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Washington CNN —  

A decision by a group of male Republican New Hampshire lawmakers to wear pearls during a hearing on gun control legislation sparked accusations that they were being sexist and insensitive to the mothers of those killed in shootings.

State conservatives, however, say the lawmakers were supporting women’s rights to arm themselves for defense.

The controversy began Tuesday afternoon during debate over a bill that would restrict access to firearms from people deemed to pose an “immediate risk to themselves or others.”

Photos posted on social media show several male Republicans wearing pearls during the hearing.

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun control advocacy group that has pushed state legislatures to pass tougher gun laws, accused the lawmakers of “mocking” her group’s cause.

The lawmakers also were condemned on Twitter by Democratic US Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, who said the New Hampshire lawmakers were mocking the mothers.

But the president of the Women’s Defense League, a New Hampshire gun rights group that focuses on “training and educating women” on practical self-defense skills, disputed the accusation, saying the pearls were worn in support of their group.

“These men are supporting women and supporting women who support actual women’s rights. They are the farthest thing from sexist and there was a women lawmaker wearing them, too. That was conveniently left out,” Kimberly Morin, the president of the Women’s Defense League, told CNN Wednesday.

Morin told CNN that her group has been wearing “pearls every hearing, every event,” for years as a symbol for their cause, and have recently dubbed them “freedom beads.” She said two of the group’s board members were handing them out at Tuesday’s hearing.

New Hampshire GOP state Rep. David Welch and WomenÕs Defense League Director of Legislation and Advocacy Susan Olsen at the signing of Senate Bill 12, ÒConstitutional CarryÓ legislation, on Feb. 22, 2017 at the New Hampshire State House.
Credit: Women's Defense League
courtesy Women's Defense League
New Hampshire GOP state Rep. David Welch and WomenÕs Defense League Director of Legislation and Advocacy Susan Olsen at the signing of Senate Bill 12, ÒConstitutional CarryÓ legislation, on Feb. 22, 2017 at the New Hampshire State House. Credit: Women's Defense League

Watts said she was unaware the group has used white pearls as a symbol but was steadfast in her belief that they were offensive.

“These lawmakers were wearing (pins of) semiautomatic rifles on their lapels as well as pearl necklaces, which they know to be symbols of opposition to Moms Demand Action,” Watts said.

She added, “This is not respectful or appropriate behavior.”

New Hampshire state Rep. Debra Altschiller, one of the bill’s Democratic sponsors, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on “Right Now” Wednesday that she found the lawmakers to be “incredibly disrespectful and troubling.”

Asked about the Women’s Defense League’s reasoning behind wearing the pearls, Altschiller said, “Well, I think that’s a lovely way to put a shine on what we all know is – an untrue statement. You can put lipstick on that, but it’s not going to shine it up.”

CNN has reached out to all eight of the Republican lawmakers on the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety that held Tuesday’s hearing.

One of the Republican lawmakers, Rep. John Burt, told CNN that the “only reason” the pearls were worn was in support of the Women’s Defense League. He owns a set of pearls, which he didn’t wear at Tuesday’s hearing, but said he would’ve worn them had he known other Republicans were doing so.

“For this out-of-state paid lobbyist lady – for her to come into our state and grab something that is good about those pearls and twist it … she should be ashamed and I hope she apologizes,” Burt said, referring to Watts, who has claimed she’s a volunteer.

Another New Hampshire representative on the committee, Dennis Fields, told CNN he was handed the beads and wore them without knowing the meaning behind them, assuming they were to celebrate Mardi Gras.

A group photo posted in the NH Journal and shared by New Hampshire House Republicans showed Rep. Jody McNally, the sole GOP woman on the committee, wearing a string of pearls, alongside Burt and a few of their colleagues. McNally did not return a CNN request for comment.

The bill is viewed as likely to pass the New Hampshire House, which is controlled by Democrats.

CNN’s Paul Murphy contributed to this report.