About 20 women walk into a Jefferson City bar on the first Tuesday in April, and they encounter a few glances. It's hard not to look at lots of people wearing identical red T-shirts, the signature of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. It's the mark of a volunteer for one of the largest grassroots organizations battling over gun legislation in the U.S.
It's around 6 p.m., nearly two hours after the scheduled start time for a hearing in front of the Missouri House General Laws Committee. Some Moms are supposed to testify today in opposition of two bills, but lawmakers are still discussing the state budget. So for now, the Moms are on the deck of Paddy Malone's Pub, the only place with enough seating for what they say is the state chapter's largest ever turnout for a hearing. About 40 Moms volunteers — most of whom are women — made it to Jefferson City, but some couldn't wait out the delay. In Missouri there are Moms groups in Columbia, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cape Girardeau and Springfield, all of which consist entirely of volunteers.
This is the nature of grassroots organizations: volunteers travel from all over the state, sometimes with as little as 24 hour's notice, and hope the hearing they arrive for actually happens. The fight against loosening gun bills can seem like a hopeless pursuit in Missouri, where Gov. Eric Greitens campaigned with a commercial of himself shooting a machine gun. But Moms volunteers say they still think their work is vital. "We are going to be playing defense all the time," says Kristin Bowen, leader of Moms' Columbia group. "We are going to be in a situation where we have losses."
Moms is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which includes two groups in addition to Moms. In total, Everytown claims more than 3 million supporters.
Moms had a large presence during the saga of SB 656 — the bill that introduced the ability to carry a concealed weapon without training or permit and the "stand your ground" law, which expanded the ability to shoot in self defense in public places without retreating. The National Rifle Association pushed the veto override of Gov. Jay Nixon as its top national priority.
If Moms accomplishes nothing else, drawing attention to the topic is a little victory for Bowen. Her husband works at MU as an English professor, and she was inspired to start the Columbia's Moms chapter to counteract concealed carrying on college campuses. She makes sure to remember she's only a volunteer. It helps ease the anxious feelings that can come with the work.
Last month, the Missouri Firearms Coalition took a picture of Bowen's back showing her Moms Demand Action tote bag slung over her shoulder, and posted it on Facebook. Comments on the Facebook post expressed annoyance ("It does show a lack of knowledge...sad"), sexism ("For them to be such concerned mom's they sure don't spend much time with their kids. Lol") and threats ("SOMEBODY SHOOT THEM"). Commenters on the Missouri Firearms Coalition page suggest the Moms volunteers are paid protesters from New York. That falsehood is a belief held by many Moms opponents. It's rooted in the group's partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety, which billionaire former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg helped found.
At Paddy Malone's Pub, most of the conversation around Bowen isn't about legislation or lobbyists. Guns seem escapable for the moment. Margaret Booker from Columbia is knitting a placemat with pink yarn. She's 55 years old and says she just reached "this plateau where I can see trends all of the sudden.
"Having that history is really important for me, in terms of having hope," Booker says. "I'm not so scared. I don't listen to the fear mongering." Which explains her attitude when photos of Moms volunteers show up on opponents' Facebook pages.
The Missouri Firearms Coalition posted a photo that was originally on the Missouri Moms' page on April 5. It showed Moms volunteers smiling in Hearing Room 5, where the General Laws committee meets. "Anti-gun billionaire Michael Bloomberg has his gun-grabbing troops on the ground in full force today," the post read. "They're all waiting for the chance to testify against your Second Amendment rights!"
"I love that we're all 'going to testify,'" Bowen tells the others. Only a few Moms are planning to testify.
"Nothing bad in the first five comments," Booker says.
"Yeah there is," says Mary Gross, another volunteer. "'Gun-grabbing liberals.' That's us."
"No death threats," Booker says.
"Now let's talk about gun-free zones," says Nick Schroer, R-O'Fallon, a member of the House General Laws committee. It's April 10, six days after the Moms volunteers' previous visit to Jefferson City. The legislature's budget discussion ran long that day, so the committee hearing was postponed until April 24.
Schroer is in front of committee, presenting his bill, HB 96. If passed, it will allow people who sustain certain injuries at a business to sue the business for liability, if the business voluntarily restricted guns on its property at the time of the incident.
People are standing on both sides of the four rows of seating in the hearing room. A Lincoln University police officer is fanning himself with a sheet of paper.
Twenty-two people wearing Moms shirts are here, most of them packed on one side of the room. They're engaged, occasionally cheering for questions they like. Jon Carpenter, the committee's ranking Democrat, presses Schroer on why the bill seems unfairly tilted in favor of businesses that allow guns. Under the bill, businesses that allow guns on their premises aren't subject to the same liability lawsuits as companies that don't.
