Armed and Dangerous
How the Gun Lobby Enshrines Guns as Tools of the Extreme Right
Armed protests; a resurgent white supremacist movement; anti-government militias organizing; conspiracy theories brought to the mainstream; purposeful sowing of distrust in political institutions—the United States currently faces a confluence of dangerous challenges caused by groups and individuals on the extreme right. Gun rights fanaticism is the common denominator among all these challenges. Having tracked the gun lobby, in particular the NRA, for years, Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (Everytown), in this report, examines the role of the gun lobby in exposing broader audiences to the potentially radicalizing messaging of the far right, fanning the flames of anger and fear in those already radicalized, and advocating for lax gun laws that enable violent extremists to arm themselves. The report further discusses what the dangerous confluence of reckless rhetoric, gun lobby influence, and armed extremism means for our democracy, in particular the prospect for extreme-right violence around the upcoming election. Unfortunately, there are several examples of extreme-right violence in the recent past in which these conditions resulted in tragedy.
In October 2018, President Donald Trump and his allies issued ominous warnings about the supposed threat posed by a “caravan” of migrants heading to the United States from Mexico. NRATV, then the propaganda arm of the National Rifle Association, parroted those lines: An NRATV host claimed that left-wing groups, Jewish billionaire George Soros, and the Venezuelan government were conspiring to send large numbers of migrants to the United States in order to influence the upcoming election.1“NRATV Correspondent: Migrant Caravan Is ‘an Invasion under the Guise of Migration,’” Media Matters for America, October 19, 2018, https://www.mediamatters.org/nratv/nratv-correspondent-migrant-caravan-invasion-under-guise-migration.
Eight days later, a white supremacist entered the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire on the congregation. During his shootout with police, the shooter told an officer, “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” In his final social media post, the shooter accused a Jewish nonprofit that aids refugees of “bring[ing] invaders in that kill our people,” directly referencing a well-known racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory known as the replacement theory. His rampage killed eleven people and wounded six more, making the attack the deadliest on a Jewish community in US history.
The shooter’s affinity for conspiracy theories did not stop there. Associates recalled that dating back to at least the 1990s, he had harbored conspiratorial views about the government. For instance, he kept a shotgun at the door in case “the [United Nations] blue hats” came to get him or his guns.2Rich Lord, “How Robert Bowers Went from Conservative to White Nationalist,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 10, 2018, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2018/11/10/Robert-Bowers-extremism-Tree-of-Life-massacre-shooting-pittsburgh-Gab-Warroom/stories/201811080165. The gun lobby has for years promoted the conspiracy theory that the UN is planning to confiscate guns in the US. The jacket for one of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s two books about the subject reads, in part, “If you think there’s no way an armed U.N. platoon of blue helmets can knock on your door to take your guns, this book just became your next must-read.”3Wayne LaPierre, The Global War on Your Guns: Inside the UN Plan to Destroy the Bill of Rights (Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006). Indeed, conspiracy theories about pending gun confiscation have been central to gun lobby and extreme-right messaging for decades. These conspiracy theories contribute to a dangerous climate among the extreme right that increases the prospect for violence.
The Pittsburgh shooter’s views place him squarely at the nexus of white supremacist hate and anti-government conspiracy theories. Whether through overt acts of violence such as the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh or the intimidation tactics routinely deployed by armed protesters across the country, extreme-right activists have been using guns as tools of violence in increasingly brazen ways. The extreme right has been further activated by the coming 2020 election and conspiracies of vote-stealing and illegitimate election practices. A review of social media and internet message boards turns up countless threats of violence and looming civil war.
The 2020 election, and its aftermath, could likely serve as an accelerating event for extreme-right gun violence in the United States.
We did not get here by accident. For decades, the gun lobby has not only enabled access to guns by anti-government and white supremacist extremists through its advocacy against common-sense gun laws, but has also worked to harness their fixation on guns to shore up its own political power; in doing so, the gun lobby has amplified extreme-right politics 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 “boogaloo bois” of today—has yielded dangerous and, at times, catastrophic results.
Following the election of Donald Trump, the extreme right has been emboldened. On September 29, at the first Presidential debate, President Trump failed to denounce white supremacists and militia groups, even instructing the far right hate group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by.” The president and his allies in the gun lobby have promoted xenophobia, racism, fear of outsiders, and fringe conspiracy theories, rousing white supremacist and anti-government activists across the country. An unprecedented questioning of political and institutional legitimacy reinforces conspiracies that have been circulating in extreme-right circles for years. The erosion in confidence in our institutions only adds to the prospect of more extreme-right violence. Indeed, the surge of counterprotesters and militia members who now open-carry weapons at protests for racial equity exemplifies this mix of hate, conspiracy, and guns.
Section I of this report examines the centrality of guns to today’s extreme-right politics. Section II and Section III then contextualize the extremist threat through the history of gun-rights absolutism in overt extreme-right activism dating back three decades. Section IV explains how the so-called alt-right, boogaloo movement, militia movement, and gun lobby have combined to fuel extremism in the United States during the presidency of Donald Trump. Section V discusses the tactics and results of undermining the legitimacy of political institutions such as elections. Finally, Section VI notes the potential for extreme-right violence in the coming years.
What is the extreme right?
The term “extreme right” in this report refers to “two large, slightly overlapping spheres”:4“Extreme Right / Radical Right / Far Right,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed August 16, 2020, https://www.adl.org/resources/glossary-terms/extreme-right-radical-right-far-right. the white supremacist and anti-government extremist movements. Guns and gun rights are central to many extreme-right groups and individuals.
What is anti-government extremism?
Anti-government extremism describes a collection of right-wing movements, including the militia movement (and more recently, the boogaloo movement), that shares the foundational belief that some or all levels of government have been compromised and subverted by a conspiracy of powerful, sometimes genocidal, actors, rendering those levels of government illegitimate. Those beliefs are often anti-immigrant and/or Islamophobic.
What is the boogaloo?
The boogaloo movement, which is highly decentralized, grew out of a racist meme that predicted a forthcoming second civil war, referred to as the boogaloo. Some adherents to the boogaloo movement openly call for violence to initiate this coming civil war. The movement is inextricably linked with gun culture, and many of the individuals and groups that led to the boom in anti-government extremism over the past three decades have also elevated this new boogaloo movement.
Is there an armed extreme left?
This report focuses on the unique challenges posed by guns and the extreme right. Of course, there have been individuals and groups with left-leaning ideologies who have perpetrated gun violence in the US. However, readers should avoid false equivalence: At present, in extreme right circles, numerous militias, white supremacists, and other fringe groups stockpile weapons and openly discuss acts of violence with regularity.
I. Guns Are the Tools of Choice for the Extreme Right
The Rising Threat of the Extreme Right and Guns
In September 2019, for the first time since its inception, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) named white supremacist extremism “one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” in the United States.1“Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” US Department of Homeland Security, September 2019, https://bit.ly/3djvjiZ. Two months later, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs that domestic terrorism posed a “serious, persistent threat” and that the majority of the FBI’s investigations into domestic, racially motivated extremism attacks are “fueled by some kind of white supremacy.”2FBI Director Christopher Wray, testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, November 5, 2019, C-SPAN, https://cs.pn/2Ygeilp. Comments begin at 39 minutes into recorded testimony. In February 2020, Wray appeared before the US House Judiciary Committee and revealed that the FBI had elevated the threat of racially motivated violent extremism to a top-level priority.3FBI Director Christopher Wray, testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, February 5, 2020, C-SPAN, https://cs.pn/2V2RYdb. Comments begin at 3 hours and 55 minutes into recorded testimony.
White supremacist violence is not the only threat coming from the extreme right. A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that between 1993 and 2017, anti-government actors were responsible for roughly the same number of terrorist attacks and plots as white supremacists.4“A Dark and Constant Rage: 25 Years of Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States,” Anti-Defamation League, 2017, https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/CR_5154_25YRS%20RightWing%20Terrorism_V5.pdf. As the report states, “Many people, when picturing right-wing terrorism, tend to think of white supremacists, but anti-government extremists such as militia groups and sovereign citizens pose just as much of a threat.”5“A Dark and Constant Rage,” Anti-Defamation League, 3.
These statements reflect the severity of the extreme-right threat. And that threat is growing; since 2002, more Americans have been killed by domestic “far-right” extremists—which researchers say include white supremacist, anti-government, and anti-abortion extremists—than by any other group, including those inspired by jihadist ideology.6Peter Bergen, David Sterman, and Melissa Salyk-Virk, “Terrorism in America 18 Years After 9/11,” New America, updated September 18, 2019, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/terrorism-america-18-years-after-911/. Research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the share of domestic terrorist attacks and plots from these far-right actors has grown significantly in the past six years. In 2019, far-right attacks were responsible for two-thirds of these incidents.7Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, and Nicholas Harrington, “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, June 17, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states.
Hate-motivated victimization—the experience of being targeted because of someone’s hatred of your identity—is uniquely distressing. Research shows that victims of hate crimes are more likely to experience psychological distress than victims of other crimes.8Gregory M. Herek, J. Roy Gillis, and Jeanine C. Cogan, “Psychological Sequelae of Hate-Crime Victimization among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 67, no. 6 (December 1999): 945-951. Survivors of hate crimes experience heightened nervousness and feel less safe for a longer period of time than survivors of non-hate crimes.9Jack McDevitt et al., “Consequences for Victims: A Comparison of Bias- and Non-Bias-Motivated Assaults,” American Behavioral Scientist 45, no. 4 (December 2001): 697-713. But the harm of hate-motivated victimization does not happen in isolation. To understand the true impact, we must also consider the broader public injury in addition to the individual victims. Violence that targets one individual can psychologically harm an entire shared identity group and subsequently fracture communities along social lines. An act of hate-motivated violence can send the message that all members of the targeted identity group are neither welcome nor safe.10Monique Noelle, “The Ripple Effect of the Matthew Shepard Murder: Impact on the Assumptive Worlds of Members of the Targeted Group,” American Behavioral Scientist 46 no. 1 (2002): 27-50; James G. Bell and Barbara Perry, “Outside Looking in: The Community Impacts of Anti-Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Hate Crime,” Journal of Homosexuality 62, no. 1 (August 2014): 98-120. And that is often the point.
Guns are a crucial part of the terror of extreme-right violence. The ADL’s report on right-wing terror attacks between 1993 and 2017 concluded that “overwhelmingly, firearms and explosives were the most common weapons,” with more than a third of incidents involving “use or planned use of firearms.”11“A Dark and Constant Rage,” Anti-Defamation League. In 2017, a joint report from the FBI and DHS concluded that “firearms likely will continue to pose the greatest threat of lethal violence by [white supremacist extremists] due to their availability and ease of use.”12“White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence,” Joint Intelligence Bulletin, US Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation, May 10, 2017, https://bit.ly/2Be8yQw. Combined with the fact that guns are more likely to be used in planned attacks (relative to more-impulsive hate crimes),13Alex Yablon, “Hate Crimes Expert Fears That Shootings Like Pittsburgh Could Become More Common,” The Trace, October 31, 2018, https://bit.ly/3dzj2Hd. it is clear that shootings like those at the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, or at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh are not anomalies.14Jason Wilson, “Prepping for a Race War: Documents Reveal Inner Workings of Neo-Nazi Group,” The Guardian, January 25, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Nx20iy. And with the rise in popularity of ghost guns—homemade, untraceable firearms—extreme-right actors are creating deadly, easily accessible weapons as part of the preparation for their attacks.15Alain Stephens, “They Planned to Start a Race War. DIY Gun Kits Allowed Them to Build an Arsenal,” The Trace, January 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/3eH7Auq.
Many of the most horrific attacks have been motivated by white supremacist ideologies specifically. An Everytown analysis of mass shootings found that the perpetrators of one-third of the 20 deadliest shootings in the past decade were motivated by or previously expressed support for white supremacist extremism.16Everytown researchers investigated the motives behind the 20 deadliest mass shootings between 2009 and 2019 via media reports and police records.
The Extreme Right Thrives on Conspiracy and Distrust in Democratic Institutions
Activists and groups on the far right utilize extremist strategies and rhetoric to secure and amplify their power, to the exclusion of others in American society. Fundamentally, a worldview constructed around conspiracy theories has led them to view their opponents as illegitimate political actors who pose an existential threat. In the case of white supremacists, those opponents are non-white and Jewish people whom they believe are carrying out a genocidal plan against white people. For anti-government extremists, those opponents are agents and institutions of government and those on the political left, whom they believe are subverting democracy to enslave the American people. The lack of explicit racial animus within anti-government activism does not mean that racism is not a feature of the movement, which includes broad acceptance of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Nonetheless, both movements of the extreme right are being confronted with mass movements attempting to use the democratic process to dismantle racist oppression and create an equitable, multiethnic democracy. In general, right-wing extremists view the institutions people of color use to access or fight for their full rights as citizens as illegitimate. Many use racist conspiracy theories to justify this cynical view, claiming that elements of society and government have been captured by anti-American forces who are subverting the true ideals of American democracy. Meanwhile, many far-right extremists cast themselves as the true inheritors of the legacy of the American democratic experiment, regularly claiming to be defending the original intent and spirit of the Founding Fathers, while denigrating their opponents.
These conspiracy theories range from the racist claim that President Barack Obama was secretly an agent of radical Islamic terrorists, to the idea that a powerful secret cabal is seeking to create an authoritarian world government or “New World Order.” The combination of a deep skepticism toward democratic institutions and paranoia over fictional threats from shadowy actors leads some 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. In other words, many believe they are confronted by an apocalyptic threat from a dark conspiracy, and the political institutions set up to defend them have also been captured by that conspiracy. In turn, they view themselves as their cohort’s defenders, who are justified in preparing for—or proactively carrying out—violence.
