Spitting, Stalking, Rape Threats: How Gun Extremists Target Women
Welcome to the dark side of America's war over guns.
A threatening "Mother's Day" video aimed at women calling for gun reforms
As Jennifer Longdon steered her wheelchair through the Indianapolis airport on April 25, she thought the roughest part of her trip was over. Earlier that day she'd participated in an emotional press conference with the new group Everytown for Gun Safety, against the backdrop of the National Rifle Association's annual meeting. A mom, gun owner, and Second Amendment supporter, Longdon was paralyzed in 2004 after being shot in her car by unknown assailants, and has since been a vocal advocate for comprehensive background checks and other gun reforms.
As Longdon sat waiting for her flight, a screen in the concourse showed footage of the press conference. A tall, thin man standing nearby stared at Longdon, then back at the screen. Then he walked up to Longdon and spat in her face. No one else blinked.
Longdon was shocked and embarrassed, she told me, but she didn't falter. "Wow, aren't you a big man," she said as he turned and walked away. Instead of calling for security, she wheeled herself to a restroom to clean herself off. She was tired—she lives with constant physical pain—and didn’t want to miss her flight.
"Should I have done something more? Quite honestly, in the scheme of things it was a little man and a little moment," she said. "He felt to me like a coward and a bully."
What happened to Longdon in Indianapolis is part of a disturbing pattern. Ever since the Sandy Hook massacre, a small but vocal faction of the gun rights movement has been targeting women who speak up on the issue—whether to propose tighter regulations, educate about the dangers to children, or simply to sell guns with innovative security features. The vicious and often sexually degrading attacks have evolved far beyond online trolling, culminating in severe bullying, harassment, invasion of privacy, and physical aggression. Though vitriol flows from both sides in the gun debate, these menacing tactics have begun to alarm even some entrenched pro-gun conservatives.
"It Was Like a Mock Execution"
Longdon is no stranger to such attacks. Last May in her hometown of Phoenix, she helped coordinate a gun buyback program with local police over three weekends. On the first Saturday, a group of men assembled across the street from the church parking lot where Longdon was set up. They shouted about constitutional rights and tyranny, and called people arriving to trade in their guns "sellouts." (The program netted nearly 2,000 firearms with more than $200,000 in reimbursements.)
Some of them approached Longdon. "You know what was wrong with your shooting?" one said. "They didn't aim better." Another man came up, looked Longdon up and down and said, "I know who you are." Then he recited her home address. The harassment continued, and the men showed up throughout the program, a Phoenix police official involved confirmed to me.
After a fundraiser one night during the program, Longdon returned home around 10 p.m., parked her ramp-equipped van and began unloading herself. As she wheeled up to her house, a man stepped out of the shadows. He was dressed in black and had a rifle, "like something out of a commando movie," Longdon told me. He took aim at her and pulled the trigger. Longdon was hit with a stream of water. "Don't you wish you had a gun now, bitch?" he scoffed before taking off.
"It was like a mock execution," Longdon says, recalling the intense surge of adrenaline and how the incident triggered her PTSD from the 2004 attack that nearly killed her and her fiancé. She called the police, but they were unable to track down the perpetrator. By the following Saturday, Longdon was back at her post helping run the buyback.
"I've been about as broken as I can be by gun violence," she says, "so I'm just not going to be afraid of it again."
The majority of gun owners in America are good people, she adds. "I wish that more responsible gun owners would step into this conversation and say 'Look, those guys don't speak for us.'"
A Schoolteacher in the Crosshairs
A top target for gun extremists has been the women of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the grassroots group that began after Sandy Hook and has since merged with Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns under the Everytown banner. The battle has grown particularly ugly in Texas, where gun groups such as Open Carry Texas have conducted demonstrations showcasing their right under state law to openly carry rifles in public. The sight of groups of (mostly) men carrying semi-automatic rifles along a busy road or inside the local Jack in the Box has prompted bystanders to call police. In response, Open Carry Texas has begun making open-records requests, identifying callers and threatening to publicize their personal information.
On April 10, Brett Sanders, a member of Open Carry Texas in Plano, a midsize city in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, posted a video on YouTube highlighting the name and cellphone number of a woman who'd called the police after seeing heavily armed men on her way to a shopping mall. The post drew condemnation not only for outing the woman but also because it was misleading: It claimed that the woman had called 911, though she'd called the nonemergency line of the Plano PD. And the footage it used came from friendly-looking demonstrations elsewhere—not from the one that the woman encountered. ("Feel free to contact me when you work for a real news organization," Sanders replied to my request for comment.)
