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More Than Brawlers

The Proud Boys and Armed Extremism

7.15.2021
Pro-Trump protesters, including Proud Boys like Joe Biggs (in gray plaid, center) gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Summary

In recent years, the United States has been grappling with a resurgence of far-right extremism and violence. One of the most prominent and notorious groups to emerge is the Proud Boys. Founded in 2016, the Proud Boys are a misogynistic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic group of self-described “Western chauvinists” who promote dangerous rhetoric and maintain deep ties with other extremists, including white supremacists. Proud Boys have become infamous for regularly seeking violent conflict at protests, brutally attacking their political opponents. Nowhere has this been more obviously observed than the crucial role the group played in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

While the Proud Boys were founded as a group of extremist street brawlers, its focus on physical confrontation and violence includes armed intimidation and violence. Proud Boys around the country have adopted (1) advocacy for Second Amendment absolutism as a principal organizing issue and (2) the use of guns to intimidate their political opponents.

Proud Boys Embrace Gun Lobby Conspiracy Theories as Part of Their Culture War

For decades, the gun lobby has wielded fearmongering and radicalizing conspiracy theories in an attempt to stop any reform of gun laws. Many far-right groups, including the Proud Boys, have embraced the same messaging. Members of the Proud Boys deploy the violent taunts of the gun lobby and take up the conspiratorial claims that gun regulation is part of a sinister authoritarian plot. Some Proud Boys have direct ties to the National Rifle Association. They have appeared at gun lobby events, both as attendees and organizers, from showing up armed at a protest in Richmond, Virginia, to sponsoring a Second Amendment event in Salem, Oregon, alongside other far-right groups.  

An online store run by a group of prominent Proud Boys features merchandise promoting extremist messages, including deeply misogynistic and Islamophobic content. T-shirts emblazoned with “Leftist Lives Don’t,” as in “leftist lives don’t matter” and the acronym for “right-wing death squad” are on sale alongside dozens of products with gun rights rhetoric. The gun rights merchandise ranges from simply featuring the silhouette of guns to “Come and Take It” stickers. One shirt even paraphrases the infamous gun rights taunt popularized by late NRA president Charlton Heston, “from my cold dead hands.”

Proud Boys member Joe Biggs at the 2016 National Rifle Association Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

There are public and ardent gun rights activists in the ranks of the Proud Boys. For instance, former Infowars affiliate Joe Biggs is a member of both the Proud Boys and the NRA. Biggs has frequently posted rhetoric online echoing the gun lobby, arguing that “ANTIFA is a perfect reason why gun free zones are easy targets for criminals.” Biggs has also encouraged his supporters to “get a gun” and “practice as much as you can [. . .] because the left isn’t playing anymore and neither should we.” He even advertised The Gun Show with Joe Biggs, which he claimed would be an online gun rights and lifestyle show. In 2016, Biggs attended the 2016 NRA Annual Meetings on behalf of Infowars, where he interviewed then-NRA personality Colion Noir.

Days into the new Biden administration, a prominent Proud Boys Telegram channel encouraged followers to “resist” proposed new gun laws from the administration, warning that “[g]overnments only want to take your guns so they have the monopoly on violence and then inevitably they tyrannize or kill their own citizens.” The message echoed propaganda from the gun lobby, which for decades has painted even the most modest reform of gun laws as a tyrannical overreach. 

In December 2020, Hawaiian Proud Boys leader Nick Ochs celebrated what he characterized as Democrats’ plans to “go after guns” because it would add pressure on the group “to organize correctly” and “push it all the way.” Mere weeks later, Ochs would be arrested for breaching the U.S. Capitol during the January 6 insurrection, where he posed in front of the words “Murder the Media” scrawled on a door to the building.

Proud Boys Use Guns as Tools of Their Violence and Embrace Others Who Do the Same

The Proud Boys have become notorious for their regular presence and violent attacks at political protests, from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville to the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. As one expert put it, the Proud Boys are the “street thugs” of the far right: “They’re the ones who attend the rallies and protests to try and intimidate other people.” Proud Boys threats and violence at protests are not limited to brawls: members have appeared at protests armed, encouraged others to do so, and not only defended the actions of a 17-year-old who shot three people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two, but encouraged others to shoot Black Lives Matter protesters.