In its most horrifying form, this worldview can lead those on the extreme right to plan and execute attacks that target institutions or groups of people they view as complicit in the conspiracy, often in the hope of inspiring others to do the same. At the very least, these views cause some extreme- right activists to obsessively fetishize and ready themselves for what they see as an imminent outbreak of mass violence wherein they will have the opportunity to reassert their power in society by force.
Red Flag Laws
Extreme risk laws, commonly referred to as red flag laws, give key members of the community a way to intervene before warning signs of violence escalate into tragedies. These laws permit immediate family members and/or law enforcement to petition a court for an order to temporarily remove guns from dangerous situations. Following due process in court, if it is found that a person poses a serious risk to themselves or others, that person is temporarily prohibited from purchasing and possessing guns; guns they already own are held by law enforcement or another authorized party while the order is in effect.
Albeit infrequently, red flag laws have been utilized to disarm extremists who have made threats of violence. For instance, in the fall of 2019, the FBI filed an extreme risk protection order in Washington State against a self-described cell leader of Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi group, after the man had “gone from espousing hate to now taking active steps or preparation for an impending race war.” These acts included running firearms training at what the man called “Hate Camps.”1Petition for an Extreme Risk Protection Order, Seattle Police Department v. Kaleb James Cole, Case #19-2-25260-0 SEA (King County), September 26, 2019. After the order was granted, police seized five military-style rifles, three pistols, and other gun parts.2Chris Ingalls, “Police Seize Guns from Avowed Neo-Nazi in Snohomish County,” October 17, 2019, https://www.king5.com/article/news/investigations/police-seize-guns-from-avowed-neo-nazi-snohomish-county/281-400146c7-5c81-4c8d-80d6-78f877977340.
Gun Lobby Uses Conspiracy Theories to Shore Up Laws That Allow Extremists Easy Access to Weapons
In response to these purportedly looming existential threats, extreme-right activists see violence as a justifiable tactic and guns as essential tools to execute it—so much so for some that gun rights are a fundamental component of their organizing. Beyond simply purchasing or using guns individually, extreme-right activists, especially in anti-government circles, organize politically to advocate against any limit to gun rights.
For decades, the gun lobby has sought to leverage the extreme right’s fixation on guns and gun rights to its own ends. It has deployed an unrelenting “Us vs. Them” narrative, telling its members that they are under constant threat from dangers ranging from roving bands of criminals to would-be authoritarians on the political left, a stance that echoes the worldview of the extreme right. In this dystopian portrait, widespread violence and illiberal forces have successfully taken control in the rest of the world, and the only thing stopping them from coming to the US are Americans’ guns.
To paint this picture, the gun lobby draws on many of the same conspiracy theories that the extreme right depends on, from the threat supposedly posed by demographic change in the United States to the purported aspirations of the United Nations to confiscate all guns. Many conspiracy theories promoted by the anti-government movement hinge on the protection of lax gun laws: Either the 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).
In the worldview built on these conspiracy theories, 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 raise more money from its members. As the NRA’s former number two recently put it in a tell-all book, NRA CEO Wayne 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.”17Joshua L. Powell, Inside the NRA: A Tell-All Account of Corruption, Greed, and Paranoia within the Most Powerful Political Group in America (New York: Twelve, 2020), 57.
The gun lobby counts on the fictional horrors of these conspiracy theories to shock its base into political action to oppose even the most modest gun safety reforms. Indeed, starting as far back as 1993 with the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the gun lobby has used this fear-mongering to oppose the very gun laws that extreme-right activists assert will stymie their efforts to use guns for their political goals. For instance, background checks—meant to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are prohibited by law from possessing them—are cast as a ploy to create a government gun-confiscation scheme, and extreme risk laws or “red flag” laws—which enable families or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily prevent a person in crisis from obtaining a firearm—are a totalitarian tool to squelch political opposition and disarm Americans. The gun lobby has similarly supported laws that allow extremists easy access to weapons. As an example, the NRA has supported open carry laws that allow military-style assault weapons to be paraded, with increasing frequency, by the extreme right at protests and counterprotests (discussed infra). Additionally, the NRA supported a loophole in federal law to the background check system that allows gun sales to proceed by default after three business days—even without a completed background check. The loophole is referred to as the “Charleston loophole,” a reference to a church in Charleston, South Carolina, at which a shooter killed nine worshipers in 2017. The white supremacist shooter was legally prohibited from having a firearm but was able to complete a gun purchase because his background check was not completed within three business days.
A Survivor’s Story
Reverend Sharon Risher
“On June 17, 2015, the racism that had followed us for our whole lives where I was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, caught up to my mom: A white man filled with hate and armed with a gun murdered her and eight other African Americans, including two of my cousins and one childhood friend, while they prayed in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church. It was the same church where my mom first saw me preach, sitting in the front row and saying, ‘Amen, that’s my baby.’ Racism is a killer. My mom was killed with a gun that the shooter never should have been able to purchase. He was prohibited from buying a gun and should have been stopped in his tracks, but because of a loophole backed by the National Rifle Association, allowing a gun sale to go forward when a background check takes longer than three business days, he was able to buy one anyway and take nine precious lives.”
II. Historical Symbiosis: the Gun Lobby and Extreme-Right Politics
The history of the gun lobby and extreme-right organizing is critical to understanding the current moment. The 1990s were a decade in which militia groups grew in strength, firearm conspiracies flourished, and tragedy occurred in Oklahoma City.
An Early Gun Lobby Emissary to the Extreme Right
Gun lobby leader Larry Pratt was an early evangelist of paramilitary organization to the extreme right. Pratt became the head of Gun Owners of America, one of the largest and most strident national gun groups in the country, in the mid-1970s.18Alexander Zaitchik, “The Zealot: Larry Pratt Is the Gun Lobby’s Secret Weapon,” Rolling Stone, July 14, 2014, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/the-zealot-larry-pratt-is-the-gun-lobbys-secret-weapon-87059/.
In 1992, Pratt attended a meeting of white supremacist leaders in Estes Park, Colorado, speaking to those assembled about how the United States could replicate the murderous citizen militias in other countries.19“Larry Pratt,” Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed June 23, 2020, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/larry-pratt. According to the University of Chicago’s Dr. Kathleen Belew, Pratt “called for small paramilitary units to violently resolve social problems such as drug use, interracial marriage, and the abortion of white babies.”20Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 127.
At the meeting, the activists discussed the extreme right’s inherently violent goals. Pratt saw an opportunity to evangelize and gain support for gun rights extremism, explaining to the group how guns could be a crucial tool for their movement and how the success of the gun rights movement would guarantee them access to that tool. Pratt’s appearance at the Estes Park event was far from his last association with the extreme right. Nonetheless, Pratt has continued to serve as a prominent leader in the gun rights movement for the past three decades.21Zaitchik, “The Zealot.”
While not always so directly, the gun lobby’s leveraging of extreme-right political energy to advance the cause of gun rights extremism has been replicated in the decades since. At the Estes Park summit, Pratt reportedly told the extreme-right activists that the NRA was finally turning toward “a more aggressive approach” to gun rights. In subsequent years, the NRA would prove him correct.
Extreme-Right Fears Are Amplified by the NRA
The militia movement was born in the early 1990s out of extreme-right activism and anti-government rhetoric, especially rhetoric espousing Second Amendment extremism and conspiracy theories about gun confiscations. According to the ADL’s Mark Pitcavage, the “foundational belief” of the militia movement was “an anti-government conspiracy theory that posits that the rest of the world has essentially been taken over by a globalist tyrannical government” called “the New World Order.”22“Armed Militias Face Off with the ‘Antifa’ in the New Landscape of Political Protest,” Fresh Air, National Public Radio, August 23, 2017, https://n.pr/2EfliaS. As law professor Adam Winkler has written, such groups were “united by an uncompromising understanding of the right to bear arms and a conspiratorial view of government.”23Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), 84. Militia members saw the Second Amendment as the only thing standing between American citizens and a tyrannical federal government.
The militia movement of the 1990s was galvanized by four events: the deadly armed standoff between law enforcement and a white supremacist in Ruby Ridge, Idaho; the deadly federal law enforcement raid of the Branch Davidian compound24Federal law enforcement attempted to execute a search warrant on the apocalyptic religious sect the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. The authorities had received information regarding the stockpiling of illegal weapons, including grenades and fully automatic weapons, at the compound. After a deadly shootout and ensuing 51-day standoff, the FBI raided the compound and a fire broke out in which 76 members of the Branch Davidians, including 25 children, were killed. in Waco, Texas; and the passage of the Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.25Robert L. Snow, Terrorists among Us: The Militia Threat (Boston, Da Capo Press, 2002), 22.
After Waco and Ruby Ridge, the militias villainized law enforcement—especially the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). While there was legitimate reason for criticism of law enforcement tactics in those instances, NRA leaders took to pouring gasoline on conspiracy theories, rallying the group’s members against those charged with enforcing American gun laws.
In his 1994 book Guns, Crime, & Freedom, Wayne LaPierre dedicated an entire chapter to ATF “abuses,” including pages of analysis on the “new lows… evidenced by the cases [in Waco and Ruby Ridge].”26Wayne LaPierre, Guns, Crime, & Freedom (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 179. LaPierre lifted a piece about the standoff at white supremacist Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge cabin in its entirety from an NRA published magazine American Rifleman. The piece not only decried alleged abuses by the authorities, but it also significantly downplayed Weaver’s white supremacist activism. While admitting that Weaver “was a white separatist,” the article described those views as simply “unorthodox” and defended Weaver as “a man devoted to his family, a man with no criminal record, [and] a veteran who served his country with honor” whom the federal government had unfairly painted “as racist, as anti-Semitic, [and] as a criminal.” The article reprinted in LaPierre’s book mentioned that federal agents had tried to recruit Weaver to be an informant within the white supremacist group the Aryan Nations, noting that Weaver refused to be, in the words of the article, “a snitch.”27LaPierre, Guns, Crime, & Freedom, 181, 188. It did not, however, mention that Weaver was already associated with the Aryan Nations: He had attended the group’s World Congress at least three times, where he wore an Aryan Nations belt buckle and a T-shirt with the slogan “Just Say No to ZOG,” a reference to the anti-Semitic Zionist Occupied Government conspiracy theory.28Belew, Bring the War Home, 123; “ZOG,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed June 27, 2020, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/zog.
LaPierre went on to describe the law enforcement raid in Waco as “reminiscent of the standoff at the Warsaw ghetto” during World War II, comparing the Branch Davidians to “Jews, whose religious views were unpopular with the Nazis”—who, in LaPierre’s analogy, were the federal agents.29LaPierre, Guns, Crime, & Freedom, 191. LaPierre’s account failed to mention the fact that federal authorities recovered 300 rifles and shotguns, including more than 40 automatic rifles and two .50 caliber rifles, from the compound.30“Interim Report to the Deputy Attorney General Concerning the 1993 Confrontation at the Mt. Carmel Complex,” Office of Special Counsel John C. Danforth, July 21, 2000, https://www.cesnur.org/testi/DanforthRpt.pdf. In the October 1993 issue of American Rifleman, the NRA accused the Clinton administration of “a mass murder cover-up” of the “debacle” in Waco. 31American Rifleman, October 1993, 35. The same issue featured figures goose-stepping in jackboots, with copy asking, “What’s the first step to a police state?” and claiming that the FBI sought to make gun owners “Public Enemy #1.”32American Rifleman, October 1993, 35; Dave Gilson, “This Collection of NRA Ads Reveals Its Descent into Crazy,” Mother Jones, April 10, 2013, https://bit.ly/2Yxu6jJ.
The militia movement viewed any laws restricting immediate and unfettered access to any and all firearms as the first step toward a totalitarian state. Leaders in the gun lobby fueled that belief.
In 1991, Charlton Heston told NRA members, “Our founding fathers understood that the right to keep and bear arms is a natural law basic to human dignity, crucial to the freedom they loved. These patriots had seen tyranny. They knew that a people disarmed is a people enslaved.”33MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, PBS, May 7, 1991, https://bit.ly/3aFODXX. In 1994, LaPierre 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.”34LaPierre, Guns, Crime, & Freedom, 7.
Furthermore, the militia groups considered the 1993 Brady Bill “proof” of the federal government’s intentions to form an oppressive government.35Winkler, Gunfight, 85. Despite the modest and essential goal of the bill—the creation of a federal background check system—the NRA led the gun lobby’s fear-mongering that the law would lead to federal agents confiscating guns from law-abiding citizens. The NRA claimed that “when Bill Clinton signed the Brady bill into law… a drop of blood dripped from the finger of the sovereign American citizen.”36American Rifleman, January 1994, 32; Winkler, Gunfight, 71; “Sovereign Citizen Movement,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed June 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/2E93iPt. “The sovereign citizen movement is a loosely organized collection of groups and individuals who have adopted a right-wing anarchist ideology originating in the theories of a group called the Posse Comitatus in the 1970s. Its adherents believe that virtually all existing government in the United States is illegitimate and they seek to ‘restore’ an idealized, minimalist government that never actually existed.” Soon after, the cover story of American Rifleman was headlined “Stop The Rape of Liberty” and featured an illustration of the Statue of Liberty being sexually assaulted by a man who had his hand over her mouth. The accompanying story warned that it had been “the worst year for gun rights in Second Amendment history.”37American Rifleman, October 1994, 41.
