The Role of Guns & Armed Extremism in the Attack on the U.S. Capitol
The attack on the U.S. Capitol is the latest—not the first, nor the last—demonstration of the danger armed extremism poses to our democracy. Failure to address this threat will lead to the continued growth of extremist groups and violent incidents.
The deadly insurrection attempt at the Capitol was fueled, in part, by gun rights extremists who brought their firepower to Washington to stop the certification of the electoral college votes. At least nine people who were at or around the Capitol have already been arrested on weapons charges, including a heavily armed man in D.C. who prosecutors allege had texted his intention to “[put] a bullet” in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s head. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were recovered by authorities. Rioters displayed militia patches, waved a “Come and Take It” Confederate flag with an AR-15 image, and dawned insignia of gun groups including the NRA. A review of the digital footprint of those arrested at the Capitol reveals ties to the NRA and other forms of gun rights extremism.
Armed extremists seeking to undermine our democratic institutions are a chronic and ongoing problem. In 2020, white supremacists and anti-government extremists, including the ascendant boogaloo movement, used guns as tools of intimidation and violence in increasingly open ways, including taking advantage of weak state gun laws to brandish weapons at anti-government protests, to intimidate peaceful protests for racial justice, and in plans and actions to kill. An analysis of data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at Princeton University shows at least 100 instances of armed protesters and incidents involving guns at protests in state capitals from May 2020 through mid-January 2021. These events were precursors to the attack on the U.S. Capitol and foreshadow a possible violent escalation in the future.
Former President Trump has emboldened extremists and given them and their conspiracy theories a place in the political mainstream. But far right armed extremism did not start with Trump, his response to Charlottesville, or his call from the debate stage for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Nor will it end now that he has left office.
In fact, for decades, the NRA and the broader gun lobby has enabled access to guns by anti-government and white supremacist extremists through their advocacy against common-sense gun laws, while simultaneously harnessing the extremists’ fixation on guns and violent response to perceived government overreach. In doing so, the gun lobby has amplified radicalizing messaging to new and broader audiences. The gun lobby’s rhetorical, political, and sometimes organizational overlap with the extreme right—from the militia movement of the 1990s to the Oath Keepers that stormed the Capitol—has yielded dangerous and, at times, catastrophic results. The arrest of several insurrectionists on weapons charges and the presence of gun rights extremism at the storming of the U.S. Capitol are just the latest example of the toxic mix of guns and extremism. In fact, just days before January 6th, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre sent a letter to members warning of “armed government agents storming your house, taking your guns, and hauling you off to prison” and that they must “STOP GUN CONFISCATION.” This is the type of conspiratorial rhetoric that animates extreme right actors.
This report, which builds on the findings of our prior research, reviews:
- The presence of firearms at the Capitol insurrection
- The constellation of extreme right actors present at the Capitol
- These same groups’ presence at armed protests throughout 2020
- The gun lobby’s complicity in the rise of armed extremism
- Policy solutions for disrupting how extremists use firearms to undercut democracy.
Armed and Dangerous: How the Gun Lobby Enshrines Guns as Tools of the Extreme Right
Read the Report
In September 2020, Everytown released a comprehensive report detailing these threats entitled “Armed and Dangerous: How the Gun Lobby Enshrines Guns as Tools of the Extreme Right.”
The Armed Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol
On January 6, 2021, a group of insurrectionists stormed and vandalized the U.S. Capitol building. The day started with a pro-Trump rally outside the White House calling for the results of the U.S. Presidential election to be overturned. The former President, several allies, and members of his family spoke. Some members of the rally then marched to the Capitol where the angry mob quickly became impossible to control.
The insurrection caused the evacuation and lockdown of the U.S. Capitol. Five people died. One Capitol Hill Police officer was killed and approximately 81 members of the Capitol Police and 58 members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department sustained injuries – officers were trampled, struck with a bat, pinned against a statue, hit with a fire extinguisher, sprayed with bear spray, and pushed down stairs, among several other violent acts. A number of the insurrectionists were armed leading to seizures of weapons and arrests on weapons charges. In addition, police discovered pipe bombs placed near the headquarters of the RNC and DNC. Monitoring of the event picked up individuals from a number of well-known extreme right groups in the crowd.
The insurrectionists were armed.