The woman—a high school teacher who asked not to be identified—quickly got pummeled with text messages and voicemails, copies of which she provided to Mother Jones. Callers told her she was a "stupid bitch" and "motherfucking whore."
"They fought for their right to carry guns," said another. "You're a piece of shit." One caller threatened to come after her with a gun.
Over the next four days she received nearly two dozen such calls and text messages. Someone put her information into a phony profile on a large e-commerce site, and she got a barrage of calls about agricultural products and security systems.
"I really felt strongly about not changing my cellphone number—I'm not going to be intimidated," she told me. "But it just got to the point where it's not worth it."
[Editor's note: The teacher since changed her number; Mother Jones has redacted her name.]
A fifth-generation Texan from a small town, the teacher in Plano grew up hunting. She is not, as her antagonists claimed, a member of Moms Demand Action (though she now plans to join). But given the rapid rise of Moms, gun extremists tend to view any woman who lands in their crosshairs as part of what has become, as one state leader for Moms puts it, "kind of the new black helicopters for these guys."
According to Plano police records, two other people called in with concerns about the demonstration that day—both men. No member of Open Carry Texas publicized their information.
The attack left the teacher worried for the safety of her family: "I felt that if I walked out someone was going to be standing there." But in hindsight, she says, "I think they are very weak men. They use their guns because that's all they have. If you know what I mean."
Open Carry Texas has insisted that it plans to continue exposing people who call police about its armed demonstrations. "Gun control bullies are all up in arms over this video published by one of our members," the group stated in a Facebook post on April 13, since deleted from its page. "If you don't want your name publicized, simply don't make a false 911 call against law abiding gun owners."
Sanders "didn't do anything wrong" by posting the video, nor is it relevant that he misidentified the type of call or used footage from a different demonstration, CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, told me. "Our point in doing that is to expose the kinds of people that are complaining about our rallies."
"I would've personally done it differently," Grisham added, "even though the personal contact information is public information." He said that his organization has collected records from three dozen calls but is "judicious" about deciding which to release, and that going forward they "will protect the identity of the caller."
Just three days before Open Carry Texas outed the teacher, a state Senate committee held a hearing to consider further loosening gun carrying laws, and Grisham was invited to give official testimony alongside NRA lobbyists. "Open Carry Texas was given a seat at the table," says Stephanie Lundy of the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action. "It's serious. You can't write them off."
The Female Mannequin Firing Squad
Open Carry Texas takes pains to convey a clean, friendly image in the press. Last November, the group made national news after some 40 members armed with assault rifles showed up outside an Arlington, Texas, restaurant where four women from Moms Demand Action were having lunch. The group released a statement saying it was being misunderstood: "In reality, the peaceful gun owners were posing for a photo." After a rally outside Austin City Hall this April, Grisham told the Texas Tribune, "We're not out there to bait police officers or to scare the community. We wave, we smile, we hand out fliers. If we see someone who seems really nervous, we’ll talk to them."
What the group hasn't publicized are some of its members' more degrading antics. In March, a group of them held a "mad minute" at a firing range, pulverizing a female mannequin with a hail of bullets. They positioned the figure with her hands raised in surrender, naked from the waist up. Afterward, they posed with the bullet-riddled mannequin, her arms blown off and her pants down at her ankles. "Mad minute" is a military expression referring to a burst of rapid fire, and Open Carry Texas members have often referred to Moms Demand Action as "mad moms."
Four of the men who shot up the mannequin were present at the Arlington restaurant, including one listed by Open Carry Texas as a board member and the group's Director of Operations.
[Editor's note, 5/25/14: The mannequin video was removed from public view on Facebook.]
Grisham said he was not part of the group at the gun range, but when the mannequin video was posted on Facebook, he commented: "Warms the cockles of my heart." Recently he called women from Moms Demand Action "ignorant, retarded people," and last fall he referred to them as "thugs with jugs."
"My purpose with language like that was to draw attention to the hypocrisy," Grisham says, noting that opponents have used similar invective. "A lot of times when I make these statements, I'm making them in jest, based on language that's being used against us. I've since decided that it's petty, it's childish, I'm not going to play those childish games anymore, so you wont catch me using 'thugs with jugs'. I've moved on."
"Listen, I Don't Want to Beat an Old Guy Up"
Last October, hundreds of armed people gathered for a rally at the Alamo in San Antonio, where Open Carry Texas had invited Alex Jones, the fringe radio host known for whipping up fans with squalls of anti-government paranoia. At the podium, an assault rifle strapped across his back, Jones got into such a lather about Hitler and Mao and the Obama administration preparing to "enslave" Americans that he blew out his voice in less than five minutes. "These scumbags are all the same!" he shouted. He described a worldwide conspiracy to take away everyone's guns, whose perpetrators included "the few dozen Democratic Party operatives they're gonna have marching here in a little while, the so-called moms."
