If you want to understand the fight the gun safety movement faces in trying to win over gun extremists in red states, my experience this summer will be instructive.
Moms Demand Action, a group formed after the Sandy Hook shooting to crack down on gun violence, began pressuring the Kroger supermarket chain to prohibit "open carry" in its stores after gun extremists used Kroger stores to demonstrate their "rights." Gun laws are lax in many states, and it can be legal to openly carry a firearm with no training, and, in some cases, no background checks. The Kroger campaign is the most recent in a string of corporate responsibility efforts in which mothers, flanked by other gun violence prevention advocates, have asked companies to tighten gun policies, arguing that the businesses have an obligation to keep their customers safe.
Of course, gun extremists did not respond kindly to the Kroger campaign. What follows is a recounting of their disturbing tactics, from the shocking intimidation and harassment of unsuspecting commenters on Kroger’s Facebook page to right-wing media propaganda that disingenuously portrayed Kroger as being allies of the gun extremists.
Secret Facebook groups such as “People Who Were Blocked by Moms Demand Action Demand Action Now” — which has well over a thousand members — disseminated gun rights propaganda and helped orchestrate attacks on individuals commenting on Kroger’s page. Some gun nuts combed the profile pages of people commenting in support of gun reform, harvested personal photos of them and Photoshopped them to include obscene or humiliating comments, before reposting the photos on Kroger's page, or on other social media sites. Because Kroger frequently bans users who post that kind of content, the gun extremists created disposable fake accounts — sometimes using the name and profile photo of an opponent— to quickly dump posts without being held accountable.
In one case, they found a photo of a woman’s preschool-age child and wrote on it, “My mom sucks more cock than Richard Simmons” and circulated it online. In another case, they grabbed a photo of a mother and her child and wrote “Big retard, little retard” on it before reposting it. One woman posted to Kroger a photograph of a receipt showing money she spent elsewhere, and gun extremists swarmed her post, with hundreds of responses, including comments like “what you could do is shut your god damned whore mouth,” “calm your tits,” and “fuck her right in the pussy,” which Kroger’s Facebook admin allowed to stand over a day later.
Some of the gun extremists’ targets regularly do battle with them online; others never expected such a response when they posted a message to Kroger and are alarmed and intimidated. One woman who was the target of a Photoshopped image told me that she considered shutting down her Facebook account over the reaction to her post on Kroger’s page. The gun extremists’ goal seems to be to mob individuals until they are scared into silence, and in some cases it is working.
The dirty tactics don’t stop at the street level. Recently the right-wing blog site BuzzPo featured a post by Eric Reed, founder of Gun Rights Across America. Reed’s post claimed that CJ Grisham, head of Open Carry Texas, had met with Kroger executives for a “lengthy conversation” about their policy on guns at their stores. Reed links to a petition he said Grisham created after meeting with Kroger executives, “a way for Americans to support Kroger in their decision, to help them stand their ground.” If you sign the petition, Reed says, you can knock Moms Demand Action back “into their little liberal utopia where they can chase leprechauns and ride unicorns all day long” and “Kroger will appreciate your support as well.” Members of Moms Demand Action, including founder Shannon Watts, caught wind of Reed’s story and took to Twitter about it, claiming Kroger should meet with them, too.
Except it’s not clear that the meeting the gun nuts claim happened actually ever did. Kroger adamantly denied it, as did the one member of Open Carry Texas who spoke to Kroger executives. Reed’s source for this post was a Facebook exchange between Grisham and himself in a closed gun group, in which Grisham named a Kroger executive who he says suggested this counter-petition to Open Carry Texas. However, the Kroger executive named by Grisham told me he didn’t know who Grisham was, and that while he had received a phone call from the head of Houston’s branch of Open Carry Texas, he never encouraged OCT in any way or suggested any course of action to them.
The head of the Houston chapter of Open Carry Texas, David Amad, also vigorously denied that Kroger had suggested the petition and maintained that the Kroger executive was completely neutral in their brief phone call. In fact, he said, that was the whole point as far as he was concerned: He doesn’t believe that anyone should be asking businesses to take sides in the gun debate.
Never mind the fact that several days before our conversation, Open Carry Texas posted photos of themselves marching into Staples with semiautomatic rifles and a Texas flag. When “neutral” means almost anyone can openly carry loaded guns into your place of business, remaining “neutral” is in effect siding with the gun extremists. That's how frightening this debate has become.