Activists are using digital tactics to take on the gun lobby

Grass roots activists are using digital tactics to take on America's powerful gun lobby.

After a gunman killed 20 kids and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, Shannon Watts went online looking for a grassroots organisation that was standing up for tougher gun laws. But after hours of searching, she found nothing. “I thought what can I do? I’m just a mom, I’m in Indianapolis, but I’ve got to do something because I feel the next time there’s a shooting if I do nothing I will be responsible in some way,” the mother of five told a session at SXSW on the weekend on how digital organising is disrupting America’s powerful gun lobby.

So Watts decided to create her own Facebook group. She called it “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America” and in the hours and days that followed thousands and thousands of joined. The group now has about 150,000 supporters and is the largest grassroots organisation arguing for smarter gun laws.

The group is emerging as a model in a new age of digital activism. It has effectively expanded from online to real world activities, such as lobbying politicians to pass tougher gun laws through stroller jams, where moms block the halls of government assemblies with stroller and diaper bags so the lawmakers have to speak to them, or encouraging moms to call their congress member during their children’s naps. But the group’s most striking successes have been against corporations.

The first target was Starbucks. “Starbucks had been known for quite a while as being at the centre of the gun debate. ‘Open carry’ activists had felt Starbucks not saying they couldn’t bring guns into their stores was tacit allowance, saying they could have these open carry rallies in their stores.” Watts group held its own rallies outside stores and launched “Skip Starbucks Saturdays,” a viral campaign where women would post photos on social media of themselves having a coffee at home or one of Starbucks’ competitors with the message: “I want my coffee with gun sense.” The group also aggregated and shared selfies by people who were bringing guns to Starbucks. “It was truly amazing you had people going in and buying lattes and taking and taking selfies of themselves with loaded AR-15s,” she said. Within three months, Starbucks said it would change its policy and guns were no longer allowed in their stores.

The next target was Facebook, which people were using to sell guns to children and others without identity checks. In one case, a 15-year-old bought a 9mm hand gun through the social network and then brought it to school. Like Starbucks, Watt’s said Facebook was normally a socially responsible company that had a history of doing the right thing when it came to other issues. When Facebook created the “look back,” compiling users’ highlights since they joined the social network, Moms Demand Action created its own looking at highlights of gun transactions set to the same music. Less than a month into the campaign, Facebook announced last week that it was changing its rules on gun sales.

“We are only 15 months old and we are going to continue this. We’ve already had major wins, but obviously there’s a lot more work to do. If you look at the map of school shootings just in the last 15 months since the shooting in (Sandy Hook) New Town, there have been 44 school shootings. This is not happening in any other developed country,” Watts said.

“The gun lobby has done a good job of making people afraid that people are going to take their guns away. Mothers are afraid that people are going to take their children away.”

For more information on Moms Demand Action, visit momsdemandaction.org