Catastrophe: the Oklahoma City Bombing and the NRA
The NRA continued its campaign against federal law enforcement in the first few months of 1995. In March, the NRA posted on its online message board, calling attention to rumors of “pending raids by the federal government on citizen militia units” and pointing to a letter the organization had written to the ATF concerning the raids.38Kim Masters, “Recoil from the NRA’s Two Top Guns,” Washington Post, April 29, 1995, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1995/04/29/recoil-from-the-nras-two-top-guns/34853e23-838d-4200-b79d-c76a3b007267/. The rumors reportedly spread through the militia movement from the NRA message boards.39Todd Copilevitz, “Allegations of Government Conspiracy Abound in On-Line Messages,” Dallas Morning News, April 25, 1995. That same month, the NRA took out a full-page ad in USA Today that featured a “scene of heavily armed and armored agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms breaking down a door” and ad copy “condemn[ing] the agency for ‘storm trooper tactics.’”40Ronald Brownstein, “Terror in Oklahoma City: Explosion Could Blunt GOP Anti-Gun Control Strategy,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1995.
Weeks later, LaPierre sought to monetize anti-government sentiment for the NRA. 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.”41Wayne LaPierre, fundraising letter, National Rifle Association, April 13, 1995; Fox Butterfield, “Terror in Oklahoma: Echoes of the NRA; Rifle Association Has Long Practice in Railing against Federal Agents,” New York Times, May 8, 1995, http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/08/us/terror-oklahoma-echoes-nra-rifle-association-has-long-practice-railing-against.html.
A mere six days after the LaPierre letter, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a target he chose because it housed an ATF office, killing 168 people. McVeigh, an NRA member until the year before the attack who had stamped a letter to a member of Congress with an “I’m the NRA” sticker, held many of the conspiratorial ideas about civilian disarmament that had been stoked by the militia movement and gun lobby.42Michael Kirkland, “McVeigh Member of NRA for Nearly 4 Years,” UPI, May 3, 1995, https://bit.ly/2YgUoqi /; Dave Skidmore, “McVeigh Wrote Congressman Supporting ‘God-Given Right to Self-Defense,’” Associated Press, May 2, 1995, https://apnews.com/003aa14908ed784252508bbaf5fa538a. One friend said McVeigh “felt strongly about the right to bear arms and protecting the Second Amendment—he was fanatical about that.”43Robert D. McFadden, “Terror in Oklahoma: John Doe No. 1—A Special Report; A Life of Solitude and Obsessions,” New York Times, May 4, 1995, https://nyti.ms/32bCTZk. He obsessed over the ATF raids in Waco and Ruby Ridge and even visited the standoff at Waco.44“Oklahoma City,” American Experience, PBS, February 7, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtJrT5iwwtM. In fact, according to a chronology reportedly compiled by McVeigh’s defense team, McVeigh had read the NRA magazine article about the Ruby Ridge standoff that would later be republished in full in a book by Wayne LaPierre.45“McVeigh Chronology,” Frontline, PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/documents/mcveigh/.
McVeigh’s worldview echoed the NRA’s rhetoric and paranoia. He “was gradually taken in his obsessive mind by a growing belief—shared by thousands in paramilitary groups and by many opponents of gun control across the country—that the Federal Government was conspiring to disarm and enslave the American people, and might have to be stopped by patriots using any means necessary.”46McFadden, “Terror in Oklahoma.” McVeigh “fell into this sort of subculture of far-right ideology mostly at gun shows,” where he reportedly “spent most of the last two years before the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building.”47“‘Oklahoma City’ Explores Anti-Government Sentiments That Contributed to Bombing,” All Things Considered, NPR, February 5, 2017, https://n.pr/3j0i7mt; John Kifner, “The Gun Network: McVeigh’s World—A Special Report; Bomb Suspect Felt at Home Riding the Gun-Show Circuit,” New York Times, July 5, 1995, https://nyti.ms/3hcWqyN.
In fact, there were reports that McVeigh had attended meetings of the Michigan Militia before the bombing.48Gary Ridley, “Michigan Militia Still Active 20 Years after Oklahoma City Bombing,” MLive, updated January 20, 2019, https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2015/04/militias_remains_active_20_yea.html. A member of the team that prosecuted McVeigh said years later that his association with militias “put a battery in the pack” of his violent actions.49Mark Guarino, “Could the Hutaree Militia Have Spawned a Timothy McVeigh?,” Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 2010, https://bit.ly/3gkEEJ3.
McVeigh was also a subscriber to Soldier of Fortune, a controversial magazine published by longtime NRA board member Robert K. Brown, and attended the magazine’s 1993 annual convention.50Kifner, “The Gun Network”; Lukas I. Alpert, “Meet The Mail-Order Mercenaries of ‘‘Soldier Of Fortune’ Magazine,” Maxim, updated April 6, 2020, https://www.maxim.com/maxim-man/soldier-of-fortune-magazine-2016-02; Lukas I. Alpert, “Soldier of Fortune Shutters Print Magazine after 40 Years,” Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/soldier-of-fortune-shutters-print-magazine-after-40-years-1456430814. The publication had been described as “popular among antigovernment types” and “an NRA soapbox,” and in the 1990s, it published “an onslaught of pro-Second Amendment articles critical of the Clinton administration.”51Alpert, “Meet The Mail-Order Mercenaries.”
After the Oklahoma City bombing, LaPierre claimed in a televised interview that the NRA had “no relationship” with the militia movement.52Nightline, ABC News, May 1, 1995. The reality was much different. A month after the bombing, the NRA held its 1995 annual meeting, at which it adopted a resolution saying that while it did not support violent revolution, it would not “contemplate discouraging” people from forming or participating in militias.53Winkler, Gunfight, 87. As former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman later said, “I’m a lawyer, but I had a hell of a hard time parsing that language to discover the NRA’s true position on militias. Is it possible that’s what they intended?”54Richard Feldman, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 238.
At the same meeting, the NRA gave an award to anti-government icon Richard Mack and reelected T. J. Johnston, who led a militia in California with a thousand members, to the NRA board.55Winkler, Gunfight, 87. When Johnston was asked at the meeting whether any board members were militia members, he reportedly responded vaguely, saying, “There are members of the board who take whatever measures necessary to defend themselves. If it involves joining a militia…,” cryptically letting his statement trail off.56Leonard Zeskind, “Armed and Dangerous (The NRA, Militias and White Supremacists Are Fostering a Network of Right Wing Warriors),” Rolling Stone, November 2, 1995. Meanwhile, the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, reportedly passed out flyers to attendees on the NRA convention floor.57Frank Smyth, “Gunning for His Enemies,” Washington Post, July 9, 1995, https://wapo.st/2YgIY5K. The flyers featured an essay by National Alliance founder William Pierce.58“William Pierce,” Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed June 26, 2020, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/william-pierce. Pierce, who had been in the audience at the 1992 Estes Park summit, is best known for authoring a foundational text of the white supremacist movement.59Belew, Bring the War Home, 127; “The Turner Diaries,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed June 27, 2020, https://bit.ly/3j0iKfP. McVeigh had reportedly been deeply inspired by Pierce’s book, which he sold at gun shows in the years before his terrorist act.60“The Turner Diaries,” Anti-Defamation League.
Other NRA leaders defended the militia movement in the wake of the bombing. Neal Knox, an influential NRA board member and officer at the time, reportedly believed there was a conspiracy to link the militia movement to the bombing, adding that “[unless] those people have committed a violation of the law, I’m not going to say we can’t have anything to do with” militia groups.61Masters, “Recoil From The NRA’s Two Top Guns.” NRA board member Ted Nugent said he supported the Michigan Militia,62“Chronicle,” New York Times, May 1, 1995, http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/01/nyregion/chronicle-584995.html. and years later the group’s founder said Nugent was “a personal friend.”63“One of America’s Most Notorious Militias,” Vice, November 2, 2012, https://bit.ly/3iX2FHD. The clearest evidence of the NRA’s relationship with the militia movement was revealed by investigative reporters, who found that months before the Oklahoma City bombing, the NRA had in fact sent its top lobbyist as a secret emissary to a meeting with the Michigan Militia, a meeting the militia claimed the NRA initiated.64Nightline, ABC News, May 1, 1995.
While law enforcement agencies blasted the NRA for its rhetoric in the lead-up to the bombing, LaPierre went on television afterwards to deflect blame for contributing to the atmosphere that radicalized McVeigh, claiming “ATF abuses” “are creating the climate, not the rhetoric.”65“Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) Outraged at NRA’s Anti-Law Enforcement, Anti-Government Rhetoric,” news release, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, April 25, 1995; “Fraternal Order of Police Calls for End to Attacks on Federal Law Enforcement Agencies; FOP President Available for Comment,,” Fraternal Order of Police, news release, April 26, 1995; Nightline, ABC News, May 1, 1995.
February 16Timothy McVeigh reportedly stamped a letter addressed to a member of Congress with the phrase “I’m the NRA”
AugustStandoff between federal law enforcement and the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho
February 28Start of standoff between federal law enforcement and Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas
MarchMcVeigh visits the siege at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas
April 19End of standoff between federal law enforcement and Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas
OctoberNRA magazine American Rifleman accuses the Clinton administration of “a mass murder cover-up” of the “debacle” in Waco
NovemberNRA magazine American Rifleman publishes an article, which Timothy McVeigh reportedly read, downplaying white supremacist beliefs of Randy Weaver
November 30Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act signed into law
June 27Wayne LaPierre publishes a book which reprints the American Rifleman article about Ruby Ridge and compares the Waco standoff to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Nazi-occupied Poland
September 13Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, also known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, signed into law
OctoberCover of NRA’s American Rifleman magazine features an image of the Statue of Liberty being sexually assaulted, with a cover story entitled, “Stop the Rape of Liberty”
FebruaryNRA sends its chief lobbyist as a secret emmisary to a militia group
March 23NRA reportedly posted about rumors of pending federal raids on militias on its website
MarchNRA takes out full-page ads in USA Today accusing the ATF of “storm trooper tactics”
April 13Wayne LaPierre signs an NRA fundraising letter referring to federal agents as “jack-booted thugs”
April 19Timothy McVeigh bombs the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168
May 1Wayne LaPierre claims the NRA has “no relationship” with the militia movement and blames ATF abuses for “the climate” that led to the Oklahoma City, “not the rhetoric”
May 22NRA holds its 1995 Annual Meetings & Exhibits where it passes a resolution in which it disavows violent revolution but refuses to “contemplate discouraging” participation in militias
III. The Extreme Right’s Resurgence Is Enabled by the Gun Lobby
New Militias Organize in Opposition to President Obama
The gun lobby again found common cause with a reinvigorated extreme right during the presidency of Barack Obama. During and after the 2008 election, racial animus against President Obama and an unfounded fear of a Democratic president confiscating guns breathed new life into the militia movement. The new militia groups shared the same conspiratorial fears of militias past.
The election of a Black president, “coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, [had] helped to racialize” the anti-government movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).66“The Second Wave: Return of the Militias,” Southern Poverty Law Center, August 1, 2009, https://www.splcenter.org/20090731/second-wave-return-militias. The ADL’s Mark Pitcavage further explained that members of the reenergized anti-government movement “were very easily able to put [President Obama] at the center of their New World Order conspiracy theories.”67“Armed Militias Face Off with the ‘Antifa’ in the New Landscape of Political Protest,” Fresh Air, NPR, August 23, 2017, https://n.pr/2EfliaS.
In President Obama’s first term alone, the SPLC tracked a nearly tenfold increase in so-called “Patriot” groups.68Mark Memmott, “Report: ‘Explosive’ Growth of ‘Patriot Movement’ and Militias Continues,” NPR, March 8, 2012, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2012/03/08/148217754/report-explosive-growth-of-patriot-movement-and-militias-continues.
The Oath Keepers are among the largest of groups in this movement. Founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers is “a large but loosely organized collection of anti-government extremists” that espouses most of the same conspiratorial views as its predecessors in the 1990s.69“The Oath Keepers,” Anti-Defamation League, 2015, accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.adl.org/resources/profiles/the-oath-keepers. Conspiracy theories around forced civilian disarmament are key to the Oath Keepers’ worldview. In fact, the first of the 10 oaths each member takes is an oath not to “obey any order to disarm the American people.”70“Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey,” Oath Keepers, accessed September 25, 2020. https://oathkeepers.org/declaration-of-orders-we-will-not-obey/. The Oath Keepers have attended several events at which their members openly carried assault-style weapons, dating back to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015. The group even issued a “call to action” asking members to station themselves at polling places during the 2016 election to “help prevent criminal vote fraud.”71Jennifer Williams, “The Oath Keepers, the Far Right Group Answering Trump’s Call to Watch the Polls, Explained,” Vox, November 7, 2016, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/7/13489640/oath-keepers-donald-trump-voter-fraud-intimidation-rigged.
As reported by the ADL, “There is a lot of overlap between people who belong to or support the Oath Keepers and people who support the very similar—but even more loosely organized—‘Three Percenter’ movement.”72“The Oath Keepers,” Anti-Defamation League. The Three Percenters identify as a modern counterpart to that mythical three percent of colonists who participated as combatants in the Revolutionary War, and also claim to represent the three percent of American gun owners “who will not disarm.”73“Oath Keepers and Three %ers Part of Growing Anti-Government Movement,” Anti-Defamation League, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/oath-keepers-and-three-ers-part-of-growing-anti-government-movement; “ADL Report Exposes Tactics of Anti-Government ‘Oath Keepers,’” Anti-Defamation League, September 18, 2015, accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-report-exposes-tactics-of-anti-government-oath-keepers. Some Three Percenters form militias, and others stick to online organizing—“the Three Percenter concept may be best understood as a way to simplify, popularize and spread the ideology and beliefs of the militia movement.”74“Three Percenters,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/three-percenters. Various Three Percenter groups, with different leaders and organizational structures, exist throughout the US.