While additional indictments may be forthcoming, at least nine individuals have been arrested on firearms charges relating to events in or around the Capitol. A review of the police reports related to the arrests show that police seized at least 3,071 rounds of ammunition during the course of these arrests — enough ammunition to shoot every member of the House and Senate five times. Hundreds of rounds of additional ammo were found during the subsequent arrests of other individuals who participated. The firearms related arrests include:
Cleveland Meredith: Arrested in D.C. in possession of at least one handgun, an assault rifle, and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. Ahead of his trip to D.C., Meredith texted that he would be “putting a bullet” in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s head. He also bragged he was “headed to DC with a sh*t ton of 5.56 armor piercing ammo.” News reports indicate that during the summer of 2020 Meredith “put several [Black Lives Matter] protesters on edge” when he counterprotested at a Black Lives Matter rally armed with a large Tavor X95 rifle.
Lonnie Coffman: Arrested in D.C. in possession of materials to build nearly a dozen Molotov cocktails, plus three handguns, an assault rifle, and five separate types of ammunition. He faces a 17-count indictment on weapons charges. Prosecutors assert that Coffman appears to have been motivated to conduct violence against elected representatives, and notes in his possession listed Representative Andrew Carson as “one of two muslims in House of Reps.”
Thomas Gronek: Arrested in D.C. with two guns, along with 275 rounds of .22 cal ammunition and a drum magazine that holds 110 rounds of ammunition. Ahead of the election, Gronek posted conspiratorial content about the “mass takeover of our country.”
Grant Moore: Arrested in D.C. with a semi-automatic handgun, and approximately 36 rounds of ammunition. When he was confronted by the police, Mr. Moore allegedly pointed to a red “Make America Great Again” hat and told the officer “I’m one of these.”
The arrest and seizure data likely vastly understate the presence of weapons at and near the Capitol on January 6, as social media monitoring indicates many users sharing plans to carry guns at the Capitol and law enforcement did not detain and search the majority of the insurrectionists. One officer present that day indicated he intentionally avoided drawing his gun because “I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns . . . And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.”
Police reports and court filings indicate the insurrectionists made explicit threats to harm several elected leaders, the preponderance of which seemed to be aimed at Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Andrew Carson, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Senator Raphael Warnock. All of these leaders are women or Black – a fact that is consistent with the level of misogyny and racism found amongst extreme right organizations.
The constellation of far right groups that rioted in the U.S. Capitol includes numerous extremist groups and individuals.
Members of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, anti-government militia groups organized around conspiratorial beliefs of looming civilian disarmament, were present at the Capitol on January 6. Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, was photographed outside the Capitol on the 6th. After the November election, Rhodes told conspiracy-peddler Alex Jones that his group was ready to attack Washington in defense of Trump, saying “We’ll also be on the outside of D.C., armed, prepared to go in, if the president calls us up.”
Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was arrested in D.C. two days before the riot with two illegal gun magazines emblazoned with the Proud Boys logo. There was a significant Proud Boys presence at the Capitol, including Nick Ochs, a founder of the Hawaii chapter of the Proud Boys and co-host of the streaming show “Murder the Media”, who was arrested for unlawful entry into the Capitol. Similarly, a Proud Boys organizer from Orlando, Florida, Joe Biggs, was arrested for his participation in the riot. A Proud Boy member who goes by the alias “Spazzo” was reported to have broken a window during the Capitol insurrection. He was arrested and identified as Dominic Pezzola of Rochester, New York – he is facing charges of unlawful entry and destruction of property.
Many individuals who were arrested for illegal conduct at the Capitol were not caught with weapons on their person, but are connected with extremist organizations, gun rights groups, or have espoused the intention to use firearms in pursuit of their idea of justice. Notable arrested individuals include:
Richard Barnett: Arrested for unlawful entry of the Capitol and infamously posed for pictures sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s chair. Mr. Barnett is a gun rights activist from Arkansas that self-identifies as a “white nationalist.” In post arrest hearings, prosecutors revealed that Barnett had previously had several encounters with local law enforcement, including one where he matched the description of a suspect who had pointed a gun at a woman in July 2020, and another where he was parked in a school zone “in possession of an AR-style rifle around his back and a pistol on his side.”