At the end of his speech, Jones had one last thing to say to the cheering crowd: "Don't be mean to the million mom march, all five of 'em. These are pathetic zombies. Just realize they're stupid victims that want us to live like they do, slaves."
Jones then hugged CJ Grisham before heading out to, as he would later put it on his show, "confront the victim disarmament crew." He went to a local taco bar about a mile away, where Moms Demand Action was holding a midday kids' event with crafts and family activities. Jones and his camera crew began cornering members of the group. The women told him they weren't interested in talking on camera, but he kept at it.
An older couple walked over to intervene, the man telling Jones, "A gun grab is something that nobody in this country wants." Jones got in the man's face, hands gesticulating, chest puffed out. "Well sir, all I can say is you're really gettin' in my space!"
"Well, why don't you back up?" the man said.
"No, I'm not gonna back up." Jones retorted, inching in closer. "You're the one got in my space." He glanced over to his camera crew. "Look at this, look at this guy."
The woman tried to pull her husband away. "All right, go ahead," Jones continued. "Listen, I don't want to beat an old guy up," he added, poking the man's chest. "So don't touch me."
As Jones went on, Stephanie Lundy of Moms Demand Action approached his sidekick, Anthony Gucciardi, to tell him who the couple was: Lonnie and Sandy Philips, whose 24-year-old daughter Jessica was murdered in the 2012 gun massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Gucciardi ignored her, according to Lundy.
Jones kept up the baiting. "Did you know assault rifles are used in 2 percent of crimes?"
Lonnie Phillips had enough. "I know an assault rifle was used to murder my daughter in Aurora," he snapped back, his voice rising. "I know that." Jones appeared taken off guard for a second. "Well, I'm sorry that…"
"Yeah, you're sorry," Phillips said.
"I didn't hurt your daughter," Jones said.
Jones posted a video about the altercation on his site, Infowars.com, closing the segment with him turning to the camera: "I mean that's the big issue," he says. "There's five people here against the guns, and they're claiming—it's probably true, there's a guy whose got a lot of sadness in his eyes—that it's his loved one that was lost at Aurora, and that that's basically our fault."
Jones could have known easily enough that the Phillips would be there. Sandy Phillips, who works for the Brady Campaign, had posted on Facebook that they'd be attending the Moms event, and the director of operations for Open Carry Texas had called her out. "Sandy, nice banner pic of you eating at In 'n' Out burger," he replied. "I open carry there all the time. Very gun friendly place."
Provocative tactics in the name of the Second Amendment are by no means confined to Texas. Recently, public displays of guns have caused alarm in Wisconsin, and gun rights activists have menaced a businesswoman in California and a gun dealer in Maryland for trying to sell firearms equipped with high-tech safety features.
Last Thursday, a firearms instructor in Florida posted a video on the Facebook page of Moms Demand Action, in which he filmed himself at a gun range blasting a paper target bearing the Moms logo. "Happy Mother's Day," he says with a grin, displaying the cluster of bullet holes.
The group responded by sharing the video on the Facebook page of his local church, and with disapproving comments soon piling up—"I don't get how that's very Christian, or even sane for that matter"—by Friday the video disappeared from public view on YouTube. (The firearms instructor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, has faced a continuous barrage. "For me, the question is always, 'Why does this person want to kill or rape or silence me?'" she says. "I think the answer is that this issue touches a cultural nerve based on gender, geography, and other politics. There are pundits who make a good deal of money encouraging this type of anger."
Some staunch advocates of expansive gun rights recognize that this kind of bullying is bad for the movement. In March, a talk radio host and self-described gun enthusiast in Wisconsin called the "in your face open-carry playbook" tactics "perfectly legal, and perfectly stupid." After the Arlington restaurant incident, the editor of BearingArms.com wrote that Open Carry Texas had achieved "a public relations disaster."
The cumulative threats and harassment have at times felt exhausting for women working at the state and local level. "It's one thing to think about it and see images of it online," one of the Texas moms told me. "It's another thing entirely to see this kind of thing out of your car window when you're driving your kid to soccer practice."
But they say they have no intention of backing down and are in it for the long haul. "Yes, the threats, slurs, and bullying are shameful and concerning," says Watts. "But they're also emboldening. No fight for cultural change comes without this kind of resistance. The reality is that a majority of NRA members and gun owners support the reforms we're fighting for."
Front page image: Everytown for Gun Safety