The Gun Lobby Promotes Militia and False Conspiracy to Take Americans’ Guns
Following the resurgence of the militia movement, the NRA went all-out against President Obama and continued to paint any proposed gun safety law as a full-scale assault on the Second Amendment. In 2011, Wayne LaPierre claimed that there was a “massive Obama conspiracy to… destroy the Second Amendment.”75Wayne LaPierre, “Obama Conspiracy” (remarks at 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference), September 23, 2011, C-SPAN, https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4888067/user-clip-obama-conspiracy. In 2013, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA claimed that “The main goal of the gun banners in Congress is not to make schools safer, but to ban your guns and abolish every last sacred right you have under the Second Amendment… until they reduce your freedom to ashes.”76Sari Horwitz and Peter Finn, “Prospect of Ban Drives a Surge in Demand for Assault Weapons,” Washington Post, January 17, 2013, https://wapo.st/2YdmrGL. NRA leaders also deployed racist rhetoric to denigrate President Obama, with one board member calling him a “subhuman mongrel” and LaPierre declaring that “eight years of one demographically-symbolic president is enough.”77“Ted Nugent: Obama a ‘Subhuman Mongrel,’” Politico, February 21, 2014, https://www.politico.com/video/2014/02/ted-nugent-obama-a-subhuman-mongrel-004053; Alexandra Jaffe, “NRA’s Wayne LaPierre: Obama, Clinton ‘Demographically-Symbolic,’” CNN, April 15, 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2015/04/15/politics/nra-wayne-lapierre-obama-demographically-symbolic/index.html.
By the Obama era, the gun lobby and anti-government extremists had already been spreading conspiracy theories about the United Nations for years. “Militia members were convinced that the United Nations was secretly coming to take away Americans’ guns,” and the NRA amplified that fear, including in a book by LaPierre himself, America Disarmed: Inside the UN & Obama’s Scheme to Destroy the Second Amendment.78Winkler, Gufight, 85. A particular source of attention was the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty, which “regulates international arms sales from one state to another, in order to prevent small arms and light weapons from being used ‘irresponsibly’ to perpetrate human rights abuses.”79Naomi Egel, “The Arms Trade Treaty: Time to Celebrate?,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 29, 2014, https://www.cfr.org/blog/arms-trade-treaty-time-celebrate. In 2013, the Obama administration signed the treaty, which the NRA falsely called “an invasive registration scheme” that “threatens individual firearm ownership.”80Michelle Nichols, “Kerry Signs UN Arms Trade Treaty, Says Won’t Harm US.Rights,” Reuters, September 25, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-assembly-kerry-treaty-idUSBRE98O0WV20130925; D’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. LaPierre claimed that “tyrants and dictators at the United Nations will stop at nothing to register, ban and, eventually, confiscate firearms owned by law abiding Americans like you and me.”81“LaPierre: The United Nation’s Treacherous Assault on Our Freedom,” NRA-ILA, October 9, 2013, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20131009/lapierre-the-united-nations-treacherous-assault-on-our-freedom. The NRA added that the Obama administration would use the treaty to implement gun laws it “[couldn’t] achieve in the U.S. through the legislative process.”82Marshall Lewin, “True Colors,” Americas1stFreedom.com, National Rifle Association, January 4, 2016, https://www.americas1stfreedom.org/articles/2016/1/4/true-colors/.
As in decades past, the NRA’s ties to the anti-government movement have not been exclusively rhetorical. In 2010, the NRA helped publicize a Second Amendment rally in Washington, DC, which featured speeches from Larry Pratt, Richard Mack, and Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes.83“Second Amendment March on Washington Scheduled for April,” NRA-ILA, February 12, 2010, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20100212/second-amendment-march-on-washington-sc; Heidi Beirich, “April 19: A Schedule,” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 15, 2010, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2010/04/15/april-19-schedule. The event took place 15 years to the day after the Oklahoma City bombing.84Ed Hornick, “Gun Rights Advocates Rally in Washington, Virginia,” CNN, April 19, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/04/19/second.amendment.rally/index.html.
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. 85Exhibitor 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, https://oathkeepers.org/2015/01/pennsylvania-oath-keepers-and-the-nra-big-show-2/. In 2014, Wayne LaPierre himself stopped by their table to snap a picture with the Oath Keepers state chapter president.86Alias, “Pennsylvania Oath Keepers. The following year, the Oath Keepers advertised that Rhodes would attend the weeklong event.87Alias, “Pennsylvania Oath Keepers. And in 2018, Rhodes was invited to speak at an NRA Foundation fundraiser in New York.88“Photos: Friends of NRA Banquet,” Times Herald-Record (Middletown, NY), March 26, 2018, https://www.recordonline.com/photogallery/TH/20180326/PHOTOGALLERY/326009997/PH/1.
In the wake of President Obama’s election, Alaska militia leader Schaeffer Cox connected with two NRA board members. In 2009, NRA board member and US Representative Don Young (R-AK) met with Cox and signed Cox’s letter threatening insurrection against the federal government.89alaskansamurai1, “2nd Amendment Task Force, Alaska,” YouTube, June 21, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlBDkpIRY0w&feature=related. The same year, Cox shared a stage with NRA board member Wayne Anthony Ross at a Second Amendment event.90Robert Dreyfuss, “‘Good Morning Gun Lobby!’” Mother Jones, July/August 1996, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1996/07/good-morning-gun-lobby/; David Holthouse, “Palling Around with Terrorists: Alaskan Militia Politics,” Media Matters for America, March 23, 2011, https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2011/03/23/palling-around-with-terrorists-alaskan-militia/177857. In 2013, Cox was arrested and eventually sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for conspiracy to kill federal officials and illegal-gun charges.91Kim Murphy, “Alaska Militia Leader Schaeffer Cox Gets 25-Year Prison Term,” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-xpm-2013-jan-08-la-na-nn-alaska-militia-20130108-story.html; Casey Grove, “Alaska Militia Leader Schaeffer Cox’s Murder Conspiracy Sentence Cut by 10 Years,” Alaska Public Media, November 6, 2019, https://www.alaskapublic.org/2019/11/06/alaska-militia-leader-schaeffer-coxs-murder-conspiracy-sentence-cut-by-10-years/. When one of the members of Cox’s militia, a gun store owner, entered witness protection after testifying at the trial, the witness reportedly enlisted Ross’s help to transfer control of the gun store to one of his employees.92Kim Murphy, “Undercover ‘Supply Sergeant’ Helped Bring Down Alaska Militia,” Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/12/nation/la-na-militia-mole-20130113; Craig Medred, Patti Epler, and Jill Burke, “Alaska Militia ‘Supply Sergeant’ Vanishes as Alleged Murder Plot Unfolds,” Anchorage Daily News, updated September 27, 2016, https://bit.ly/326gWeh.
The NRA has also lionized Richard Mack, the anti-government icon and conspiracy theorist who was named the NRA Officer of the Year just weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing.93Winkler, Gunfight, 87; “1994 NRA Officer of the Year Award Winner,” National Rifle Association, accessed September 14, 2020, https://awards.nra.org/awards/nra-officer-of-the-year-award/sheriff-richard-mack/. In 2018, Mack said students calling for expanded gun laws in the wake of the Parkland shooting were using the same rhetoric as “Hitler and Stalin and Lenin.”94“‘Constitutional’ Ex-Sheriff Richard Mack: Florida School Shooting Survivors Are Using ‘Exact Same Kind of Language’ as Hitler,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 23, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/02/23/%E2%80%98constitutional%E2%80%99-ex-sheriff-richard-mack-florida-school-shooting-survivors-are-using-exact. Days later, Mack was featured as a guest on NRATV.95Stinchfield, NRATV, February 27, 2018; Cydney Hargis, “NRATV Spotlights Ex-Sheriff Who Said Parkland Survivors Sound like Hitler,” February 28, 2018, https://bit.ly/2YhzF5p.
The Bundy Ranch Standoff: An Incendiary Mix of Guns and Far Right Politics
In 2014, guns were a key component of defending another extreme-right activist: Cliven Bundy. When Bundy sought to stop—by force—the federal government’s seizure of his cattle due to unpaid grazing fees, he put out a call to armed militia members around the country to come help him and his family.96“War in the West: The Bundy Ranch Standoff and the American Radical Right,” Southern Poverty Law Center, July 9, 2014, https://www.splcenter.org/20140709/war-west-bundy-ranch-standoff-and-american-radical-right; “American Patriot: Inside the Armed Uprising against the Federal Government,” Frontline, PBS, May 16, 2017, https://to.pbs.org/2CG6rpi Anti-government groups answered the call, and Bundy’s armed supporters reportedly outnumbered law enforcement officers four to one.97“American Patriot,” Frontline; Laura Gunderson, “Cliven Bundy Arrest 2 Years Later: Strategy or Serendipity?,” The Oregonian, updated January 9, 2019, http://www.oregonlive.com/oregon-standoff/2016/02/cliven_bundy_arrest_2_years_la.html. Richard Mack was an organizer of the standoff, during which he planned to use women and children as human shields.98Jessica Chasmar, “Former Sheriff Willing to Let Wife, Daughters Die on Front Lines of Bundy Ranch,” Washington Times, April 15, 2014, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/15/former-sheriff-willing-let-wife-daughter-die-front/. One militia leader who coordinated the response oversaw a military plan that included placing militia snipers in strategic positions with their sights trained on federal agents.99“War in the West,” Southern Poverty Law Center.
The anti-government activists saw the standoff as “a defining victory over government oppression.”100Gunderson, “Cliven Bundy Arrest 2 Years Later.” Three Percenters founder Mike Vanderboegh framed their victory in an ominous way: “Courage is contagious, defiance is contagious, victory is contagious. Yet the war is not over.”101“War in the West,” Southern Poverty Law Center. A 2014 report by DHS predicted more violence against government officials and law enforcement, a sentiment later echoed by experts outside of law enforcement.102Gunderson, “Cliven Bundy Arrest 2 Years Later”; David Neiwert, “Not Punishing the Bundys for the Nevada Standoff Led to the Occupation in Oregon,” Washington Post, January 7, 2016, https://wapo.st/2Ybp2RN.
Nearly two years after the Bundy ranch standoff, members of the Bundy family led anti-government extremists on 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.103Zoë Carpenter, “Inside the Bundy Brothers’ Armed Occupation,” The Nation, January 5, 2016, http://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.”104Stewart Rhodes, “Warning to U.S. Military and Federal LEOs: Do Not Follow Orders to ‘Waco’ Ammon Bundy Occupation, or Risk Civil War,” OathKeepers.org, January 15, 2016, https://bit.ly/2DYF2Qh; “Oath Keepers,” Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/oath-keepers. Accessed September 25, 2020. 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.”
In August 2018, the NRA magazine America’s 1st Freedom published an article alleging that “the deep state stands ready to exploit the rising tide of laws that turn gun owners into criminals who can be destroyed for political and bureaucratic profit.” Included in its evidence of “deep-state agencies… [carrying] out campaigns intended to undermine the Second Amendment” was the investigation of the Bundy standoff, in which it alleged that the FBI “spent a year hounding and videotaping the Bundy family and their supporters to gin up federal charges.”105James Bovard, “Should Gun Owners Fear the Deep State?,” America’s 1st Freedom, NRA, August 10, 2018, https://www.americas1stfreedom.org/articles/2018/8/10/should-gun-owners-fear-the-deep-state/.
The Gun Lobby and Extreme Right Oppose Universal Background Checks
On December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman armed with Bushmaster assault-style rifles and several handguns shot and killed 26 people, including 20 six- and seven-year-old children and six adults. As the nation mourned, calls to enact new gun laws at the state and federal levels mounted. These efforts particularly focused on improving federal background checks for gun purchases, a modest but meaningful proposal supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans and gun owners.106Lydia Saad, “Americans Back Obama’s Proposals to Address Gun Violence,” Gallup, January 23, 2013, https://news.gallup.com/poll/160085/americans-back-obama-proposals-address-gun-violence.aspx.
Nonetheless, the extreme right responded with vigorous and apocalyptic opposition, similar to its response to the Brady Bill 20 years earlier. A month after the Sandy Hook school shooting, amid public debate around the newly proposed gun laws, the Oath Keepers posted a pledge to let “domestic enemies” know they would “never disarm…regardless of what unholy, unconstitutional filth issues from the mouths of oath breakers.”107“Message to the Oath Breakers and Traitors,” Oath Keepers, January 17, 2013, https://bit.ly/3gjz5uo. Additionally, Three Percenters founder Vanderboegh spoke about the proposals frequently, claiming that “civil war is staring us in the face” and “only rebellion can save America.”108Mary E. O’Leary, “Connecticut Gun Rally Speaker Urges Crowd to ‘Be the Best Lawbreaker You Can Be,’” New Haven Register, April 20, 2013, https://bit.ly/2YgWxlQ; Mike Vanderboegh, “Only Rebellion Can Save America,” Sipsey Street Irregulars, January 27, 2013, http://sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com/2013/01/only-rebellion-can-save-america.html. Anti-government leader Richard Mack reportedly said that most of the sheriffs he had spoken with “have said they would lay down their lives first rather than allow any more federal control.”109Mark Potok, “The Year In Hate And Extremism,” Southern Poverty Law Center, March 4, 2013, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2013/year-hate-and-extremism.