Wiliam McCall Calhoun, Jr: Arrested for unlawful entry of the Capitol; disorderly conduct; and witness tampering. Calhoun is a gun rights activist and attorney whose since-deleted website listed “Self-defense/2d Amendment” work. Calhoun’s Twitter profile picture includes him prominently wearing a NRA ballcap. He organized at least one gun rights rally after the 2020 election, the purpose of which he said was “we’re not going to tolerate an election with no transparency.” Calhoun’s social media is filled with threats of armed violence, including that he was attempting to join a militia to “become an officially state sanctioned COMMIE KILLER.” In one post, he told another user, “My AR15 set up will do head shots at 200 meters no problem. You have no clue what’s coming.” In another, he warned, “I’ll be slinging enough hot lead to stack you commies up like cordwood.” On Twitter, Calhoun quoted the well-known NRA slogan, “from my cold dead hands.” In advance of the Capitol insurrection, Calhoun allegedly advised his followers, “Whether the police can enforce their gun laws depends on how many armed Patriots show up.” Afterwards, he reportedly told them, “The word is we’re all coming back armed for war.”
Karl Dresch: Arrested for obstruction of justice, disorderly conduct, and unlawful entry of the Capitol. Authorities found a SKS rifle with an unattached bayonet, a shotgun and a .40-caliber Glock handgun, along with ammunition, in a search of Mr. Dresch’s home. Due to a previous felony conviction, Mr. Dresch cannot lawfully own guns. While Dresch was not charged with bringing a gun into the Capitol, prosecutors noted that a backpack that he had on Capitol grounds was found with ammunition in it.
Guy Wesley Reffitt: Arrested for obstruction of justice and unlawful entry of the Capitol. Prosecutors allege that Reffitt had ties to the Texas Freedom Force, what they describe as a “militia extremist group.” Reffitt’s wife told authorities he identified as a Three Percenter. The night Reffitt came home from his trip to the Capitol his son saw Reffitt take out two firearms from his car, an AR-15 rifle and a pistol, and bring them into the house. Reffitt allegedly made several threats of violence against his own family, including that “if you turn me in, you’re a traitor and you know what happens to traitors… traitors get shot.”
Kevin Greeson: News reports indicate that Mr. Greeson suffered a fatal heart attack during the insurrection. Social media posts made under his account in the month ahead of the events at the Capitol include posts encouraging civil war (“let’s give it to them. A war. Democrats don’t have guns. We do…. Im Bringing MY GUNS”) [sic]. Over the summer Mr. Greeson appears to have been agitated by BLM protests, posting “time for protesting is over! Put the military in the streets of every city.” In November, Mr. Greeson posted on Parler: “All males over the age of 18 join a group.. be ready to defend our country!! Spend your money on guns and ammo… It’s time to stop this shit!!!!!” Mr. Greeson regularly posted violent content online and followed extremists like the Proud Boys and militia groups.
Joe Biggs: Arrested for unlawful entry of the Capitol; disorderly conduct; and obstructing an official proceeding. Biggs is a well-known member of the Proud Boys and a former Infowars employee. He is also a reported NRA member who has been mentioned multiple times on the NRA website. In 2016, Biggs attended the NRA Annual Meeting, where he interviewed then-NRA personality Colion Noir. Biggs has frequently posted about gun rights online, at one point encouraging his followers to “Get a gun. Bu[y] ammo. […] be ready because the left isn’t playing anymore and neither should we.” There is also at least one episode of an online show about gun ownership on a far right website hosted by Biggs.
Michael Curzio: Arrested for unlawful entry of the Capitol. Curzio was previously convicted and served prison time for attempted murder in a 2012 shooting. On Facebook, Curzio had previously dismissed the idea of gun laws, claiming, “I’m a convicted felon but I can get my hands on almost any weapon I have the money to buy, and without the cops and legal weapons confiscated. What do you think would happen if people like me rose up and wanted to really take what we wanted and do what we really wanted?” The day after the 2020 election, he posted, “If shit really hits the fan, who’s with me to do the right thing? And you know what I mean, and you know what I’m talking about.” From his DC hotel room before the insurrection, he posted a video to Facebook, saying, “if anything happens—we get fucked up, arrested, or killed—just know, man, I love y’all and I did what I believed in […] if I die, or if I get fucked up, or whatever, y’know, it is what it is.” Even after being arrested for his role in the insurrection, Curzio posted he had “no regrets for anything.”
Len Guthrie: Arrested for unlawful entry of the Capitol. Mr. Guthrie is a self-described “lifetime NRA member” who shared NRA content, including the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment, on his Facebook page.
The insurrectionists were organized.
