Armed Extremism Primer: Oath Keepers
The Oath Keepers is an anti-government extremist militia group for whom conspiracy theories and propaganda about the reasonable regulation of firearms are a central organizing principle. The group has been one of the most prominent far right extremist groups since it was founded in 2009 by Elmer Stewart Rhodes. Since then, members of the Oath Keepers have repeatedly shown up at demonstrations and even standoffs with law enforcement, including most infamously, the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Oath Keepers Have Latched Onto Many of the Same Dangerous Conspiracy Theories About Gun Laws Spread by the Gun Lobby
A fixation on a supposedly looming threat of widespread gun confiscation is a foundational, if fictional, element of gun lobby propaganda which groups like the National Rifle Association use to demonize opponents and energize followers. This and a constellation of related conspiracy theories posit that there is a sinister plot by those who advocate for reasonable regulations on firearms ownership to disarm the American people in order to facilitate the seizure of power by a tyrannical government.
Like other anti-government extremists, these conspiracy theories regarding gun laws are an essential component of the Oath Keepers’ worldview1Sam Jackson, Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 35. The group sought to recruit from active-duty and retired military and law enforcement and at its core was a list of unconstitutional orders members promised not to obey if ordered to do so by superiors. The first such hypothetical order was one “to disarm the American people,” which the group said “would be an act of war on the American people.2Copy of citation available upon request
The Oath Keepers have adopted other gun-related conspiracy theories, like the idea that the United Nations Small Arms Trade Treaty is part of an international plot to disarm Americans and a “de facto repeal of the Second Amendment.”3Sam Jackson, Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 36. The NRA amplified that fear, including in a book by NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre himself, America Disarmed: Inside the UN & Obama’s Scheme to Destroy the Second Amendment.4Wayne LaPierre, America Disarmed: Inside the UN & Obama’s Scheme to Destroy the Second Amendment (Washington, DC: WND Books, 2011). In 2013, the Obama administration signed the treaty, which the NRA falsely called “an invasive registration scheme” that “threatens individual firearm ownership.”5D’Angelo Gore, “Trump’s Deceptive Arms Trade Treaty Argument,” FactCheck.org, May 1, 2019, https://www.factcheck.org/2019/05/trumps-deceptive-arms-trade-treaty-argument/; ; “Obama Administration Signs United Nations Arms Trade Treaty,” NRA-ILA, September 25, 2013, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20130925/obama-administration-signs-united-nations-arms-trade-treaty.
The Oath Keepers also embrace the radical insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment, claiming that the purpose of the amendment was to give citizens “effective final recourse to arms […] in the face of tyranny.”6Copy of citation available upon request. The insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment has been at the forefront of the NRA’s messaging for decades. In 1994, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre summed up the theory when he wrote that the Second Amendment “state[s] in plain language that the people have the right, must have the right, to take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government.”7Wayne LaPierre, Guns, Crime, & Freedom (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 7. LaPierre put it more plainly years later, in 2009: “Our Founding Fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.”8Wayne LaPierre, Conservative Political Action Conference, February 27, 2009, https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4937899/user-clip-lapierre-guys-guns-charge.
The nebulous idea that the Second Amendment provides the right for armed groups to attack the government when they decide it has become tyrannical is particularly dangerous when the same people making that claim are also baselessly accusing political adversaries of having an authoritarian agenda. In short, the NRA and Oath Keepers have relentlessly insisted to their members that their guns give them the right to use violence against tyrants, while at the same time sounding the alarm that anyone who wants to implement even the most modest regulation of gun ownership is a tyrant-in-waiting. It’s a recipe for the exact kind of disaster seen at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021: Americans fraudulently convinced the democratic process had been hijacked and left feeling that armed insurrection is a justifiable remedy.