Starting with a press conference a week after the Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA made it clear it would oppose any and all new gun laws. In doing so, the organization and its leaders repeatedly raised the specter of authoritarianism, suggesting that the Obama administration and others who supported the new laws were inheritors of the legacies of famous dictators. Wayne LaPierre told the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting that they were “in the midst of a once-in-a-generation fight for everything that we care about. We have a chance to secure our freedom for a generation or lose it forever.”110“2013 NRA Members’ Meeting: Wayne LaPierre,” May 5, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJQqr8PpG98. In the first edition after the shooting, the cover of NRA magazine American Rifleman included a word cloud of conspiratorial words, including “George Soros,” “Executive Orders,” and “Terrorism,” over the title “Siege,” while an NRA board member separately warned that such laws could slip into genocide and “result in the death of millions,” as in Nazi Germany.111American Rifleman, NRA, February 2013; Glenn Blain, “NRA President Defends Gun-Rights Protesters at Massive Albany Rally Who Compared Gov. Cuomo to Hitler,” New York Daily News, March 1, 2013, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/nra-chief-compare-gov-hitler-article-1.1277156; Timothy Johnson, “On NRA’s News Program, Stronger Gun Laws Could Lead to ‘Deaths of Millions’ in US,” Media Matters for America, March 4, 2013, https://www.mediamatters.org/national-rifle-association/nras-news-program-stronger-gun-laws-could-lead-deaths-millions-us.
IV. The Explosion of the Extreme Right under the Trump Presidency
Today the extreme right has moved from pariahs to players in American politics. No longer pushed to the fringe as in decades past, the extreme right grew in influence and power after President Trump’s swearing-in, and in turn dedicated themselves to a full-throated defense of Trump and his agenda. The result is an explosion of hate speech, along with the demonization of minority groups and political opposition to President Trump, that has migrated from the dark corners of the internet to America’s mainstream political discourse. Hate-motivated violence is also on the rise, with the most recent FBI statistics indicating that personal attacks motivated by bias or prejudice reached a 16-year high in 2018.112Adeel Hassan, “Hate-Crime Violence Hits 16-Year High, F.B.I. Reports,” New York Times, November 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/12/us/hate-crimes-fbi-report.html.
The alt-right, militia groups, and the ascendant boogaloo movement have been using guns as tools of violence and intimidation in increasingly open ways, including the uniquely American phenomenon of protesting while openly carrying firearms. The gun lobby, most notably the NRA, has followed along, continuing to offer a steady stream of conspiracy theories, grievances, and fear.
The Gun Lobby and Extreme Right Embrace a Common Hero
The NRA was Donald Trump’s largest outside backer in 2016, spending more than $30 million to help get him elected.113 Tom Hamburger, John Wagner, and Rosalind Helderman, “Trump Returns to the NRA, Which Backed Him Early and Often in 2016,” Washington Post, April 27, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-returns-to-the-nra-which-backed-him-early-and-often-in-2016/2017/04/27/689fa9aa-2ac7-11e7-be51-b3fc6ff7faee_story.html. The NRA “spent more for Trump than any outside group and began its efforts earlier than in any other presidential cycle.”
After the election, the NRA joined the militia movement in shifting from conspiracy-mongering about the federal government to doing so about President Trump’s opponents, casting them in outlandishly apocalyptic terms and claiming that they posed an existential threat to “regular” Americans. For instance, in one 2017 speech, Wayne LaPierre claimed that “the Leftist movement” in the US was “a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against” conservative Americans. “If the violent left brings their terror to our communities, our neighborhoods, or into our homes, they will be met with the resolve and the strength and the full force of American freedom in the hands of the American people,” LaPierre warned.114“LaPierre—Judicial Activism as Left-Wing Violence” (Wayne LaPierre speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference), C-SPAN, February 24, 2017, https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4756397/user-clip-lapierre-judicial-activism-left-wing-violence.
The Trump era also ushered in the launch of NRATV, the NRA’s online propaganda media channel. Hour after hour, NRATV broadcast fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and thinly veiled racism. This messaging was amplified by a slick social media operation and various influencers who shared content across right-wing digital spaces. The content was so toxic that even the NRA admitted, after it shuttered the operation, that the network was “viewed as a dystopian cultural rant” that even “some NRA leaders found distasteful and racist.”115Amended Complaint, National Rifle Association of America v. Ackerman McQueen, Inc., US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, October 25, 2019, https://nrawatch.org/filing/nras-amended-complaint/.
In June 2017, the NRA released a widely circulated ad featuring then-NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch in which she enumerates alleged wrongs committed by an unspecified “they” in opposition to President Trump and then tells the audience—direct to camera—“The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” The ad exemplified the NRA rhetorical trifecta of grievance, otherizing opponents, and a veiled call to violence. The NRA seemed to confirm the “Us vs. Them” interpretation of the ad in a video in which one of NRATV’s hosts warned, “To those of you on the violent Left who claim we believe there’s an ‘Us and Them’ in this country—you’re absolutely right.”116NRATV (@NRATV), Twitter, July 1, 2017, https://twitter.com/NRATV/status/881285400299323392. The Oath Keepers published a post on their website that championed the ad, claiming “liberals” were “extremely triggered,”117“Dana Loesch Responds to Liberals Triggered by Her NRA Ad,” Oath Keepers, June 30, 2017, https://oathkeepers.org/2017/06/dana-loesch-responds-liberals-triggered-nra-ad/. and on a now-defunct subreddit that regularly hinted at violence against progressives, the group’s moderators posted the NRA video with the caption, “The NRA is rallying the troops.”118Ben Collins, “Reddit Backs Its Neo-Nazis Four Months After Banning Alt-Right,” Daily Beast, June 30, 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/reddit-backs-its-neo-nazis-four-months-after-banning-alt-right.
Guns, the Gun Lobby, and Unite the Right
One of the most prominent and ugly displays of the intersection of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate took place at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The weekend of violence began with a torchlight procession of approximately 250 mostly young, white males—as the Washington Post described it, “a symbolic gathering meant to evoke similar marches of Hitler Youth and other ultra-right nationalist organizations of the past century.”119Joe Heim, “Recounting a Day of Rage, Hate, Violence and Death,” Washington Post, August 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/local/charlottesville-timeline/. The violent weekend was planned by groups and individuals associated with the alt-right, a movement that the ADL has described as having a white supremacist ideology heavily influenced by a mix of racist and conspiratorial extreme-right political ideologies. 120“New Hate and Old: The Changing Face of American White Supremacy,” Anti-Defamation League, September 2018, https://www.adl.org/media/11894/download. The day after the torchlight procession, a white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd of protesters, murdering Heather Heyer, a peaceful anti-racism activist, and injuring 35 others. The killer, who had voiced various neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs in public forums,121Joe Heim and Paul Duggan, “James A. Fields Jr., Avowed Neo-Nazi in Charlottesville Car Attack, Sentenced to Life in Prison,” Washington Post, June 9, 2019, https://wapo.st/3jmtC8K. ultimately pled guilty to federal hate crime charges, among several other federal charges.122Karen Zraick and Julia Jacobs, “Charlottesville Attacker Pleads Guilty to Federal Hate Crime Charges,” New York Times, March 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/us/james-alex-fields-charlottesville.html.
Many of the Unite the Right supporters in Charlottesville were armed— one protestor was arrested and sentenced for firing a gun at counterprotesters while shouting racial slurs.123Evan Simko-Bednarski, “Man Arrested for Firing Gun at Charlottesville Rally,” August 28, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/27/us/man-arrested-gun-charlottesville-rally/index.html. Separately, one of the alt-right protesters showed off an arsenal of weapons to a camera crew and told a reporter, “We’re not nonviolent… we’ll fu**ing kill these people if we have to.”124Tess Owen and Elle Reeve, “White Supremacist Cantwell Just Sued Antifa for Allegedly Framing Him in Charlottesville,” Vice News, January 2, 2018, https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/j5vg9x/the-crying-nazi-just-sued-antifa-for-allegedly-framing-him-in-charlottesville. Firearms were integral to the planning of some organizers in Charlottesville, with one attendee posting online pictures (as shown below) of himself armed in tactical gear and commenting, “I wasn’t kidding when I made an announcement to bring as much weaponry as legally feasible… This was discussed with the organizers.”125Sines v. Kessler, Amended Complaint, W.D VA, Sept. 17, 2019, Civil Action: 3:17-cv-00072-NKM, para. 107-109.
Many of the organizers of Unite the Right now face a civil lawsuit filed by Integrity First for America on behalf of members of the community, which seeks to hold them accountable for the violence planned and perpetrated in Charlottesville. Among other claims, the lawsuit details organizers posting “photos of themselves posing with automatic weapons and tactical gear, and boast[ing] about the weapons they were bringing.”126Sines v. Kessler, Amended Complaint.
As experts have noted, the “alt-right” moniker is little more than a rebranding of old white supremacist movements to appeal to a new audience.127“Alt Right: A Primer on the New White Supremacy,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed August 19, 2020, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/alt-right-a-primer-on-the-new-white-supremacy. The movement grew in prominence in 2016 and has been the most visible element of the extreme right throughout much of the Trump administration. While the term “alt-right” fell out of fashion for some after the backlash to the movement’s actions in Charlottesville, the racist and xenophobic leaders and groups that assembled in Charlottesville are still central to racist activism today.
In the weeks after the rally, the NRA stood by President Trump’s insistence that there was equivalency between the neo-Nazis and those protesting against them. After Trump’s claim that there was “blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, NRATV host Chuck Holton asked, “What part of what POTUS said is untrue?”128Chuck Holton (@rangerholton), Twitter, August 15, 2014, 7:36 p.m., https://twitter.com/rangerholton/status/897602913052262430. Dana Loesch warned, “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.”129Dana Loesch Radio Show, August 14, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=10155676003967700&ref=watch_permalink. And NRA committee member, surrogate, and NRATV commentator, former sheriff David Clarke, said he was “proud” of President Trump’s statement after Charlottesville because he “didn’t take sides like Obama in [the] Ferguson riot.”130David Clarke, Jr. (@SheriffClarke), Twitter, August 12, 2017, 10:37 p.m., https://twitter.com/SheriffClarke/status/896561258002092033.
The Continued Danger of Militia Groups
Obama-era militia groups have continued to organize during the Trump presidency.
Multiple militia groups, such as the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia and Three Percenter groups, were an ominous presence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.131Paul Duggan, “Militiamen Came to Charlottesville as Neutral First Amendment Protectors, Commander Says,” Washington Post, August 13, 2017 https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/three-percenters; https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/militiamen-came-to-charlottesville-as-neutral-first-amendment-protectors-commander-says/2017/08/13/d3928794-8055-11e7-ab27-1a21a8e006ab_story.html?utm_term=.7bb147e2713e. Many of the militia members, in addition to brandishing assault-style weapons, wore military tactical gear at the events.132Joanna Walters, “Militia Leaders Who Descended on Charlottesville Condemn ‘Rightwing Lunatics,’” The Guardian, August 15, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/15/charlottesville-militia-free-speech-violence. Underscoring the public safety danger, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran noted, “The militia showed up with long rifles, and we were concerned to have that in the mix.”133Joe Heim, “Recounting a Day of Rage.” Then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was even more blunt, saying the militia “had better equipment than our state police.”134Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Hurt and Angry, Charlottesville Tries to Regroup from Violence,” New York Times, August 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/us/charlottesville-protests-white-nationalists.html.
Many of the militia groups that attended the Unite the Right weekend claimed their attendance was to provide security, not to support the racism promoted by the organizers of the event. This claim—often put forward by militia groups—is dubious insofar as it fails to explain why militia attendance occurs disproportionately at far right events. Regardless of their intent, the presence of organized and armed private militias served only to sow confusion and increase tension between the protesters and counterprotesters. State officials worried that attendees would mistake these heavily armed militias for National Guard forces and even tweeted a picture of the Guard’s official patch to help the public distinguish the Guard from similarly dressed militia members.135Virginia National Guard (@VaNationalGuard), Twitter, August 12, 2017, 12:04 p.m.; Hanna Kozlowska, “Who Were the Armed, Camouflaged Men in Charlottesville Who Have Nothing to Do with the Military?,” Quartz, August 15, 2017, https://bit.ly/2ZHKrTE. Joe Heim. “Recounting a Day of Rage, Hate, Violence, and Death,” Washington Post, August 14, 2017, https://wapo.st/30blhfY. Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, who worried that the rally-goers and counterprotesters would mistake the militia for National Guard forces, said, “They seemed like they weren’t there to cause trouble, but it was a concern to have rifles in that kind of environment.”
Charlottesville Lawsuit against Militia Groups and Leaders
After the weekend of violence, the city of Charlottesville sued various militia groups and militia members to prohibit them from returning to Charlottesville. The lawsuit pointed to state laws prohibiting “unlawful paramilitary activity” and private citizens posing as law enforcement.3Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief, City of Charlottesville et al. v. Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia et al., Circuit Court for the City of Charlottesville, October 12, 2017, https://bit.ly/2ZL7U6D. The suit successfully secured court orders against 23 defendants, preventing the recurrence of militia activity in Charlottesville.4A full listing of the various consent decrees with the defendants can be found at https://bit.ly/3eKG4vA. While many states have such laws, the statutes have seldom been utilized. States and localities where no such laws exist would be wise to consider and pass such ordinances.