Video of the insurrection, and cached posts on social media, indicate that the storming of the Capitol was not spontaneous. Indeed, prosecutors have charged three individuals who were members of the Oath Keepers and/or the Ohio State Regular Militia (Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl) with conspiracy to obstruct the Congress’ affirmation of the Electoral College, among other criminal charges, for their actions at the Capitol. Court affidavits filed by the government in the case describe the Oath Keepers as a “paramilitary organization” who “believe that the federal government has been coopted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.” The same affidavit describes how the defendants moved “in an organized and practiced fashion”, with one sending a voice message that “We have a good group. We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan.” One man was overheard offering words of encouragement during the riot saying “Get it, Jess Do your fucking thing…. Everything we fucking trained for.” Recorded messages also revealed an individual saying “You are executing a citizen’s arrest. Arrest this assembly, we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud.” Evidence presented in the case further indicates that the defendants had made extensive plans for the day, what one called “an Oathkeepers Op,” in a message, including gathering supplies, meeting up with other Oath Keeper groups, and “night hunting” of Antifa.
The organization of the insurrectionists was evidenced by their supplies and mechanisms of communications. Pictures of an insurrectionist with flex cuffs, later identified by authorities as Eric Munchel, maneuvering through the gallery of the U.S. Senate quickly went viral. Flex cuffs are used by police to detain and transport suspects. Munchel was allegedly carrying a gun outside the Capitol, which he stashed before entering the building. After his arrest, prosecutors found an arsenal at Munchel’s home, including “assault rifles, a sniper rifle with a tripod, shotguns” and what was described as a “drum-style magazine.” Similarly, an FBI affidavit in connection with Proud Boy Joe Biggs notes the presence of earpieces among individuals associated with Proud Boys. This was not a spontaneous storming of the gates – it was a deliberate and orchestrated insurrection.
In the days after the riot, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Proud Boy supporter Eduard Florea on weapons charges. News reports indicate Florea has allegedly threatened to kill people in the past and made several online threats to elected leaders and government agencies. Florea allegedly posted online “Guns cleaned loaded . . . got a bunch of guys all armed and ready to deploy . . . we are just waiting for the word” and “Its [sic] time to unleash some violence.”
Symbols of hate were commonplace throughout the Capitol insurrection.
Far right iconography, such as signs supporting QAnon (a conspiracy that places former President Trump as the heroic savior of the republic against a cult of liberal pedophiles), Crusader paraphernalia (symbols popular with far-right ethnonationist groups), and references to Pepe the Frog (a series of memes popular in racist and bigoted spaces on the internet), were present. Imagery captured at the riot indicate the presence of the neo-Nazi group NSC 131, and some insurrectionists wore anti-semetic clothing with sayings such as “Camp Auschwitz.” Confederate flags were openly flown at the insurrection, with at least one with the pro-gun message “Come and Take It” emblazoned on it. A noose and gallows was erected outside the Capitol, and indeed, certain insurrectionists chanted “hang Mike Pence.” Photographs captured attendees wearing various forms of firearms-related paraphernalia, including an NRA hat and a patch from the extremist gun group the Virginia Citizen Defense League.
In sum, the insurrectionists at the Capitol were armed, organized, and violent.
Apart from the physical presence of guns, the strong ties of several of the insurrectionists to gun extremism is hardly surprising – guns are a recruiting and motivating tool for the extreme right. Conspiracies about election-rigging and the “stolen” election, driven by a deep state of shadowy government actors, echoed the same imaginary threats the gun lobby has parroted for years to motivate gun rights extremism around the supposed looming confiscation of guns by the government.
2020: The Year of Dangerous Extreme Right Protests
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was a continuation of a pattern of extreme right wing intimidation and violence that has grown unchecked during the Trump presidency. In 2020, the extreme right used guns as tools of intimidation and violence in increasingly open ways, most notably by taking advantage of weak state gun laws to brandish weapons at anti-government protests and to intimidate peaceful protests for racial justice. These incidents, which are detailed in Everytown’s September 2020 report “Armed and Dangerous: How the Gun Lobby Enshrines Guns as Tools of the Extreme Right” are summarized below.