Oath Keepers Have Repeatedly Appeared at Armed Demonstrations and Some of the Most High-Profile Extremist Standoffs with Law Enforcement
In fact, members of the Oath Keepers joined the insurrection on January 6. According to the George Washington University Program on Extremism, as of February 2022, more than two dozen members of the group have been charged with a crime related to the insurrection.9Jon Lewis, “The Role of the Oath Keepers in the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol”, Alaska House Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, February 10, 2022, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/The%20Role%20of%20the%20Oath%20Keepers%20in%20the%20January%206%20Attack%20on%20the%20United%20States%20Capitol%20Lewis%20Testimony%2002102022.pdf. Some Oath Keepers breached the Capitol in a military formation and authorities claim that the group had established a “quick reaction force” nearby, complete with a stash of firearms.10Alanna Durkin Richer and Michael Kunzelman, “EXPLAINER: A look at far-right extremists in Jan. 6 riot”, Associated Press, June 10, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/capitol-siege-proud-boys-donald-trump-congress-government-and-politics-a8baa24af07b20ab792f4ef6f4481fac; “Two Leaders of Oath Keepers Found Guilty of Seditious Conspiracy and Other Charges Related to U.S. Capitol Breach”, U.S. Department of Justice, November 29, 2022, https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/pr/two-leaders-oath-keepers-found-guilty-seditious-conspiracy-and-other-charges-related-us#:~:text=At%20approximately%202,into%20the%20Capitol.
In the first trial of five members of the Oath Keepers, leader Stewart Rhodes and one other member were convicted of seditious conspiracy for their role in the insurrection. All five members on trial were found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding and other charges related to their actions.11“Two Leaders of Oath Keepers Found Guilty of Seditious Conspiracy and Other Charges Related to U.S. Capitol Breach”, U.S. Department of Justice, November 29, 2022, https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/pr/two-leaders-oath-keepers-found-guilty-seditious-conspiracy-and-other-charges-related-us#:~:text=The%20verdict%20followed%20an%20eight,Attorney%20General%20Merrick%20B.%20Garland. Previously, two additional members of the Oathkeepers pleaded guilty to charges of seditious conspiracy and three other members, plus an alleged accomplice, are currently on trial for seditious conspiracy and other charges.12Ryan Lucas, “A second Oath Keeper pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 riot”, NPR , April 29, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/04/29/1095538077/a-second-oath-keeper-pleaded-guilty-to-seditious-conspiracy-in-the-jan-6-riot.
According to the government’s evidence, Rhodes, who encouraged members to come to Washington, D.C. on January 6th,13Katelyn Polantz, “Oath Keepers founder directed Capitol rioters on January 6, Justice Department says”, CNN, March 9, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/09/politics/oath-keepers-capitol-riot-justice-department/index.html. spent a total of more than $35,000 on firearms and related equipment in the weeks before and after, including during his travel to the event.14Indictment, United States of America v. Elmer Stewart Rhodes, et al., No: 3:19-cv-00679, District of Columbia, paras. 37, 47, 57, 61, 129, January 12, 2022, https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1462481/download On the day of the insurrection, a substantial stockpile of firearms brought by members of the Oath Keepers stayed just outside the city in a Virginia hotel, ready to be brought in if needed.15Kyle Cheney, “Oath Keeper describes group’s large weapons cache ahead of Jan. 6”, Politico, October 12, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/10/12/oath-keeper-weapons-firearms-jan-6-hotel-00061449. One document presented as evidence in the trial was an operation plan which reportedly encouraged members to bring “non-attributable weapons” purchased in “citizen-to-citizen transactions” to be “wiped down before being fully loaded” in order to prevent the firearms from being traced back to them.16Holmes Lybrand and Hannah Rabinowitz, “Oath Keepers trial: Takeaways from week 1”, CNN, October 7, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/07/politics/oath-keepers-trial-week-one-takeaways/index.html#:~:text=According%20to%20prosecutors,can%E2%80%99t%20be%20traced; JordanOnRecord, Twitter, October 6, 2022, https://twitter.com/JordanOnRecord/status/1578029087054254083..