"Rather than punishing business for prohibiting guns on their property, legislators, I'd ask you focus on protecting our communities."
—Kristin Bowen, leader of Moms' Columbia group
"As a business owner, if you are not wantonly neglectful — extremely neglectful as you can say — then you are not going to be held liable," Schroer says.
"Why don't we do that same standard for folks who do put the sign up (prohibiting guns)?" Carpenter asks.
"Frankly, sir, because I didn't want to, with this bill," Schroer says. One of the Moms laughs.
Schroer admits he just wants his bill to cause a discussion, adding that he doesn't "want to have an Aurora, Colorado, shooting here. I don't want to have a Santa Barbara here." The Moms can be heard saying: "ugh" and "oh" and 'oh my God."
Bowen eventually testifies in opposition of this bill. Sitting before the committee she says, "Rather than punishing business for prohibiting guns on their property, legislators, I'd ask you to focus on protecting our communities."
Researchers and lawyers who work for Moms review volunteers' prepared testimony before committee hearings. They offer volunteers research to cite and ensure testimony stays on message. Moms says the group is neither anti-gun nor anti-Second Amendment. Some volunteers mention that they own guns and enjoy sport shooting. "What is powerful about that, I think, is you can see that people from all different parts of Missouri can agree in the value and culture of responsible gun ownership," Bowen says. "What we're asking for is really reasonable, and it's reasonable to people from different walks of life."
The Moms' action April 10 was a warm-up for a more pressing bill, HB 630, which would allow all citizens who can own guns to carry concealed firearms in places that are currently "gun-free zones": polling places, local government buildings, state government buildings, the state Capitol, bars, child care facilities, riverboat gambling operations, gated areas of amusement parks, sports stadiums, churches, schools and hospitals. Some of these places, including the state Capitol and college campuses, would require people carrying concealed to have a permit.
Carpenter, the committee's lead Democrat, shows he's against this bill, too. "Let's start on page one," he says, looking at Rep. Jered Taylor. R-Nixa, the bill's sponsor and another committee member. "Sound fun?" Carpenter questions every place Taylor, who has pushed for cheaper guns and a state "tax holiday" for firearms purchases, wants to allow guns. "You actually want this to be a law?" he asks.
"Yes sir, I do," says Taylor, who works as a field representative out of U.S. Congressman Billy Long's Springfield office. It's a job, according to his website, that allows him to understand "the challenges that small businesses in Missouri face."
"You want guns in all these places?" Carpenter asks.
"Yes, I do. I want individuals to be able to choose whether or not to carry a gun to protect themselves, and others, if the need were to arise."
Committee chairman Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, an attorney from the 64th District, ends Carpenter's inquiry time after about 20 minutes. He notes the extended questioning and sarcastically says he'll give Carpenter a certificate. Then he calls for testimony in support of the legislation.
Alexandra Salsman, a political director for the Missouri Firearms Coalition, walks to the microphone with a box of signed yellow petitions in support of the concealed carry legislation. She stacks the papers about 2 feet high on the table in front of her. Thud, thud, thud. "I do sincerely believe time is of the essence," Salsman says during her quick testimony. She's the second and last person to speak in support of the bill. Then it's time for the opposition testimony, which will come from a lobbyist for the Kansas City Chiefs, a man speaking on behalf of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Jackson County Sports Authority, two campus police officers, community college administrators and four Moms volunteers. They'll all claim that allowing concealed carry in their respective venues — college campuses, stadiums and day care centers — will create new dangers in these places.
Becky Morgan, the Missouri Moms chapter's president, tells the committee about a mass shooting that wasn't in a gun-free zone: A man in Tyrone fatally shot seven people before killing himself. The shooter invaded four homes to do the killing, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"Any questions? I'm seeing none. Thank you very much," Cornejo says after Morgan finishes. As Rep. Peter Merideth, a rookie Democrat from St. Louis, comes back into the room Cornejo says, "Oh, Rep. Merideth has a question."
"I wasn't here when you introduced yourself," Merideth says as he begins some political theater to show his support for Moms. "But I've been reading on Facebook and other places on a regular basis that you're paid for by Bloomberg. Do you get a salary?"
"No sir, I do not," Morgan says, playing along, a slight uptick of cheer in her voice.
"And you're a volunteer?"
"That is correct."
"And the folks with you here today, you're all volunteers?"
"Every single one."
"Do you all live in this state?"
The women in the red shirts say, with some unity, "Yes we do."