Just as white supremacist groups of the 1990s utilized internet message boards to connect and build their communities, sites such as 4chan and 8chan, which do not require registration and allow for anonymous posting, have become meeting places for white supremacists and the armed extreme right. Posts about guns on these sites also regularly praise racist violence and discuss a coming civil war. Militia groups often used more-mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to push out messaging and organize until social media companies cracked down on such organizing in September 2020. For instance, the main Facebook page of the Oath Keepers had over 500,000 followers, and the group had a Twitter following of over 32,000. Both accounts have since been deleted by Facebook and Twitter, respectively.
Examples of Public Militia Facebook Pages
|Militia Group Page Name||Followers||Likes|
|South Carolina State Militia||11,414||10,921|
|Oath Keepers 2020||6,554||5,785|
|Three Percent Nation – 3PN||4,287||4,107|
|III Percenter Patriots||4,154||4,091|
|As of August 2020—All Pages Have Since Been Deleted. A review of the Facebook platform was conducted by Everytown research staff in August 2020 to compile this information.|
In addition to Obama-era militia groups, the emergent boogaloo movement has risen 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.136Cassie Miller, “‘There is No Political Solution’: Accelerationism in the White Power Movement,” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Zckjik. The latter would be described as accelerationism, a fringe philosophy currently popular among members of the extreme right that advocates for the collapse of society so that a new one can be built in line with their views.137Miller, “‘There Is No Political Solution.’” While not all boogalooers are accelerationists, the ideologies share a total distrust of modern political institutions and democratic results, and among these groups, firearm training is a common part of preparation for the anticipated civil war. Indeed, the boogaloo movement is inextricably linked with gun culture,138For more on the near-simultaneous advent of the movement in both gun rights and extreme-right circles on 4chan “due to significant user overlap between the two communities,” as well as the ongoing evolution of the movement, see Alex Newhouse and Nate Gunesch, “The Boogaloo Movement Wants to Be Seen as Anti-Racist, But It Has a White Supremacist Fringe,” Middlebury Institute of International Studies, May 30, 2020, https://bit.ly/32B68qo. and many of the elements that animated the boom in anti-government extremism in the past three decades have also animated the boogaloo movement, including opposition to new gun laws and the law enforcement standoffs in Ruby Ridge and Waco. 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.
More about the Boogaloo
Researchers at George Washington University described the boogaloo movement as valuing individualism “and the freedom to be left alone. They and other right-wing extremists wield these values in defense of the Second Amendment and often in defense of racism… For boogaloos, the right to possess, use, discuss and parade with firearms is fundamental. Being seen in public with firearms is both a political performance of their First and Second Amendment rights and an expression of their personal identities.”5Rhys Leahy, Nicolás Velásquez Hernandez, and Yonatan Lupu, “Prosecutors Claim that a Boogaloo Killed Two Cops. What’s a Boogaloo?,” Washington Post, June 17, 2020, https://wapo.st/39i2GSP.
The highly decentralized nature of the boogaloo movement and its focus on online communities raise the prospect of “lone wolf” violent attackers. But those individuals do not exist in a vacuum, and as this report illustrates, there is an entire extreme-right ecosystem that serves as a breeding ground for these individuals, providing motivation—whether political, conspiratorial, or racist—for them to act.
The term “boogaloo” is routinely used in online communities to discuss anti-government views or a coming civil war, often without any explicit white supremacist ideologies. However, some boogalooers (and individuals who use the term to call for a civil war) do voice white supremacist views. According to the SPLC, the boogaloo movement grew out of a series of memes, and the term “boogaloo” was “frequently associated with racist violence and, in many cases, was an explicit call for race war” in the communities where it emerged. The movement has since expanded beyond those circles, yet “the term is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can come to power and build a new fascist state.”6Cassie Miller, “The Boogaloo Started as a Racist Meme,” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 5, 2020, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2020/06/05/boogaloo-started-racist-meme.
Many boogaloo adherents have resisted the notion that their call to arms is based in racism and point to incidents of boogaloo attendance in support of some Black Lives Matter protests as evidence. Nonetheless, the movement is far from united in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, with many adherents still taking the conventional right-wing position that BLM is Marxist or racist. In fact, “overall, boogalooers tend to be very sympathetic to the narrow cause of opposing police violence, while less supportive or even antagonistic towards other BLM goals.”7“The Boogaloo Movement,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed September 20, 2020, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/the-boogaloo-movement.
In September 2020, the Justice Department charged two boogaloo activists with attempting to provide weapons to the Palestinian militant organization Hamas8“Two Self-Described ‘Boogaloo Bois’ Charged with Attempting to Provide Material Support to Hamas,” news release, US Department of Justice, September 4, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/two-self-described-boogaloo-bois-charged-attempting-provide-material-support-hamas. The defendants apparently believed their anti-government ideology aligned with that of Hamas. These incidents demonstrate the boogaloo movement’s focus on guns and chaos.
Other recent extreme-right militia activity has centered on the US-Mexico border. In April 2019, an anti-immigrant militia, the United Constitutional Patriots, ran private border patrols in New Mexico and began detaining some 300 border crossers at gunpoint.139Catherine E. Shoichet and Paul P. Murphy, “This Militia Group Detained Migrants at the Border. Then Their Leader Got Arrested,” CNN, April 22, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/22/us/united-constitutional-patriots-what-we-know/index.html. Videos of the encounters sparked national outrage, as women and young children crossing the border were met by individuals dressed in fatigues, armed with assault weapons, and wholly unprepared to care for migrants. Leaving no doubt about the link between xenophobic political rhetoric and militia activity, a leader of the United Constitutional Patriots was quoted as saying, “We are simply there because President Trump declared a national emergency on the border. We came down to find out what that emergency is… We are sitting here right now, and we’re doing what we need to do.”140Alex Horton, “‘George Zimmerman on Steroids:’ How Armed Militias Roam the Border in Legal Grey Areas,” Washington Post, April 25, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/04/24/border-militias-legal-gray-areas-civilians-detaining-migrants-gunpoint/. “Invasion” immigration rhetoric was also promoted by the gun lobby. NRATV repeatedly used xenophobic language to describe immigrants, including saying that the United States was “under siege” by undocumented immigrants and that there was a “problem with violent illegal aliens,” as well as referring to migrant caravans as an “invasion” of the United States.141Timothy Johnson, “During the Shutdown, the NRA Embraced White Nationalism in Support of Trump’s Wall,” Media Matters for America, February 13, 2019, https://bit.ly/3hVBSM7.
Catastrophe: the El Paso Mass Shooting
In August 2019, a man drove 11 hours from his home in Allen, Texas, to a Walmart in El Paso. Minutes before he went inside, he uploaded a file to 8chan’s /pol/ board, an online forum infamous for radicalizing white supremacist mass shooters.142Talia Lavin, “How 8chan Became the Go-To Platform for Mass Shooters,” GQ, August 7, 2019, https://bit.ly/3hWLQN8. The document was a racist text that described his hatred of Hispanic Americans and his admiration for the white supremacist shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand. Like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter less than a year before, the El Paso shooter was motivated by the racist and anti-Semitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory, explaining in his manifesto that the attack he planned was in “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”143Tim Arango, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Katie Benner, “Minutes Before El Paso Killing, Hate-Filled Manifesto Appears Online,” New York Times, August 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/03/us/patrick-crusius-el-paso-shooter-manifesto.html. He then acted on this plan; he entered the Walmart with an AK assault-style rifle he had purchased online and shot 46 people, killing 23 of them. The attack was the deadliest mass shooting in 2019 and the deadliest far-right terrorist attack in the United States in the post-9/11 era.
The shooting in El Paso is the fatal consequence of white supremacist rhetoric in the United States combined with easy access to high-powered firearms. Central to the white supremacist ideology is the fear that immigration to the US is rapidly robbing white people of their majority status in this country. Many who ascribe to this fear assert that they must intervene to prevent whites from becoming victims of a genocide.
In the wake of the shooting, media outlets, advocacy organizations, and community leaders noted that the language the shooter used to justify his attack echoed the language used by President Trump to push his own anti-immigrant policies.144Philip Rucker, “‘How Do You Stop These People?’: Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Looms over El Paso Massacre,” Washington Post, August 4, 2019, https://wapo.st/3dzcVmh. The president has repeatedly described immigrants as “invading” the United States, including multiple times on Twitter and during public remarks.145John Fritze, “Trump Used Words Like ‘Invasion’ and ‘Killer’ to Discuss Immigrants at Rallies 500 Times: USA Today Analysis,” USA Today, August 8, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2019/08/08/trump-immigrants-rhetoric-criticized-el-paso-dayton-shootings/1936742001/. His campaign used the same language in over 2,000 Facebook ads in 2019 alone.146Julia Carrie Wong, “Trump Referred to Immigrant ‘Invasion’ in 2,000 Facebook Ads, Analysis Reveals,” The Guardian, August 5, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/05/trump-internet-facebook-ads-racism-immigrant-invasion. As recently as two months before the shooting in El Paso, he referred to Mexican immigrants as an “invasion” on Twitter.147Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter, June, 2, 2019, 7:44 a.m..
Other phrases used by the president appeared in the shooter’s manifesto, including references to “open borders” and “fake news.” An Everytown analysis revealed that on Twitter alone, the president referenced “open borders” over 60 times prior to the shooting and “fake news” nearly 500 times in the same time period,148Trump Twitter archive, search for “fake news” before August 3, 2019. 476 tweets matched these criteria. http://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/. in addition to his use of these terms in other public remarks.
Attacks like the one in El Paso have a ripple effect on the targeted community. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, many Latino Americans expressed that they felt like it was the culmination of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.149Simon Romero et al., “‘It Feels like Being Hunted’: Latinos across the US in Fear after El Paso Massacre,” New York Times, August 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/us/el-paso-shooting-latino-anxiety.html. In 2011, researchers found that as Hispanic immigration has increased in the United States, anti-Hispanic hate crimes have increased as well.150Michele Stacey, Kirstin Carbone-López, and Richard Rosenfeld, “Demographic Change and Ethnically Motivated Crime: The Impact of Immigration on Anti-Hispanic Hate Crime in the United States,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 27, no. 3 (August 2011): 278-298. That the attack was perpetrated with a gun adds another layer of fear. A survey of Latino voters in Texas one month after the El Paso shooting found that 81 percent of respondents were concerned about gun violence motivated by racism.151Florian Martin, “Most Texas Latino Voters Fear Gun Violence Driven by Racism, Poll Finds,” KUT 90.5 (Austin, TX), September 27, 2019, https://www.kut.org/post/most-texas-latino-voters-fear-gun-violence-driven-racism-poll-finds.
The Extreme Right Takes to the Streets Armed
The presence of armed protesters—most frequently associated with right-wing political causes or organizations—has become commonplace in the 2020 political landscape. When people openly carry weapons at protests, it is not ancillary to their message; firearms are a central organizing principle for these activists. Maryland Institute College of Art philosophy professor Firmin DeBrabander, writing in The Atlantic about the COVID-19 “anti-lockdown” protesters, noted:
“When you see protesters in military garb brandishing assault rifles, it does not inspire you to debate them—nor is it intended to. The protesters’ military demeanor is not meant to invite discussion; it’s meant to end it. Guns communicate—of themselves. In this case, they say that the time for debate, as well as any sort of nicety, is just about over, and others need to shut up and listen while the people with the guns talk, or issue demands.”152Firmin DeBrabander, “The Great Irony of America’s Armed Anti-Lockdown Protesters,” The Atlantic, May 13, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/guns-protesters/611560/.
As an example, for three consecutive weeks in Michigan, small numbers of 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.153Jason Wilson, “The Rightwing Groups behind Wave of Protests against COVID-19 Restrictions,” The Guardian, April 17, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/17/far-right-coronavirus-protests-restrictions. 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, demanding to be let inside. 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.”154Bryan Armen Graham, “‘Swastikas and Nooses’: Governor Slams ‘Racism’ of Michigan Lockdown Protest,” The Guardian, May 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism. On-the-ground reporting indicated that “cries to fire Whitmer and expand gun rights overpowered calls to get back to work.”155Anna Liz Nichols and Susan J. Demas, “Whitmer Stay Home Order Protest Turns into Trump Celebration with Confederate Flags and Guns,” Michigan Advance, April 15, 2020, https://bit.ly/3jh7X1L.
At similar rallies at the Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin state houses and in the streets of Raleigh, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Salt Lake City, the extreme right and other right-wing political groups used COVID-19 lockdown protests and racial justice protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd as opportunities to openly display military-style firearms to incite fear, suppress civil discourse, and threaten public safety. Protesters in Kentucky156Sarah Ladd, “Beshear Hanged in Effigy as Second Amendment Supporters Rally at Capitol before Memorial Day,” Louisville Courier Journal, May 24, 2020, https://bit.ly/2E36dsP. and Michigan have displayed effigies of the states’ governors hanging in nooses, and armed protesters even descended on the home of Ohio’s state health director.157Griff Witte, “Ohio’s Amy Acton Inspires Admiration, and a Backlash, with Tough Coronavirus Response,” Washington Post, May 18, 2020, https://wapo.st/3fNAMjZ. One organizer in North Carolina who attended anti-lockdown demonstrations while armed filmed a video saying he was “willing to kill people.”158Steve Wiseman, “Husband of ReOpenNC Leader Says He’s ‘Willing to Kill People’ to Fight Government Control,” News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), May 24, 2020, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article242971806.html. And in Colorado, a man who used social media to encourage people to bring assault rifles to a protest was arrested for the possession of several pipe bombs.159Clayton Sandell, “Colorado Man Planning Armed Protest against State’s Coronavirus Restrictions Arrested for Pipe Bombs,” ABC News, May 4, 2020, https://abcn.ws/3hjwBwW; “Northern Colorado Man Arrested for Possessing Pipe Bombs,” news release, United States Attorney’s Office, District of Colorado, May 3, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao-co/pr/northern-colorado-man-arrested-possessing-pipe-bombs.