Amid the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, nearly all of which were peaceful events, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio confirmed it was “policy to shoot” Black Lives Matter “rioters.” Not surprisingly, however, Tarrio did not have the same feeling about armed conservatives storming government buildings, writing just months earlier, “If you’re armed and are protesting in a government building . . . You’re protesting correctly. And America is cheering you on.”

Indeed, the Proud Boys have cheered allies who brought guns to protests. An online Proud Boys store features multiple products celebrating the teen who shot three people at a Black Lives Matter protest, including a shirt that proclaims he “did nothing wrong.” After he was released on bail, the alleged shooter posed with members of the Proud Boys at a bar, flashing white power signs. 

Alan Swinney points a gun during clashes between groups like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, and protesters against police brutality and racial injustice in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 22, 2020.
Self-described Proud Boys member was arrested after pointing a revolver at a crowd of protesters in Portland, Oregon.

Members of the Proud Boys have brought their own guns to protests. In September 2020, a rally in support of the Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon, drew a large crowd, where “men openly carried guns” and at least one “stood guard in camouflage body armor and a combat helmet, armed with an assault rifle.” A month later, a member of the Proud Boys was arrested after pointing a revolver at people at another protest in the city. In January 2021, Enrique Tarrio was arrested in Washington, DC, days before the insurrection, which he allegedly planned to attend. Tarrio was in possession of two high-capacity magazines emblazoned with Proud Boys logos at the time of his arrest.

Protests are not the only occasions in which Proud Boys have been arrested for alleged gun crimes or threats involving guns. 

Jason Lee Van Dyke

Jason Lee Van Dyke, a lawyer with a history of racist threats, briefly became the leader of the Proud Boys in 2018. A lawsuit claimed that Van Dyke had used a local Proud Boys chapter to surveil an antagonist as part of a plot to injure or kill him. Van Dyke, a self-described “distinguished expert in pistol with the [National Rifle Association],” had reportedly cofounded a gun club at the University of North Texas. After leaving the Proud Boys, Van Dyke was arrested for allegedly filing a false police report about the theft of three of his guns. He subsequently reportedly tried and failed to become a member of the neo-Nazi group the Base. He allegedly boasted to the group about his experience in firearms training: “I’ve taught classes on the pistol and precision rifle as well as some shotgun. I would definitely be fit to instruct in those areas.”

Eduard Florea

Another Proud Boys supporter, Eduard Florea, was arrested in January 2021 after allegedly issuing violent threats online, including against Senator Raphael Warnock. Florea, a New Yorker who called the city “target rich” amid his online rantings, had been previously convicted of illegal gun possession, and when authorities searched his home after his arrest, they found 13 firearms, including at least one machine gun, as well as “over 1,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, two dozen shotgun rounds, 75 military-style combat knives, two hatchets and two swords,” the New York Times reported.

Augustus Sol Invictus

Augustus Sol Invictus, a notorious alt-right figure, served in what the Proud Boys founder described as the group’s “military division.” Invictus has repeatedly been accused of brandishing guns, including against intimate partners. One claimed he had threatened to “shoot her on the spot,” and another said he had attacked her and held a gun to her head. In December 2019, Invictus was arrested for allegedly holding his wife at gunpoint.

Conclusion

The threat to a safe and functioning democratic system posed by groups like the Proud Boys has become more and more clear in recent years. The prominence of the Proud Boys in the far-right ecosystem and their explicit embrace of violence as a political strategy make it of paramount importance that policymakers and civil society take that threat seriously, especially where it intersects with America’s loose gun laws that enable violence.

A straightforward way to curb armed intimidation by extremist groups, like the Proud Boys, would be to restrict the open display of firearms, especially during protests or at other public places. Open carry is a threat to public safety and armed extremism demonstrates the folly of open carry laws

Lawmakers and officials at every level of government can take the following three steps to disrupt how extremists use firearms to undercut democracy and promote insurrection.

  1. The law should prohibit the carrying of firearms in and around sensitive government facilities. 
  2. Guns should be prohibited at demonstrations on public property. 
  3. Armed extremists must be held accountable under existing laws for their criminal conduct.

While no single act will eliminate extremism, these steps—in addition to commonsense gun safety measures—will help decrease the chance of armed extremism violence in the United States.

Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.

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