Gun Safety Activist Slams Pearl-wearing Lawmakers: The Tide Has Shifted in America, but They Aren't Keeping Up

A clutch of New Hampshire lawmakers made headlines after they wore pearls to a hearing on gun legislation on Tuesday. Perceived by many gun safety activists as mockery inspired by the "pearl-clutching" of zealous campaigners, images of the men prompted a backlash on social media.

Even 2020 candidates weighed in on the events, with Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both quickly tweeting their support for the gun violence survivors that spoke at the hearing.

At least five men are thought to have donned the beads for the hearing on a "red flag" bill that would make it easier to restrict gun access for individuals considered to be at serious risk of endangering themselves or others. One lawmaker was also wearing a pin shaped like a rifle.

Pro-gun group Women's Defense League of New Hampshire defended the GOP representatives. The group claims it gave them the jewelry to wear in support of their cause—something its members frequently do. Photos of others wearing the beads, including women, have since been published.

But Shannon Watts, founder of "gun sense" advocacy group Moms Demand Action, doesn't buy this explanation. She told Newsweek it's just one hostile incident among the many faced by anti-gun campaigners.

Watts brought the pearl-wearing lawmakers into the spotlight Tuesday when she shared their images on Twitter. But she's not done there.

Let down by lawmakers who don't seem to care, she says members of her group are rising through the political ranks. Instead of just shaping law—they're making it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Are you pleased with the public discussion your tweet has created?

This is the kind of stuff that goes on in state houses all the time across the country with Moms Demand Action volunteers. Not specifically lawmakers wearing pearl necklaces—that was certainly a new one—but the harassment we receive from some lawmakers and many gun extremists.

In Oklahoma last week, gun extremists took our petition and put our names in crosshairs. Recently in Maryland, extremists showed up in shirts that said "We will not comply." And then in Nevada, a couple of weeks ago when a bill was trying to introduce background checks, gun extremists were telling our volunteers—who were crying as they told their stories about gun violence—to be quiet. One said anyone wearing our "Moms Demand Action" t-shirts should be "blown away."

This is the kind of misogyny and hatred that we face on a regular basis in state houses across the country. It's why, frankly, so many of our own volunteers have run for office before. They went to the state house expecting their lawmakers to want to hear from them: that they respected their views and their opinions, have an open mind and would share some compassion.

When those things don't happen, it very quickly moves volunteers from wanting to just shape law into being the ones who make it.

The Women Defense League say they gave the New Hampshire lawmakers the beads as a token of support for their group. How do you respond to that explanation?

The group have said before the beads are used to mock a Moms Demand Action volunteer who claimed they tried to intimidate her. I'm not surprised they're backtracking now—they never expected these photos to go viral. This is an organization that regularly engages in ad hominem attacks and falsehoods.

The lawmakers chose to wear these necklaces during the hearing as a sign of mockery. And they did so while their own constituents tearfully testified to losing their children to gun suicide, or being threatened by armed domestic abusers.

But the bigger thing here is that yesterday was a very important day. What they're calling ERPO—an Extreme Risk Protection Order—would save lives.

Lawmakers wearing pearl necklaces side-by-side with lapel pins of semi-automatic rifles? They showed that they did not have an open mind, and they did not have any compassion.

Yesterday's hearings saw families who have lost members to guns testify about their experiences. Which stories particularly resonated with you?

One man who stood up and said, "I'm a Republican, I'm a gun owner, and I also support this ERPO bill. He had a son who was able to buy a handgun twice, even though he was struggling with depression. Ultimately he died by gun suicide.

There was another story from a woman who stood up and talked about how this ERPO bill could have protected her from an armed domestic abuser she was married to. Her partner frequently threatened her with a gun, but there was nothing she could do because the law was not in place.

I found it really moving and just so tragic is that right underneath the pearl-wearing lawmaker story New Hampshire Union Leader was the story about a woman who was shot and killed after she bumped into an armed man who had a history of domestic violence. He was still able to have a gun and end her life.

And that's the juxtaposition. We have too many lawmakers who are not taking this seriously or they just don't care.

As members of your group and others work to change gun laws, do you have hope for reducing gun violence in America? Do you think minds are changing?

Yes! I mean, we're having huge success on the ground. What I've learned over the last six years is that Congress is not where this work begins, it's where it ends.

Just last year we passed stronger gun laws in 20 states, nine of which were signed by Republican governors. And in the midterm elections we were able to split the make-up of seven state legislatures—we've already gone in and passed stronger laws in several of them: background checks in New Mexico and Nevada, red flag laws in New York. And the legislative session has just begun.

Yesterday, lawmakers were really making light of a very tragic and serious situation, and what's become a crisis in America. Imagine if they were mocking families that struggled with opioid abuse. Or families who were struggling with any other kind of tragedy.

Gun lobbying has tried to make this such a polarizing issue among lawmakers. Some 90 percent of Americans agree with stronger gun laws, but yesterday clearly sent a signal that some lawmakers still don't understand that the tide has shifted on this issue. Americans will no longer tolerate lawmakers who do nothing, and certainly won't tolerate lawmakers who mock this issue.

Pearl-wearing Lawmakers, New Hampshire
Two men dressed as patriots carry guns during the opening day of the House of Representatives at the New Hampshire State House, where the House voted on a bill allowing people to carry guns in the House Chambers and other parts of the State House in Concord, New Hampshire on January 2, 2019. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images
Gun Safety Activist Slams Pearl-wearing Lawmakers: The Tide Has Shifted in America, but They Aren't Keeping Up | U.S.