In the days after the attack, Rhodes was recorded stating that his “only regret” is that the Oath Keepers who stormed the Capitol “should have brought rifles.”17Ryan J. Reilly and Daniel Barnes, “Oath Keepers leader regretted not having guns on Jan. 6, prosecutors say at seditious conspiracy trial”, NBC News, October 3, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/oath-keepers-leader-regretted-not-guns-jan-6-prosecutors-say-seditious-rcna50244 In a message presented as evidence, another one of the members wrote that “if we’d had guns I guarantee we would have killed 100 politicians.”18Government’s Opposition To Defendant’s Motion For Reconsideration Of Detention, United States of America v. Thomas Edward Caldwell, No: 1:21-cr-00028-APM, District of Columbia, March 8, 2021, https://storage.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.dcd.226728/gov.uscourts.dcd.226728.66.0.pdf; Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand, “The Oath Keepers trial is a major test of the Justice Department’s ability to hold Jan. 6 rioters accountable. Here’s how it has gone”, CNN, November 22, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/18/politics/oath-keepers-seditious-conspiracy-trial-what-to-know/index.html.
Before and since January 6th, Oath Keepers repeatedly appeared at public demonstrations and events armed. An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund & the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project found that between January 2020 and August 2021, Oath Keepers were present during at least 14 different armed demonstrations. During that time, approximately a quarter of all demonstrations — armed or unarmed — involving the Oath Keepers turned violent or destructive.19“Armed Assembly: Guns, Demonstrations, and Political Violence in America”, Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, August 23, 2021, https://everytownresearch.org/report/armed-assembly-guns-demonstrations-and-political-violence-in-america/.
In 2014, members of the group appeared carrying long guns at protests over the police killing of Michael Brown and returned the following year to provide “security” for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.20Sarah Larimer and Abby Phillip, “Who are the Oath Keepers, and why has the armed group returned to Ferguson?”, Washington Post, August 11, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/08/11/who-are-the-oath-keepers-and-why-has-the-armed-group-returned-to-ferguson/. Also in 2014, members of the Oath Keepers joined a cadre of anti-government extremists to support Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his armed standoff with federal authorities.21Mike Levine, “How a standoff in Nevada years ago set the militia movement on a crash course with the US Capitol”, ABC News, January 5, 2022, https://abcnews.go.com/US/standoff-nevada-years-ago-set-militia-movement-crash/story?id=82051940. Two years later, Oath Keepers joined members of the Bundy family in an armed occupation of federal lands in Oregon in the hope of forcing the federal government to cede public lands to the states or private owners.22Zoë Carpenter, “Inside the Bundy Brothers’ Armed Occupation,” The Nation, January 5, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/inside-the-malheur-wildlife-refuge-occupation/. During the occupation, Oath Keepers founder Rhodes warned law enforcement not to “Waco” the occupiers or risk “starting a conflagration so great, it cannot be stopped, leading to a bloody, brutal civil war.”23Tom Boggioni, “Militia head warns feds: Don’t ‘Waco’ the Oregon occupiers unless you want a ‘bloody, brutal civil war’”, RawStory, January 16, 2016, https://www.rawstory.com/2016/01/militia-head-warns-feds-dont-waco-the-oregon-occupiers-unless-you-want-a-bloody-brutal-civil-war/; Oath Keepers,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Accessed on August 23, 2022, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/oath-keepers. According to SPLC, “The Oath Keepers did denounce the Malheur occupation—not so much because it was an illegal armed invasion but, as Rhodes wrote, ‘specifically because it is not being done with the consent of the locals or at their request, without the request of the Hammond family… and because it is not in direct defense of anyone.’” Nonetheless, “[while] criticizing the occupation, the Oath Keepers did take part in a coalition of militias in the Pacific Northwest called the Pacific Patriots Network, which served as a ‘buffer’ between the occupiers and government forces.”