Armed Protests in State Capitals and Cities Around the Country
An analysis of data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University shows at least 100 instances of armed protesters and incidents involving guns at protests in capital cities of 28 different states from May 2020 through mid-January 2021, including, but not limited to, the following examples:
Richmond, Virginia Gun Extremist Rally
In January 2020, heavily armed protesters descended on Richmond, VA to decry anticipated changes to Virginia’s gun laws. Event organizers issued a statement welcoming participation of militia groups at the event, writing, “We welcome our militia brothers and sisters to be part of making the day a success!” Militia groups, including the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, and other extremists quickly organized. Ahead of the event, one far right leader publicly threatened a state legislator: “you should be pulled out of office by the hair on your head, walked down the streets of the capital, walked up to the steps of a swinging rope that’s placed around your neck.” Militia groups who descended on Richmond even organized and held a conference the day before, titled, “The State of the Militia,” at which various militia leaders spoke, including some who had helped plan the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The scene around Richmond on the day of the protest was militaristic and chaotic. Protesters openly carried pistols and AR-15 assault-style rifles, among other weapons, often donning military fatigues and tactical gear. Heavily armed militia groups lined up and marched throughout the area. If not for the work of the FBI in disrupting an accelerationist plot by white supremacists who were building untraceable ghost guns to launch an attack at the event, the Richmond rally could have been a mass-casualty event.
For three consecutive weeks in Michigan in spring 2020, armed protesters, openly brandishing semi-automatic assault-style rifles, led rallies in and around the Michigan State Capitol to protest the governor’s extension of the state’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order. The extremist Michigan Liberty Militia and Michigan Proud Boys participated in these armed events at the capitol. At one of the protests, a large Confederate flag with an AR-15 rifle and the phrase “Come and Take It” was displayed in the crowd. At another, armed protesters stormed the capitol building to brandish their weapons and intimidate lawmakers during their legislative session. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer noted the overlap of hate symbols and firearms at these protests, saying, “There were swastikas and Confederate flags and nooses and people with assault rifles.” The FBI later arrested and charged extremists who were plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The arrests included individuals who had reportedly attended the armed protests and were members of the militia group Wolverine Watchman.
The Bluegrass state has been the home of several armed protests, including one during which participants hung an effigy of the Governor from a tree. Participants included individuals with insignia from the Three Percenter militia group. At another event, gun rights extremists marched through the state capitol rotunda brandishing assault-style weapons. More recently, after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, approximately 100 individuals took to the state capitol in Frankfort, once again armed.
Armed extreme right appeared at a number of Black Lives Matter and racial equality protests after the killing of George Floyd, with the overwhelming majority of these counterprotesters being white. Their appearance followed conspiratorial rhetoric around the threat of left-wing violence pushed by a constant barrage of statements and tweets from President Trump and his allies, including an allusion to gun violence by Trump, who tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The theme of false equivalence had been pushed by the NRA for years. After a neo-Nazi murdered a peaceful protester at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, then-NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch lectured, “Don’t think for one second that Antifa and Black Lives Matter are somehow more virtuous than the alt-right. It’s all the same stuff.” The Southern Poverty Law Center chronicled at least 55 incidents of militias attending racial equality protests between the spring and fall of last year.
After an online call for “Armed Citizens,” right-wing extremists carrying assault rifles and handguns were visible throughout protests seeking justice for the police shooting of Jacob Blake. This included a 17-year-old white Trump supporter who drove across state lines to “protect” the city from racial justice protesters. He patrolled the streets brandishing a long gun and ultimately shot three protesters, two fatally. The shooter is a self-described militia member and was later photographed flashing a white power sign while posing with members of the Proud Boys. The violence in Kenosha could have been even worse had the FBI not arrested two heavily armed individuals who had driven from Missouri to Kenosha allegedly “with the intention of possibly using the firearms on people.” The two had attended a Trump rally in Kenosha and planned to go to Portland, Oregon. Both were members of the Missouri-based 417 Second Amendment Militia, and one reportedly said he was willing to “take action” if police were defunded.
Rise of the Boogaloo Movement
The emergent boogaloo movement rose to national prominence in 2020 as a new and dangerous subset of the extreme right. The movement’s focus on a supposedly imminent second civil war is rooted in a sense that American political institutions and norms are hopelessly corrupt and beyond peaceful reform. This belief set involves the fetishization of a civil war, ranging from obsessive preparation for it to action to hasten its arrival. Public displays of weaponry, particularly at political protests, are central to this movement’s adherents. Among these groups, firearm training is a common part of preparation for the anticipated civil war. There were several instances of boogaloo violence in 2020, including in Santa Cruz, California, where prosecutors linked a man charged with the shooting and murder of two federal law enforcement officers to the boogaloo movement. This is still an emergent movement, but its ideological core centers around guns and distrust of authority, whether that be the government, police, or political institutions.
