‘Calculated to Alarm’
Moms are the de facto caregivers. What more emotional voice to go up against the emotion of fear that the gun lobby creates?
-Shannon Watts, Founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America
The weapon he was carrying, an AK-74 assault rifle, measures three feet long, with a barrel of about 16 inches, and is capable of firing several dozen rounds per minute. Brian McCauley says he never meant to scare anyone. The state of Texas disagrees, and his upcoming trial has become a focal point in a dangerous new battle in the national debate over gun laws.
By the time McCauley walked into a San Antonio Starbucks in August, tensions had been building for years. The chain’s corporate policy was to defer to local gun ordinances, many of which allow the open carrying of weapons, and gun owners from Virginia to California had been visiting the coffee shops with handguns worn outside their pants, as the songwriter Townes Van Zandt once put it, “for all the honest world to feel.” In response, a gun-control group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, started promoting a national boycott called “Skip Starbucks Saturday.”
Police officers arrested McCauley outside that Starbucks, charging him with disorderly conduct, which under the Texas penal code, covers 11 categories of behavior, including that of a person who “displays a firearm or other deadly weapon in a public place in a manner calculated to alarm.”
Those last three words – calculated to alarm – have inflamed passions on both sides. Leaders of the open carry movement, once regarded as fringe-y by more traditional gun rights organizations, are rapidly signing up new members and staging bolder public confrontations. Gun-control advocates, who failed to win legislative change following the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, are using the image of semi-automatic weapons in public places to reinvigorate their supporters.
As McCauley awaits his day in court, both sides are escalating their tactics. In September, two men wearing AR-15s walked through a farmer’s market in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin. Gun rights advocates scheduled a major rally at the Alamo on October 19, to coincide with a national event called Guns Next Door, where gun owners are encouraged to “for one hour stand or sit in your front yard armed.” In response, Moms Demand Action is advising supporters who encounter someone carrying a semi-automatic rifle to “call 911 immediately.”
By moving from the stalemated legislative arena to the streets, both sides seek to redefine the role of firearms in modern society. President Obama, in his remarks at a memorial service for victims of the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard last month, inadvertently encapsulated the goals of gun control and gun rights groups alike: “Change will come the only way it ever has come,” he said, “and that’s from the American people.”
Greasy Cardsharps and Baristas
There was a time in this country, prior to mass urbanization, when civility demanded the open holstering of weapons. “You had to be some sort of greasy cardsharp to go around with a derringer concealed,” says Brannon Denning, a constitutional law professor at Samford University in Alabama. “Now, it’s flipped.” For the past two decades, state governments have expanded the right to carry licensed handguns for self-defense, but only in concealment. As a side effect of that uneasy compromise, many Americans tend to equate the sight of a gun with malicious intent. And many gun owners take offense at the stereotype.
But there are guns, and then there are guns.
Less than a year ago, a madman with a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle killed 20 children, six educators and his own mother in a massacre culminating at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. When the initial reports flashed across her iPhone, Shannon Watts, a communications executive who had left her corporate post to stay home with her five children in the suburbs of Indianapolis, was out running errands. She went home, sat on her bed and watched the rest of the horror play out on TV. Though she had never been politically active, she says, “I did know how to start a Facebook page. And I was so angry and so beside myself the day Sandy Hook happened, I had to do it.”
Watts first called her group One Million Moms for Gun Control, but “gun control,” she soon realized, had become a “taboo phrase.” She renamed her group Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, and quickly got some traction. “[Moms] are the de facto caregivers,” Watts says. “What more emotional voice to go up against the emotion of fear that the gun lobby creates?”
Recruiting more than 100,000 members, with chapters in all 50 states, she focused on lobbying Congress. Majority Leader Harry Reid invited her to talk about the Senate vote on background checks. But when that federal reform proposal fell apart, Watts changed tactics. Modeling her new campaign on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, she set out to make the sight of a gun “as distasteful as smoking and drunk driving.”
In May, Watts started urging her members to patronize certain stores – including Peet’s Coffee & Tea, IKEA and Dick’s Sporting Goods – and to boycott others – Starbucks, Cabela’s, Wyndham, and National Car Rental – based on their gun policies. Gun-rights groups responded with “Starbucks Appreciation Days.”
“I think,” Watts says, “it’s not headed to a good place.”