphic death threats last week after sharing a meme making fun of #Gamergate. She said she had to flee her home as a result.
"Ordinarily, I develop videogames with female characters that aren't girlfriends, bimbos and sidekicks," she wrote. "I am a software engineer, a popular public speaker and an expert in the Unreal engine. Today, I'm being targeted by a delusional mob." That's the tame part: "They threatened the wrong woman this time. I am the Godzilla of bitches. I have a backbone of pure adamantium, and I'm sick of seeing them abuse my friends."
Who is responsible for all this nastiness?
It's hard to say: Most of the viciousness comes from anonymous trolls. However, a couple of particular players have helped inflame the situation:
Adam Baldwin, perhaps best known for portraying paranoid mercenary Jayne Cobb in Firefly and for voicing strident political views on social media, chimed in:
Patterns of Failure: #GunGrabbers exploit dead children to advance their political agenda. Anti- #GamerGate’rs exploit anon-troll threats.
Milo Yiannopoulos, associate editor at Breitbart.com, also helped fuel the haters with a blog post in which he declared "an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, are terrorising the entire community."
What's the deal with those strange hashtags and other terms?
Here's a quick primer:
8chan: A site that allows anyone to anonymously create their own message board. Threads related to #Gamergate originally sprung up on 4chan, but were banned for breaking the site's policy on distributing personal information. At that point, the conversation largely moved to 8chan.
"Social justice warrior" (or SJW): A derisive term used by many in the #Gamergate crowd to describe its feminist and otherwise inclusion-minded critics. It's largely synonymous with "PC police."
#NotYourShield: A Twitter hashtag used to point out that not all #Gamergate supporters are white and/or male. It's been used by women and people of color sympathetic to the cause to counter claims that the movement is inherently misogynistic or comprised solely of gaming's status quo. Some claim that many "sock puppets," or fake accounts, have been created to make the tag appear more popular than it is; there is no way to confirm or deny this.
#StopGamerGate2014: A Twitter hashtag that has garnered around 75,000 tweets since it first appeared late Tuesday night (#Gamergate has been getting around 100,000 tweets a day). It's essentially a form of counterprotest.
So what is this really all about?
#Gamergaters, as they're called, say their target isn't women but instead what they deem to be corrupt journalism. They claim the fact that a game developer like Quinn once had a romantic relationship with a writer at Kotaku is evidence that media coverage of games can be bought and sold with sexual favors. But the writer in question never reviewed Quinn's game, and nor did anyone else at Kotaku. Kotakulooked into the accusations and said it found no evidence of a conflict of interest.
#Gamergaters argue more broadly that journalists are too cozy with game developers—they fund their projects, date them, and are sometimes roommates or friends with them—which makes it impossible, they say, for gamers to trust reviews from gaming news sites. Polygon, Kotaku, and the Verge have come under attack along these lines. (You can read about their ethics policies here, here, and here.) Other #Gamergaters take issue with a growing pool of gaming writers and editors interested in issues of diversity, inclusion, sexism, and violence in video games. "Headlines are becoming less about gaming and more about mysoginy [sic], feminism, and are reduced to click-grabbing disappointments," laments one manifesto.
Meanwhile, there is an email listserv called GamingJournoPros that some industry writers use to discuss trends and new releases; its recent "discovery" by Breitbart.com has prompted additional outrage among #Gamergaters, despite that there are multitudes of such listservs in journalism. (Read more from its moderator here.) On the other hand, popular gaming critic Leigh Alexander has compiled a list of more substantive ethics issues in the trade. For instance, "One of the US's most long-running and successful print game publications is owned by one of the world's best-known game retailers, and few of the magazine's consumers seem aware of what, if any impact that relationship might have."
And if you're still wondering whether #Gamergate is about journalism ethics, read this piece from Amanda Marcotte, who calls total bullshit. (Well, "horseshit," to be precise.)
How are tech and social media companies reacting?
Intel was pulled into #Gamergate early this month when it bowed to pressure from an email blizzard by yanking it ads from Gamasutra, one of several sites that have published essays critical of rampant sexism in gamer culture. Subsequently criticized for that move, the company apologized two days later but hasn't reinstated the ads.
Though #Gamergate first caught fire on 4chan, it exploded on more mainstream social media outlets such as Reddit and Twitter, which have been criticized for providing a platform for its worst elements. On Saturday, for example, developer Brianna Wu left her home after a Twitter user sent her a string of threats including a pledge to choke her to death with her husband's penis. Though Twitter has suspended those accounts, critics argue it could do much more by, say, actively detecting hostile behavior, limiting fake accounts, and making it easier to block users. Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler referred Mother Jones to the company's user rules banning targeted abuse. He declined to say how many accounts have been suspended in relation to #Gamergate or if any have been referred to law enforcement.