Threats to the Administration of Elections
The rise in armed protest resulted in serious concern for the safety and security of the 2020 election. Two incidents underscored the dangers of mixing guns and democracy. First, in Phoenix Arizona, supporters of President Trump – some armed – rallied outside of the vote counting at the board of elections the day after the election. Second, two men were arrested en route to Philadelphia’s vote-counting center in the days following the election. Police indicate the men drove with pistols, an AR-15 rifle, and roughly 160 rounds off ammunition. These same individuals, two months later, allegedly attended the U.S. Capitol insurrection, with one of them reportedly giving a speech as rioters stormed the building.
Extremists are able to mount these armed intimidation campaigns because in most states it is legal to open carry loaded firearms at or around state capitol buildings or at demonstrations. This is largely due to the absence of state laws prohibiting the open carry of firearms in public, commonly known as the “Open Carry Loophole.” Few state legislatures have addressed the legality of the “open carry loophole” because responsible gun owners have not traditionally openly carried firearms in public. In fact, in 41 states, civilians can open carry loaded, semi-automatic rifles without a permit. More information about the Open Carry Loophole can be found in Everytown’s June 2020 report “Armed COVID-19 Protests Exploit Open Carry Loophole.”
The Gun Lobby and Extreme Right Politics
For decades, the gun lobby has sought to capture and wield the political fervor of right-wing extremists, spreading radicalizing far right conspiracy theories about mass civilian disarmament and looming authoritarianism to everyday Americans in a craven attempt to stop the reforms that would keep guns out of the hands of those very extremists. Guns and gun fanaticism are central organizing principles of this kind of extremism in America, including that of the groups and individuals that supported the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
In the early 1990s, the NRA used over-the-top rhetoric to denigrate efforts to pass the Brady Bill and the federal assault weapons ban. The organization leveraged the deadly law enforcement raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and Waco, Texas in 1993 to villainize federal law enforcement, repeatedly comparing them to Nazis in books and full-page newspaper ads, and suggesting the gun reforms were authoritarian measures to target gun owners. At the same time, armed extremists—animated by the same conspiracy theories around gun laws, Ruby Ridge, and Waco—were coalescing into the nascent anti-government militia movement. One such extremist, who devoted himself to conspiracy theories about mass disarmament, visited the Waco siege, and read about Ruby Ridge in an NRA publication, was Timothy McVeigh.
In a fundraising letter dated April 13, 1995, LaPierre referred to federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs,” saying it was no longer “unthinkable for Federal agents wearing nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens,” all while specifically referencing “Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge… Waco and the Branch Davidians.” Six days later, McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a target he chose because it housed an ATF office, killing 168 people. The NRA falsely denied connections to the militia movement in the aftermath, instead blaming the ATF for “creating the climate” that led to the bombing.
Those kinds of conspiracy theories form the backbone of the far right worldview of grievance and siege, namely the belief that the U.S. political system is compromised by a shadowy cabal of enemies enacting a grand conspiracy. The combination of a deep skepticism toward democratic institutions and paranoia over fictional threats from shadowy actors leads some extremists to conclude that there are few, if any, legitimate democratic solutions to these threats, and as a result, mass violence is inevitable or even justified. For these groups and radicalized individuals, guns are essential tools for that tactic of violence. Beyond simply purchasing or using guns individually, far right extremists, especially those in anti-government circles, organize politically to advocate against any limit to gun rights.
The gun lobby has sought to leverage that political activism to its own ends, warning its members that the only thing standing between them and a grand authoritarian conspiracy or even their fellow Americans was their easy access to any and all firearms. To paint this picture, the gun lobby draws on many of the same conspiracy theories that the far right depends on, particularly those which hinge on the protection of lax gun laws: Either the imagined conspiracy has yet to happen because Americans have easy access to firearms, or the conspiracy itself is an attempt to disarm Americans (so that the first category of conspiracies can be executed).
One extreme viewpoint at the forefront of the NRA’s messaging for decades is the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment. 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.” LaPierre put it more plainly years later, in 2009: “Our Founding Fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.” More recently, days after the Capitol insurrection, NRA Board President Carolyn Meadows regurgitated the view writing in a column entitled “Why They Fear Us,” that “gun-control advocates want control, but are often stopped because the Second Amendment fundamentally undermines their attempt to turn people into submissive subjects of a controlling state.”