Keeping Each Other Close: Specific Links Between the NRA and Oath Keepers
The connections between the Oath Keepers and the gun lobby go beyond just a shared promotion of absolutist gun rights and radicalizing conspiracy theories. There are indications that members of the Oath Keepers have taken or even been certified to teach NRA firearms courses. Rolling Stone reported that a leaked list of Oath Keeper membership rolls included “nearly 70 individuals who signed up for the militia […] touting their bonafides as NRA-certified firearms instructors.”24Tim Dickinson, “Meet the Oath Keeper on the NRA’s Board of Directors”, Rolling Stone, November 5, 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/nra-board-oath-keeper-ties-january6-1253376/. In their applications to join Oath Keepers, some expressly indicated they would be willing to teach their fellow members what they had learned about firearms from NRA courses. The Oath Keepers rolls even included an NRA board member. He clarified that while he was no longer affiliated with the group, “I consider myself to be an ‘oath keeper,’ as I’ve never ‘untaken’ the oath.”25Tim Dickinson, “Meet the Oath Keeper on the NRA’s Board of Directors”, Rolling Stone, November 5, 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/nra-board-oath-keeper-ties-january6-1253376/.
Leaders of the Oath Keepers have also appeared at NRA events. The NRA holds its annual Great American Outdoor Show, an expo for hunters, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At every show between 2014 and 2018, the Pennsylvania chapter of the Oath Keepers had a booth at the event.26Exhibitor List, Great American Outdoor Show 2018, NRA, archived February 3, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20180203060850/http://s15.a2zinc.net/clients/NRA/GAOS2018/Public/exhibitors.aspx; Exhibitor List 2017, archived February 2, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170202124214/http://s15.a2zinc.net/clients/NRA/GAOS2017/Public/exhibitors.aspx; Exhibitor List 2016, archived March 18, 2016 https://web.archive.org/web/20160318080304/http://s15.a2zinc.net:80/clients/NRA/GAOS2016/Public/Exhibitors.aspx; Exhibitor List 2015, archived March 12, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150312052447/http://s15.a2zinc.net/clients/NRA/GAOS2015/public/exhibitors.aspx; Elias Alias, “Pennsylvania Oath Keepers and the NRA Big Show,” Oath Keepers, January 23, 2015; Copy of citation available upon request. In 2014, Wayne LaPierre himself stopped by their table to snap a picture with the Oath Keepers state chapter president.27Elias Alias, “Pennsylvania Oath Keepers and the NRA Big Show,” Oath Keepers, January 23, 2015, Copy of citation available upon request. The following year, the Oath Keepers advertised that Rhodes would attend the weeklong event.28Elias Alias, “Pennsylvania Oath Keepers and the NRA Big Show,” Oath Keepers, January 23, 2015, Copy of citation available upon request. And in 2018, Rhodes was invited to speak at an official Friends of NRA fundraiser in New York.29Photos: Friends of NRA Banquet,” Times Herald-Record (Middletown, NY), March 26, 2018, Archived on October 18, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20211105120701/https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:mm4MDtQOxg4J:https://www.recordonline.com/photogallery/th/20180326/photogallery/326009997/PH/1+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.
Since its founding, the Oath Keepers have proved to be a dangerous extremist force in American politics, spreading many of the same conspiracy theories about gun laws that have featured prominently in gun lobby propaganda. Like other groups in the anti-government movement, Oath Keepers have used these lies to justify their extremist actions, including appearing armed at various public events. It is clear that by deploying some of the same extremist rhetoric about guns, the gun lobby is lending credibility to these groups and exposing the public to radicalizing messages that could result in more supporters or even recruits for far right extremists like the Oath Keepers.
Lawmakers and officials at every level of government can take the following three steps to disrupt how extremists use firearms to undercut democracy and promote insurrection.
- The law should prohibit the carrying of firearms in and around sensitive government facilities.
- Guns should be prohibited at demonstrations on public property.
- Armed extremists must be held accountable under existing laws for their criminal conduct.
While no single act will eliminate extremism, these steps—in addition to common-sense gun safety measures—will help decrease the chance of armed extremism violence in the United States.
Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.