After the initial armed protest in Michigan over the governor’s stay-at-home order, President Trump took to Twitter, writing, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”160Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter, April 17, 2020, 11:21 a.m., 11:22 a.m., 11:25 a.m. The reference to the Second Amendment during this tweet storm was interpreted by some as evidence that the President was encouraging citizens to engage in armed rebellion.161Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT), Twitter, April 17, 2020, 5:08 p.m.
Meanwhile, the NRA and its leaders praised the armed protesters and seemingly used fears about the pandemic to encourage new gun sales.162Matt Cohen, “How the NRA Is Using Coronavirus Fears to Drive up Gun Sales,” May 8, 2020, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/05/how-the-nra-is-using-coronavirus-fears-to-drive-up-gun-sales/. These efforts included an NRA promotional video that depicted looting as a woman brandishing an AR-15 said, “I know from history how quickly society breaks down during a crisis… and we’ve never faced anything like this before, and never is the Second Amendment more important than during public unrest.”163National Rifle Association (@NRA), Twitter, March 21, 2020, https://twitter.com/NRA/status/1241418470341980167. Not to be outdone, Gun Owners of America produced an apocalyptic video—in the midst of national protests over racial justice and police brutality—glorifying roving bands of men with AR assault-style rifles purportedly keeping the peace from looters, with the catchphrase “This is why you need the Second Amendment.”164Gun Owners of America (@GunOwners), Twitter, June 5, 2020, https://twitter.com/GunOwners/status/1268906863518720001.
While exploiting tragedies and civil unrest has long been part and parcel of the gun lobby’s playbook,165The NRA has a long history of using fear-mongering during disasters. In 2013, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre stoked fear about the need to be armed to ward off violence from “hurricanes, tornadoes, riots, terrorists, gangs and lone criminals.” See Wayne LaPierre, “Stand and Fight”, Daily Caller, February 13, 2013, https://dailycaller.com/2013/02/13/stand-and-fight/. And in 2016, NRA magazine America’s 1st Freedom––the “Official Journal of the NRA”— published an op-ed that described an “absolute breakdown in societal order” in which “roving hordes are free to loot, burn and murder.” See Darren LaSorte, “Unclogging the Minds of Anti-Gunners,” America’s 1st Freedom, January 18, 2016, https://bit.ly/3eT2x9T. the acceptance of heavily armed, mostly white protesters storming state capitols exemplifies white hegemonic power in the United States, especially when compared to the treatment of unarmed Black people protesting for racial justice. The armed extreme right appeared at a number of Black Lives Matter and racial justice 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 a heavily criticized allusion to gun violence by Trump, who tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”166Barbara Sprunt, “The History Behind ‘When The Looting Starts, The Shooting Starts,’” NPR, May 29, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/864818368/the-history-behind-when-the-looting-starts-the-shooting-starts. The gun lobby joined that chorus, with NRA leaders comparing Black Lives Matter activists to Nazis and calling the movement “a rancid evil.”167Igor Drysh, “NRA’s Silence on Police Violence Is Deafening—Its Members’ Attacks on Black Victims Are Worse,” Salon, July 6, 2020, https://www.salon.com/2020/07/09/nras-silence-on-police-violence-is-deafening–its-members-attacks-on-black-victims-are-worse/.
The results have sometimes been tragically violent. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a 17-year-old white Trump supporter drove across state lines to “protect” the city from protesters seeking justice for the police shooting of Jacob Blake. He patrolled the streets brandishing a long gun and ultimately shot three protesters, two fatally. This horrific shooting represents the intersection of several deadly factors: President Trump and right-wing commentators demonizing protestors, NRA support for the open carry of long guns, and some police officers providing special treatment or encouragement to armed vigilantes. Larry Pratt’s Gun Owners of America has gone so far as to offer legal support to the Kenosha shooter.168“GOA: Media Demonizes Apparent Self-Defender Kyle Rittenhouse,” news release, Gun Owners of America, August 27, 2020, https://gunowners.org/goa-media-demonizes-apparent-self-defender-kyle-rittenhouse/.
The violence in Kenosha could have been even worse had the FBI not arrested two heavily armed individuals who had driven from Missouri “with the intention of possibly using the firearms on people.”169Alexander Mallin and Meredith Deliso, “Blue Lives Matter Supporters Arrested with Slew of Firearms outside Kenosha after Police Received Tip about Possible Shooting, DOJ Says,” ABC News, September 3, 2020, https://www.yahoo.com/gma/blue-lives-matter-supporters-arrested-031650651.html. 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.
Adherents to the boogaloo movement also appear to have been activated by the racial justice demonstrations. At a protest in Denver, the police seized a large cache of weapons from an “anti-government gun enthusiast” who described himself as a “Boogaloo Boi.”170Erik Maulbetsch, “Denver Police Seized Assault Rifles from Anti-Govt Activists at Friday Night Protest,” Colorado Pols, May 31, 2020, https://bit.ly/3hfP5OP. See also https://coloradotimesrecorder.com/2020/05/denver-police-seized-assault-rifles-from-anti-government-gun-activists-at-friday-night-protest/24690/. And in Santa Cruz, California, prosecutors linked a man charged with the murder of two law enforcement officers to the boogaloo movement.171Leahy, Velásquez Hernandez, and Lupu, “Prosecutors Claim that a Boogaloo Killed Two Cops.” The man allegedly viewed Black Lives Matter protests as an opportunity to accelerate armed conflict, posting online, “Go to the riots and support our own cause” and “Use their anger to fuel our fire. Think outside the box.”172Leah Sottile, “The Chaos Agents,” New York Times, August 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/19/magazine/boogaloo.html. Police found improvised explosives at the man’s home and allege that he opened fire into a federal courthouse, killing a protective officer. The shooter opened fire again when confronted at his home, killing a local sheriff’s deputy before being arrested.
There have also been several shootings at racial equity protests and counterprotests. A man at a protest in Aurora, Colorado, opened fire at a Jeep that was “barreling toward the protesters on a highway,” wounding two protesters.173“Suspect Arrested in Shooting of 2 Protesters in Colorado,” Associated Press, July 28, 2020, https://apnews.com/65b22cf4023d527652cb303f7c00d795. In another incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a group called the New Mexico Civil Guard came armed to a protest about a controversial colonial statue—seemingly with the intent of “defending” the statue. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham called out the presence of “heavily armed individuals” at the protest “to menace protesters and to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force.”174Samuel Gilbert, “Armed Vigilantes under Scrutiny after Statue Protester Shot in New Mexico,” The Guardian, June 17, 2020, https://bit.ly/2WDemum. An armed man who was also at the protest to defend the statue threw a woman to the ground and then opened fire into the crowd. The man has been charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.175Elise Kaplan, “Charge Refiled against Baca in Protest Shooting,” Albuquerque Journal, July 13, 2020, https://www.abqjournal.com/1475487/charges-refiled-against-baca-in-protest-shooting.html.
Even when no shots are fired, these sorts of open carry protests are inherently violent. 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. In the small town of Omak, Washington, armed men lined the route of a peaceful march for George Floyd, some on nearby roofs, ready to act as snipers.176Isaac Stanley-Becker, “As Protests Spread to Small-Town America, Militia Groups Respond with Armed Intimidation and Online Threats,” Washington Post, June 18, 2020, https://wapo.st/2CMajot. “Honestly, it was terrifying,” said one rally-goer. “They claimed they were there to protect the city from outsiders, but it felt more like preparation to kill.”177Stanley-Becker, “As Protests Spread.” These are not isolated incidents— as of September 1st, the SPLC has chronicled 55 incidents of militias attending racial equity protests.178Safia Samee Ali, “Where Protesters Go, Armed Militias, Vigilantes Likely to Follow with Little to Stop Them,” NBC News, September 1, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/where-protesters-go-armed-militias-vigilantes-likely-follow-little-stop-n1238769.
An examination of the rise of armed protests in America suggests that the purpose of guns at these events is to intimidate and chill speech, often creating a powder keg of armed right-wing extremism, racism, and hate.
Catastrophe Narrowly Averted: the 2020 Richmond Gun Extremist Rally
The toxic brew of gun lobby extremism, armed protests, racism, organized private militias, and the boogaloo movement was on full display in January 2020 in Richmond, Virginia, as protesters gathered to decry gun safety measures under consideration by the state legislature. If not for the work of the FBI in disrupting an accelerationist plot by heavily armed white supremacists, the rally could have been a mass-casualty event. Although the Richmond plot was disrupted, the event still serves as a cautionary tale for the prospect of violence from the extreme right.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), an extremist gun lobby group, organized the protest at the state capitol in Richmond as a reaction to the prospect of pending gun safety legislation becoming law in Virginia. At the same time it planned the rally, VCDL also organized the passage of local ordinances, called Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions, that claimed local sheriffs and county officials would ignore any new gun safety laws. VCDL’s president and longtime leader, Philip Van Cleave, had previously declared, “VCDL is proud to be categorized as an extremist organization, and we fully intend to continue being such!”179Scott Dodd and Neil MacFarquhar, “Who Is the Man Behind the Gun Rally That Has Virginia on Edge?,” New York Times, January 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/us/philip-van-cleave-vcdl-gun-rally.html. Van Cleave was also infamously caught on videotape by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in 2018, agreeing to film a gun training video for children called “Kind Guardians,” which inappropriately encouraged young children to use guns. In communications with members and the press, VCDL regularly espouses conspiratorial language around proposed “gun-confiscation laws.” The planned protest resulted in a bevy of wild rumors that spread online, including that United Nations “disarmament officers” had come to Virginia.180Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella, “Prospect of Gun Control in Virginia Draws Threats, Promise of Armed Protest,” Washington Post, January 5, 2020, https://wapo.st/3fL62jD.
Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolutions
Since 2019, a number of local governments across the country—typically in rural or exurban counties and towns—have passed resolutions declaring themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” that purport to resist any new gun safety legislation that is passed by democratically elected governments. Opponents of gun safety legislation have every right to lobby their elected leaders or challenge the constitutionality of a law in court. But the Second Amendment sanctuary movement focuses on resistance to democratically enacted laws. In fact, the movement itself is a rejection of representative democracy. The passage of these resolutions, pushed by both state and national gun lobby groups, is often accompanied by rhetoric about fears of gun confiscation, local sovereignty, and even armed resistance. A close reading of the text of these resolutions shows they generally have no actual legal effect and typically are little more than symbolic political gestures that raise questions about the legitimacy of democratically enacted gun safety laws.9Email traffic discovered in the course of several Freedom of Information Act requests to counties by Everytown confirmed that local employees and their lawyers have privately acknowledged that the resolutions adopted or considered in their jurisdictions are legally meaningless and have no effect. Everytown Law, “Documents Reveal Many Virginia Lawless Counties Admit Their ‘Second Amendment Sanctuaries’ Are Legally Meaningless,” January 24, 2020, https://everytownlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2020/07/ET-Memorandum-Sheriffs-2.pdf. Nonetheless, by confusing residents in these counties about their obligations to follow state law—and, relatedly, the obligations of local law enforcement officers to enforce state law—these resolutions threaten public safety.
The History of Sheriffs’ Refusal to Enforce Laws
Several local sheriffs, including several in Virginia, have made statements that they would refuse to enforce gun laws in their respective jurisdictions, often referencing the theory of posse comitatus (Latin for “power of the county”). Some county sheriffs have gone so far as to say they would deputize residents to resist new gun laws passed by the state. The notion of posse comitatus in this context was introduced in the 1970s by William Potter Gale, an avowed white supremacist and anti-government extremist.10For an overview of Gale’s history of racism and violent rhetoric, see Daniel Levitas, excerpt from The Terrorist Next Door, New York Times, November 17, 2002, https://nyti.ms/2OU5c8J. Although lacking solid legal footing, the posse comitatus theory attracted the attention of white supremacists for its purported ability to bypass the will of the state and allow smaller rural communities to resist laws that promoted racial equality.
Approximately a month before the Richmond protest, VCDL 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!”181Philip Van Cleave, “Virginia: Important Statement About VCDL Capital Lobby Day, Jan 20th 2020,” Ammoland Shooting Sports News, December 18, 2019, https://www.ammoland.com/2019/12/virginia-important-statement-about-vcdl-capital-lobby-day-jan-20th-2020/#axzz6P3mSjSRp. Militia groups and other extremists quickly rallied.182Schneider and Vozzella, “Prospect of Gun Control in Virginia.” Militia groups actively recruited members to travel to Richmond, with one leader of a Three Percenter group saying, “Virginia is the state that is testing this unlawful, unconstitutional, Second Amendment gun grab… if this is where it begins, then this is where it will end.”183Schneider and Vozzella, “Prospect of Gun Control in Virginia.” Similar threats of violence, whether implicit or explicit, could be found on message boards, Facebook pages, and other corners of the internet.184Schneider and Vozzella, “Prospect of Gun Control in Virginia.” 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 those who had helped plan the event in Charlottesville.185Hannah Allam, “Virginia Authorities Brace for Violence at Richmond Gun-Rights Rally,” NPR, January 20, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/20/797870727/virginia-authorities-brace-for-violence-at-richmond-gun-rights-rally; Tammy NeverHillary Lee, YouTube, December 15, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IldnniVISYw. This video has subsequently been made private, but Tammy Lee, the organizer of the State of the Militia conference, says “I myself was part of the planning” of Charlottesville.