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 the ones baselessly accusing political adversaries of having an authoritarian agenda. In short, the NRA has relentlessly insisted to its members that their guns give them the right to violently overthrow a tyrannical government, 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: Americans fraudulently convinced the democratic process had been hijacked and left feeling that armed insurrection is a justifiable remedy.
For far right ideologies, defense of lax gun laws is paramount, which makes the gun lobby the hero standing in the gap to stop any and all efforts to regulate guns and, by extension, supposedly looming rampant criminality and authoritarianism. And in portraying itself as the hero, the gun lobby can activate its most ardent followers and raise more money from its members. As the NRA’s former number two recently put it in a tell-all book, LaPierre knew that when the NRA needed to raise money, it could depend on fear-mongering messaging, which LaPierre purportedly referred to as pouring “gasoline on the fire.”
Deploying this kind of rhetoric, the gun lobby exposes a wide audience to these radicalizing messages, pushing those in the mainstream towards armed extremism and those already radicalized further towards violence.
The insurrectionists at the Capitol, many deceived by lies and conspiracy theories, believed that not only was the 2020 election a fraud, but it was a fraud in furtherance of installing an administration they wrongly view as an oppressive threat. As a result, in invading the Capitol, they believed they were exercising the nebulous right the NRA claims is granted to them by the Second Amendment “to abolish oppressive government.” This worldview is largely responsible for the resurgence of the anti-government movement, particularly the boogaloo movement, in the past year.
NRA communications to its members continue to “pour gasoline on the fire” of rightwing extremism. In a recently uncovered fundraising letter to members, Wayne LaPierre warns of “armed government agents storming your house, taking your guns, and hauling you off to prison” in language that worryingly echoes his words in the letter the NRA sent to members mere days before the Oklahoma City bombing. In the recent letter, LaPierre boasts that “only the NRA has the strength to win knock-down brawls on Capitol Hill.” The letter’s accompanying envelope read “NOTICE OF GUN CONFISCATION” —an overt invocation of civilian disarmament conspiracy theories. Similarly, even after the events at the Capitol, the NRA promoted a branded meme on social media with an AR-15 and the phrase “Come and Take It.” This was the same phrase and symbolism that flew on a Confederate flag during protests of the Governor of Michigan last spring and that was flown at the Capitol on the 6th.
The January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol demonstrated the urgent need for policymakers to confront armed extremism. While there are many reasons for the rise in armed extremism, we know that strong gun policy is critical to address violent extremists’ access to firearms and establish clear and strong legal standards on what conduct is not acceptable in our democracy. To fully address the threat, we’ll need to address easy access to firearms in the United States, including through common sense measures that stop prohibited individuals from obtaining guns—like comprehensive background checks and regulations on ghost guns. In the meantime, the following steps can disrupt how extremists use firearms to undermine democracy and promote insurrection.
1. The law should prohibit the carrying of firearms at and around sensitive government facilities.
The carrying of firearms by members of the public intimidates citizens, emboldens extremists, and is ultimately the means by which a protest can morph into an insurrection or escalate into a gunfight. Federal law already prohibits firearms at the Capitol and on Capitol Grounds. Federal and state law should extend the prohibition on gun carrying to all state capitals and their grounds, and the other buildings essential to the functioning of government and the electoral process, including polling locations and vote counting facilities.
2. Guns should be prohibited at demonstrations on public property.
Peaceful protest is an essential form of expression and a pillar of American democracy, however, the dangers inherent to the carry of firearms in demonstrations are very real, and a recent Department of Homeland Security memo warned that “militia extremists” are prepared to take advantage of public demonstrations to incite violence. The presence of armed protesters is in and of itself a show of intimidation. The armed extreme right’s targets of intimidation are often members of already marginalized communities, as evidenced by their presence throughout the year at protests for racial equality.
3. Armed extremists must be held accountable under existing laws for their criminal conduct.
Federal and state officials must enforce laws against unlawful carrying and armed intimidation with a focus on the armed extremists and white supremacists who have abridged civil rights or sought to intimidate democratic institutions. Laws on firearm brandishment should be enforced to capture the tactics we have seen deployed by extremists and white supremacists, including those armed extremists who go to the homes of elected officials and government workers. All 50 states prohibit unauthorized, so-called “private militias,” from engaging in activities reserved for the state, including law enforcement activities, but those laws are being underutilized to address the unlawful conduct by armed extremists.
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.