A handful of male lawmakers dressed up for a hearing they presided over Tuesday in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, donning pearl necklaces as activists testified about their experiences with gun violence.
Images from the statehouse — where legislators were considering arguments over a bill that would make it easier to take guns away from potentially dangerous people — caromed across social media as critics lobbed accusations of sexism and insensitivity at the necklace-wearing men.
The implication was clear, they said: These politicians thought gun-control activists were “clutching their pearls” in overwrought and self-righteous outrage — and, specifically, female outrage.
The advocates, who were volunteers with the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said they felt mocked, as if some of the lawmakers were not interested in hearing how gun violence has affected their lives.
“It really is shameful to behave that way when your constituents are being brave enough to share their stories,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in an interview. “They clearly did not come to this hearing with open minds or compassion for their constituents.”
The bill, known as a “red flag” law, would allow family members and law enforcement agencies to obtain court orders that restrict gun access for individuals who may pose an immediate risk to themselves or others. If New Hampshire adopts the legislation, it would join 14 states that have done so, many in the wake of deadly mass shootings.
Watts, who attended the hearing, said she counted at least five representatives — all men — wearing pearls and sitting on the committee that held the hearing. One of them also appeared to sport a pin in the shape of a semiautomatic rifle on his lapel. She snapped photos of the lawmakers and posted them on Twitter, where she has nearly 300,000 followers, sparking outrage near and far.
The three lawmakers clearly identifiable in her pictures, Reps. Daryl Abbas, Scott Wallace and David Welch, are all Republicans. Calls to their State House offices were either not returned or were met with busy signals and full voice-mail boxes.
Online, members of the Women’s Defense League of New Hampshire, a pro-guns organization, have said Watts and other Moms Demand Action members have it all wrong: the pearls symbolize opposition to the bill itself and support for the Second Amendment and the Women’s Defense League — support for women, not denigration of them.
“The PEARLS are in support of the Women’s Defense League. Women who ACTUALLY PROMOTE GUN SAFETY and WOMEN’S RIGHTS,” tweeted Kimberly Morin, president of the group.
Morin told a local newspaper that they’ve been wearing pearls for this reason since 2016. She accused Watts, who lives in Colorado, of being an out-of-state “paid hack” who is lobbying for gun control legislation from afar and whose group doesn’t understand local politics. In a day-long Twitter offensive, Morin also called the Moms Demand Action volunteers “harpies,” a reference to a creature from Greek mythology that had the body of a bird and the head of a human woman.
The Women’s Defense League did not respond to an interview request.
Watts said Morin is a “gun extremist” who has a history of feuds with Moms Demand Action and its New Hampshire chapter. And whatever the lawmakers’ intention, Watts said, they should know better.
“When you are a male lawmaker and you come to a hearing wearing a pearl necklace and a semiautomatic rifle pin, you sort of lose control of the narrative,” she said. “It seems like a pretty foolish choice.”
New Hampshire legislators condemned their colleagues’ behavior.
State Rep. Debra Altschiller (D), who sponsored the bill, said her Republican counterparts should have been more considerate as they listened to women recount stories of domestic violence and death by suicide.
“There are families who have lost loved ones here & this mocking prop shows how little they empathize with suicide,” Altschiller wrote on Twitter.
“I was raised to disagree without being disagreeable,” state Rep. Matt Wilhelm (D) said. “Granite Staters deserve to be respected when they come to testify in their House of Representatives.”
The former chair of the state’s Democratic Party, Kathy Sullivan, said the display was “rude, sexist, unprofessional, unwelcoming.”
The commotion also elicited a volley of tweets-in-solidarity from Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“Moms who want to keep their kids safe from gun violence don’t deserve this,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said.
“These moms are fighting to confront gun violence and protect our children,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) added. “They don’t deserve to be mocked.”
Watts said that the New Hampshire lawmakers did indeed send a message, but that it was less about clutching pearls and more about running for office.
“It’s my hope,” she said, “that the Moms Demand Action volunteers who sat through the hearing today will consider running against the men who had the audacity to mock the legislative process.”