Just days ahead of the rally, the FBI arrested three men linked to The Base, a neo-Nazi organization that aims to use violence to incite a race war to force the collapse of society.186Timothy Williams, Adam Goldman, and Neil MacFarquhar, “Virginia Capital on Edge as FBI Arrests Suspect Neo-Nazis before Gun Rally,” New York Times, updated January 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/16/us/fbi-arrest-virginia-gun-rally.html. The alleged plot was textbook accelerationism. Authorities noted that “Within The Base’s encrypted chat rooms, members have discussed, among other things, recruitment, creating a white ethno-state, committing acts of violence against minority communities (including African-Americans and Jewish-Americans), the organization’s military-style training camps, and ways to make improvised explosive devices.”187“Three Alleged Members of the Violent Extremist Group ‘The Base’ Facing Federal Firearms and Alien-Related Charges,” news release, US Attorney’s Office, District of Maryland, January 16, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao-md/pr/three-alleged-members-violent-extremist-group-base-facing-federal-firearms-and-alien. The defendants allegedly discussed using the tense situation created by the gathering of thousands of armed protesters to ignite a civil war.
Ahead of the Richmond rally, extremists—like the neo-Nazis who were arrested—discussed the event as the potential start of the boogaloo.188Williams, Goldman, and MacFarquhar, “Virginia Capital on Edge.” VCDL shared a video titled “Does the Boogaloo Begin in Virginia?”189Virginia Citizens Defense League, “If you have been asleep since election day…,” Facebook, December 16, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20200208095857/https://www.facebook.com/VCDL.ORG/posts/3525599084124402?__tn__=-R. and one Three Percenter leader, in encouraging followers to join him in Richmond, pronounced “It’s looking like Boogaloo! Hey, if you’re down with a boogaloo, if they want to bring the f***king boogaloo, thumbs up! Thumbs up, guns up!”190Chris Hill, “iiisecurityforce.com—Fierce Insight Into Jan 20th. Richmond, Va.,” YouTube, December 14, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1Odde5Ny54&feature=youtu.be.
The scene around the capitol on the day of the protest was militaristic and chaotic. The restriction on firearms at the capitol turned the surrounding streets—which were technically not on capitol grounds and thus not subject to the restriction—into a heavily armed perimeter of thousands of gun extremists openly carrying weapons. Fringe conspiracy theorist Alex Jones drove around the city in a Terradyne armored vehicle, shouting that the Democratic Party was “a bunch of degenerate, anti-American globalists who want to start a race war in this country.”191Khaleda Rahman, “Alex Jones Cruises Through Streets in InfoWars Battle Tank as Proud Boys Join Him at Virginia Gun Rights Rally,” Newsweek, January 20, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/alex-jones-proud-boys-richmond-virginia-infowars-battle-tank-1483074. 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. “Members of hate groups like the League of the South and the American Guard, as well as the Proud Boys, mingled openly; some of the latter were wearing patches that said ‘RWDS’—an acronym for ‘Right-Wing Death Squad.’”192Talia Lavin, “That Pro Gun Rally in Virginia Wasn’t Exactly ‘Peaceful,’” GQ, January 22, 2020, https://www.gq.com/story/pro-gun-rally-threat. A faux guillotine was erected in the streets, with protesters posing for pictures alongside it. It is chilling to think what an organized accelerationist plot thrown into this mix of toxicity and armament would have yielded.The NRA remained silent about the rally beforehand, and afterward mocked public concerns about the event as “anti-gun hysteria” and “fearmongering.”193“Second Amendment Rally Seems to Have Anti-Gun Extremists Disappointed… That It Was So Peaceful,” NRA-ILA, January 27, 2020, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20200127/second-amendment-rally-seems-to-have-anti-gun-extremists-disappointed-that-it-was-so-peaceful. President Trump expressed his support for the armed rally in Richmond and echoed the gun lobby’s conspiracy theory of “gun confiscation” by tweeting: “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away.”
Virginia Attempts to Improve Public Safety at Demonstrations
Virginia issued a temporary state of emergency ahead of the Richmond rally, after law enforcement learned of additional “threats of violence” surrounding the rally, with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam noting that some of the threats were “fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories.”11Darran Simon and Kelly Mena, “Virginia Governor Issues a Temporary State of Emergency ahead of a Guns Rights Rally Militia Groups and Hate Groups Could Attend,” CNN, updated January 15, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/15/us/virginia-state-of-emergency-weapons-gun-rights-rally/index.html. The state of emergency allowed Virginia to ban firearms on state capitol grounds, a decision that VCDL unsuccessfully sued to overturn.12Cameron Thompson, “Virginia Supreme Court Upholds Northam’s Gun Ban at Capitol Square,” 6News (Richmond, VA), January 17, 2020, https://wtvr.com/2020/01/17/virginia-supreme-court-upholds-northams-firearm-ban-on-capitol-square/. The court decision followed a precedent that finds state and local officials have the ability to enact and enforce laws that restrict the intimidating display of guns at protests and demonstrations.13Eric Tirschwell and Alla Lefkowitz, “Prohibiting Guns at Public Demonstrations: Debunking First and Second Amendment Myths After Charlottesville,” UCLA Law Review, April 5, 2018, https://www.uclalawreview.org/prohibiting-guns-at-public-demonstrations/. In the next state legislative session, Virginia passed a law that allows localities to prevent guns in certain public places, such as municipal buildings or parks.
V. Unprecedented Questions of Political Legitimacy
Some of the armed protesters who have taken to the streets question foundational beliefs of America’s democratic institutions and openly embrace fringe conspiracy theories.194See, e.g., Hannah Allam, “Analysts Say Armed Groups at Protests Raise Specter of a ‘Street War,’” NPR, July 30, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/07/30/896770081/analysts-say-armed-groups-at-protests-raise-specter-of-a-street-war. Extreme- right groups and those motivated by extreme-right ideologies openly discuss opportunities to accelerate what they view as the inevitable next civil war.
Under Donald Trump, this deep distrust of government and questions of political legitimacy have been given a megaphone. President Trump has claimed that there is widespread voter fraud in the US, including the baseless claim that “millions” of illegal voters have cast ballots. More recently, the president has pushed the notion that mail-in voting is a liberal pretext to steal the election. Trump has even repeated false and racist birther conspiracies about vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, and refused to disavow the fringe QAnon conspiracy theory that places him as the heroic savior of the republic against a cult of liberal pedophiles. These baseless claims lend credence and power to the extreme right. Instead of seeing their conspiracies on internet message boards, these actors now see the same conspiracies discussed and amplified by organized right-wing media outlets—and even by more-mainstream national media outlets.
President Trump’s efforts have deepened in even darker and more worrisome ways in recent months as “he has repeatedly predicted ‘RIGGED ELECTIONS’ and a ‘substantially fraudulent’ vote and ‘the most corrupt election in the history of our country,’ all based on false, unfounded or exaggerated claims.”195Peter Baker, “More Than Just a Tweet: Trump’s Campaign to Undercut Democracy,” New York Times, July 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/us/politics/trump-tweet-democracy.html. Recently, Trump tweeted that the “country would COLLAPSE” if he didn’t win reelection, and approvingly amplified the message of a prominent supporter that “if they take him down, America is gone forever.”196DonaldTrump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter, August 13, 2020, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1293937894525227013; Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter, August 14, 2020, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1294235168471953409. He even raised the possibility of delaying the upcoming election “to tell Americans that they should not trust their own democracy.”197Baker, “More Than Just a Tweet.” Many extreme-right groups and individuals have now embraced the notion that any election loss by the president is illegitimate. This poses fundamental questions for the administration of American democracy.
The threat is multiplied when those extremists questioning democracy are armed. President Trump has rallied his base by claiming he saved the Second Amendment: “If I wasn’t here, you wouldn’t have a Second Amendment.”198“Transcript of EWTN News Nightly Interview with President Donald Trump,” Catholic News Agency, August 4, 2020, https://catholicvoiceomaha.com/transcript-of-ewtn-news-nightly-interview-with-president-donald-trump/. Trump parrots gun confiscation theories the NRA has used for decades to keep gun confiscation as a useful, perpetually looming threat. As such, we currently find ourselves in a scenario where many extreme-right groups and individuals—who place easy access to guns as central to their identity—have been convinced that an election defeat will result in mass civil disarmament. At the same time, these extremists have been conditioned to believe that American democracy (i.e., their lawful way to impact the election) is a farce, leaving them to contemplate armed violence as the natural remaining option.
Is the Federal Government Downplaying the White Supremacist Threat?
Whistleblowers at DHS have come forward to claim that the Trump administration has not paid sufficient attention to extremist threats. For instance, Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence branch, stated that the department’s second-highest-ranking official interfered and ordered him to change intelligence assessments to make the threat of white supremacists “appear less severe” and to include information on violent “left-wing” groups.14 Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Nicholas Fandos, “DHS Downplayed Threats from Russia and White Supremacists, Whistle-Blower Says,” New York Times, September 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/09/us/politics/homeland-security-russia-trump.html. Another top official at DHS, Elizabeth Neumann, said after leaving DHS, “At least in this administration, there’s not going to be anything substantive done on domestic terrorism.”15Betsy Woodruff Swan, “They Tried to Get Trump to Care about Right-Wing Terrorism. He Ignored Them,” Politico, August 26, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/trump-domestic-extemism-homeland-security-401926.
America Faces a Rising Threat of Extremist Violence in the Election and Its Aftermath
The Richmond gun-extremist rally and the shootings that have occurred at armed protests over the past year are clear warning signs that extreme-right groups or individuals may be triggered to commit violent acts by the election, democratically enacted legislation, or other news events.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s August 2020 threat assessment warns of the possibility of electoral-related violence, writing that “ideologically-motivated violent extremists and other violent actors could quickly mobilize to threaten or engage in violence against election or campaign-related targets in response to perceived partisan and policy-based grievances.”199Sean D. Naylor, “Former Counterterrorism Chief: Trump Defeat May Prompt Right-Wing Terror Attacks,” Yahoo News, August 21, 2020, https://news.yahoo.com/former-counterterror-chief-trump-defeat-may-prompt-rightwing-terror-attacks-190913288.html. Russ Travers, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said domestic terror attacks “wouldn’t surprise me, particularly if the administration loses,” adding that “the political rhetoric is such that you very easily could see some backlash” from white supremacist groups.200Naylor, “Former Counterterrorism Chief.”
President Trump’s rhetoric about voter fraud, voting-by-mail conspiracies, and the legitimacy of the election fuels extreme-right rage and adds to the prospect of violence. A review of social media content reveals a multitude of individuals threatening violence if Trump were to not be re-elected.201The included posts were collected between August and September 2020 on behalf of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund as evidence of the type of violent rhetoric repeatedly posted online. Identifying information has been redacted so as not to provide notoriety to the posters. Guns will likely be the tools used to perpetrate that violence.
Similarly, the prospect of national or state legislation dealing with gun safety could further motivate extreme-right organizing and create the conditions for political violence. A number of state legislative chambers could switch party control in the next few years—in nearly all cases, those potential party shifts would bring to power legislative majorities (such as Virginia’s) that support gun safety legislation such as universal background checks and Red Flag laws. Nationally, the US Senate could switch party control in 2020 or 2022, leading to a new majority leader supportive of gun safety legislation. Legislative efforts to pass gun safety laws could be hotly debated and an opportunity for activists on the extreme right to galvanize supporters.
If the past is prologue, the gun lobby—in particular the NRA—will fan the flames of gun confiscation conspiracies to boost its fundraising and maintain its relevance. As the NRA’s former second-in-command has recently acknowledged, “Wayne [LaPierre], and the rest of the NRA executives, have consistently invoked that old bogeyman—that any regulation is tantamount to the overthrow of American life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That Democrats or people in favor of gun control, however modest, are trampling the Constitution.”202Powell, Inside the NRA, 219. Indeed, the NRA is already turning up the rhetoric. In a recently uncovered fundraising letter to members, LaPierre warns of “armed government agents storming your house, taking your guns, and hauling you off to prison”203Mark Bauer (@MarkBauer), Twitter, August 29, 2020, 3:36 p.m., https://twitter.com/MarkBauer/status/1299793116539555840; Temujin & Juice (@VeteranShill), August 8, 2020, 4:40 p.m., https://twitter.com/VeteranShill/status/1292198991447224320?s=20. in language that worryingly echoes his words in the fundraising letter the NRA sent to members mere days before the Oklahoma City bombing.
As the United States enters the final phase of the 2020 campaign, the president continues to leverage the current societal upheaval—from COVID-19 to protests against systemic racism—to stoke fear in his political base. In doing so, he amplifies conspiracy theories that appeal to those most easily driven to violence by such disinformation: the extreme right. Those activists are already emboldened following years of validation of their conspiracy theories by both the gun lobby and the White House. They may very well use the current landscape of white supremacy and anti-government conspiracy theories to justify violent action once more. Chillingly, lax gun laws may give right-wing extremists access to some of the deadliest and most effective tools to carry out that violence, which is why strengthening our country’s gun laws is more urgent than ever.
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.