On Reddit, a group devoted to #Gamergate has more than 11,000 subscribers. Many of the comments in these threads are misogynistic, and Zoe Quinn has produced logs of Reddit chatrooms that show gamers planning to hack her personal accounts. Even so, Reddit's moderators haven't shut down its main #Gamergate page. (In contrast, a #Gamergate forum on Github has been disabled by the site's staff.) "We received a number of contacts related to this issue," Reddit spokeswoman Victoria Taylor wrote in response to questions from Mother Jones. "Anything that we found or that was reported to us that broke our rules was removed and the user banned." But it seems that the fallout from #Gamergate hasn't prompted much concern or soul searching at Reddit: "We do not plan on changing any site policies due to the occurrence of this event."
How have leaders in the gaming industry responded?
Pushback on the nastiness from the world of gaming journalism has included comments from Stephen Totilo, the editor in chief of Kotaku (and #Gamergate's journalistic enemy No. 1), who published a piece criticizing the movement and its tactics:
"All of us at Kotaku condemn the sort of harassment that's being carried out against critics, developers, journalists, and other members of the gaming community. If you're someone who harasses people online, you're not a part of the community we want to foster at Kotaku, and you're actively hurting people and driving important voices away from the video game scene. Enough."
Chris Plante at Polygon, the Vox Media-owned video game site and frequent #Gamergate punching bag, scolded:
"This week, the obstinate child threw a temper tantrum, and the industry was stuck in the metaphorical grocery store as everyone was forced to suffer through it together. But unlike a child, the people behind these temper tantrums are hurting others. It's time to grow up."
"I have found a lot of the actions of self-confessed hardcore gamers horrendous, upsetting and unjustifiable over the past two weeks…I don't have a problem with the term 'gamer'…I have a problem with gamers who deny that this industry needs to improve its representation—in terms of race, gender and sexuality."
On Wednesday, the Entertainment Software Association, gaming's largest industry group, issued a short statement:
"Threats of violence and harassment are wrong…They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community—or our society—for personal attacks and threats."
"We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened…If you see hateful, harassing speech, take a public stand against it and make the gaming community a more enjoyable space to be in."
The letter was signed by hundreds in the gaming community, including people from big-time studios like Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Nintendo.
From the indie community, developer Phil Fish has led the charge to defend Quinn and others:
Seventy years ago, birth control—illegal, crude, and unreliable—was reserved for women with means whose men were willing to go along. Jonathan Eig's gripping history recounts how two men and two women fought science and society for a pill to enable smaller families (and low-risk recreational sex). Their campaign, which touted pragmatism (population control, economics) over pleasure, won some unlikely victories: the support of a devout Catholic OB-GYN, for instance, and the backing of a feisty heiress who once smuggled more than 1,000 diaphragms into the States, sewn into the folds of the latest European fashions. The pill is utterly ordinary today. The story of how we got here is anything but.
Even though he's running to be the governor of Massachusetts, Scott Lively makes no secret of his extreme anti-gay views. The evangelical pastor, who's being sued by gay-rights groups for his involvement in Uganda's "Kill the Gays" bill, has gotten flack on the campaign trail for his beliefs, even encountering some raucous booing at a gubernatorial forum earlier in the year.
Lively knows that his focus on traditional values makes him an unpopular choice in the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. "The only way Scott Lively is going to become governor of Massachusetts is by a miracle of God," he told MassLive last month.
While Lively's views can't find much domestic audience, they play well in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Lively's anti-gay zeal is on display in Sodom, a new documentary that aired on Russian television last month, to much acclaim. The film was produced by famously anti-gay TV host Arkady Mamontov, who once implied that the Chelyabinsk meteorite explosion was caused by the gay rights movement. The film aired on Rossiya-1, Russia's main government-funded TV channel.
"For American homosexuals, this man, Scott Lively, is public enemy number one," intones the film's narrator. On camera, Lively speaks about the gay "agenda," which seeks "anti-discrimination policy" in the name of ultimate "societal conquest." Lively insists that "The average American is not in favor of homosexuality. But they are afraid to speak publicly about it, because the gays have so much power and they can do harm to those people."
"The average American is not in favor of homosexuality. But they are afraid to speak publicly about it, because the gays have so much power."
Lively brings the film's producers to the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC. Set against a dramatic soundtrack, Lively paces outside. "This organization, instead of focusing on the true needs of people around the world, they are trying to declare that homosexuality is a human right," Lively says. "They spend vast amounts of money to promote this agenda around the world instead of defending genuine human rights."
This is just the latest entry on Lively's anti-gay résumé, as my colleague Mariah Blake has reported. In 1995, Lively coauthored The Pink Swastika, a book that argues that gay Nazis inspired the Holocaust because Judaism forbids homosexuality. In 2007, Lively went on a 50-city tour of Russia and other ex-Soviet republics to warn of the "homosexual agenda." In 2009, he gave a five-hour presentation on Ugandan national television calling homosexuality a disease and claiming that gays aggressively recruit children.
It's unclear if Lively's segment in this film was shot before he declared his candidacy for governor in September 2013. Yet it's a revealing comment on the state of American (and Russian) politics that a candidate can find more traction for his extreme anti-gay views in Moscow than Mattapan.
Take a look at the video below. (The Lively segment starts at 8:17; he arrives at HRC at 12:00.)