By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
How do ordinary Vermonters defend their constitutional rights against some of the most well-funded special-interest groups in the state? Facebook, of course.
Vermonters seeking to preserve the state’s gun rights have taken to the Internet to combat a new threat to personal liberty.
Gun Sense Vermont Exposed, a Facebook group launched in August, tracks nearly every activity of Gun Sense Vermont, a self-proclaimed “grassroots” organization dedicated to advancing state and municipal gun control. While outspent and outmanned by Gun Sense, the people are demonstrating that social media can serve as a great equalizer against powerful political action committees.
The idea for GSVTX began when Gun Sense banned certain pro-gun Vermonters and veterans from posting on its social media pages. The attack on open dialogue inspired pro-gun citizens to create their own social media page — one that welcomes debate and doesn’t ban commenters.
“Gun Sense Vermont’s reaction is to delete comments and to ban people from being able to post on the page. It got to the point where hundreds of Vermonters weren’t able to communicate with Gun Sense on Facebook,” Liz Mason, the page’s top moderator, told Vermont Watchdog.
In a few short months, GSVTX has grown to attract about a thousand page views per post, drawing in Vermonters from around the state. The site acts as a virtual hub around which pro-gun citizens on the left and right can share information about gun control agendas in the Green Mountain State.
Gun Sense Vermont is no ordinary grassroots organization. Founded in 2013 after the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, Gun Sense has a sizable wallet and deep connections at the statehouse.
The group recently outspent corporate giants Altria, Comcast and Anheuser-Busch on paid lobbyists, hiring the high-powered Necrason Group to advance its universal background check legislation at the statehouse. In the lead up to the election, Gun Sense donated to more than 90 state lawmakers, hoping to curry favor with elected representatives. These well-funded activities have led some Vermonters to speculate Gun Sense is a front organization for Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety.
In a blue state known for near total gun freedom and a state constitutional right to bear arms, Gun Sense’s launch in the Green Mountain State is both highly conspicuous and utterly foreign.
In spring, the group supported ordinances in Burlington that ban firearms in places that serve alcohol, that dictate how gun owners store guns at home, and that allow gun confiscation during domestic disputes. During the upcoming legislative session at the Vermont statehouse, Gun Sense will sponsor some version of Washington’s Initiative 594, the controversial universal background check law that mandates pre-purchase criminal checks on all people buying or sharing guns. GSVTX hopes to prevent such radical change in Vermont by exposing the daily activities and claims of Gun Sense Vermont.
Recent exposures revealed by GSVTX include Gun Sense’s hiring of new director Dan Mulligan, the former statewide director for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Mulligan worked as a local field organizer for SEIU and the AFL-CIO, and he appeared recently at a Gun Sense news conference representing a sensible gun owner and hunter.
“SCHMUCK”: A testy exchange between outgoing state Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson and a voter went viral on Facebook.
The Facebook group also keeps a watchful eye on elected officials.
When gun control advocate and state Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex Junction, lost her bid for re-election in November, GSVTX posted her bitter email exchanges with a voter. In those emails, Waite-Simpson called Republican victor Paul Dame “a schmuck” and offered a stern “shame on you” to her constituent for believing background checks won’t stop most criminals from getting guns.
Sometimes the group’s activity gets personal, as when GSVTX accused Gun Sense Vermont founder Ann Braden of exploiting her children for the gun control cause. After moderators noticed press photos of Braden with her small children at anti-gun rallies, the pro-gun group began re-posting those pictures, which led to some personal exchanges between the two groups.
“She’s had the babies in Gun Sense shirts, and in parades, and in newspaper articles. They posted a picture of husband and babies in Washington, D.C., holding an assault rifle ban sign,” Mason said.
BABIES AGAINST GUNS: This photo of Gun Sense Vermont’s Ann Braden with gun t-shirt and baby got extra publicity from Gun Sense Vermont Exposed.
When Braden’s husband objected to the photos appearing on a pro-gun Facebook page, GSVTX cried foul.
“He doesn’t think it’s appropriate. … However, the guy is standing next to the kids dressed in the Gun Sense gear in a Fourth of July parade,” Mason said.
“Nobody likes the kids being involved, but it’s your wife (causing it). If you don’t want your kid in the public eye, maybe they shouldn’t be strapped to her chest at a press conference. Maybe you shouldn’t be posing with them for pictures in Washington, D.C.,” Mason said.
Gun Sense President Ann Braden has repeatedly refused to offer comments to Watchdog.org.
Most of the time, GSVTX simply posts statistics to refute Gun Sense’s messaging. For example, when Gun Sense says background checks are needed to stop gun violence, GSVTX responds that Vermont averages two gun homicides annually despite gun ownership among roughly 70 percent of the state’s population.
When Gun Sense updates its monthly Vermont Gun Incident report — a report designed to show Vermont has a “gun incident” problem if not a gun violence problem — GSVTX responds with links to an incident-by-incident fact check of those claims.
The Facebook group also offers heavy doses of sarcasm and social-media-styled humor, including lots of doctored pop-culture images. The site’s creator says that’s intentional.
“The gun control advocate deals in tears and fears and threats and ‘Oh my god the walls are going to crash around you,’” Eddie Garcia, creator of GSVTX, told Vermont Watchdog.
“What we’re doing is laughing at their predictions of doom and gloom. That’s why we energize people. We’re happy and they’re not,” Garcia said.
Garcia says lampooning is justified because gun control advocates are the aggressors trying to change Vermont from its current laws and culture. Moreover, he says, humor is an effective antidote to fear tactics and political propaganda.
“When you look at these gun control advocates, everything they say is a bummer. It’s tears and fears and bloody shirts and talking about dead children, and how the criminals are going to get us, and on and on. It makes you scared. It makes you sad. We don’t do that. We laugh at these bastards. … That’s the difference between us and them.”
Mason agrees it’s possible to promote uncensored dialogue between opposing viewpoints and still have fun in the process.
“We can have a good time. We’re willing to have a discussion with either side. That’s what Gun Sense is avoiding,” she said.
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org