As America learned on January 6th, anti-government militia groups are more than ready to jump over walls, break doors and destroy the very foundations of our democracy. These cross-border groups also have easy access to high powered, high capacity, small caliber semi-automatic weapons, many of which can be switched to fully automatic weapons. The concern is not that these weapons will somehow allow the militia to challenge the US military on the battlefield, which they certainly will not. It is so that they easily carry out mass attacks against political or cultural opponents and are easy to grasp as inspirational events of the kind that mobilize insurrection.
The Executive Orders that Biden enacted earlier this month to impose restrictions on weapon sets and devices that turn pistols into rifles are marginal safeguards and, overall, rather thin mush. However, his call for a revival of the federal ban on assault weapons is more promising and a confirmation that serious action is needed. An important additional measure would be more stringent background checks required. At least one important Republican senator, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, has expressed his openness to working with Biden on a gun bill.
It will always be difficult to reach bipartisan consensus on how to tackle firearms effectively. While Gun Control is now unlikely to lose existing supporters, it is also unlikely to attract many new ones. However, reformulating the issue as a national security imperative could shake passive supporters who are now focused on the attack on the Capitol to maintain political stability in the United States. A plausible goal would be to induce the US government to take further significant regulatory steps and lay the groundwork for effective legislation should the Democrats consolidate their Senate majority in 2022.
However, the administration must act cautiously so as not to provoke the behavior that scares them off. Extremists will interpret increased regulation of firearms as confirmation of their narrative of state-imposed social engineering and personal disempowerment. The Ruby Ridge and Waco showdowns that fueled the militia movement show the risks. Law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels need to prepare better than before for nonviolent law enforcement. But the increasing magnitude of these risks is precisely why we need to rephrase gun control as a national security challenge.
As sensitive as gun rights are, without action the prospect of escalating cycles of civil violence is particularly worrying. Even if law enforcement agencies adjust their threat perceptions to give domestic terrorism due attention – as they should – the widespread availability of automatic weapons and ammunition to subversive individuals is likely to be viewed as justification for the further militarization of law enforcement in time after September 11th.
Greater police firepower, coupled with the bellicose mindset it engenders, increases tension between law enforcement and political protesters, which began with the death of George Floyd in June 2020 and culminated in a riot and violation of the Capitol on January 6 Furthermore, while Trump’s allusion to white supremacism and incitement to right-wing extremist insurrection has already led some black citizens to arm themselves for self-defense, ongoing police antagonism could increase the likelihood of black militias showing up. Armed conflicts between non-state groups would be even more difficult to suppress than unilateral, right-wing extremist aggression.
The widespread proliferation of small arms for mass casualties makes everyone ready to use a potentially catalytic lone wolf terrorist on the orders of Brenton Tarrant, the Islamaphobic white supremacist, who killed 51 people with a semi-automatic shotgun and an AR-15 style rifle in one Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 2019. Many far-right American militias, including the anti-authoritarian Boogaloo Bois, are expressly encouraging their supporters to act like Tarrant in “leaderless resistance” against the state and some, starting with Timothy McVeigh, have done this.
The symbol of the volunteer militiamen carrying offensive weapons and the fact that they use them deadly have historically been enormously powerful social forces.
In 1981, Danny Morrison, a senior official for Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army’s political alter ego, encouraged by the political ramifications of the prison hunger strikes, rhetorically asked, “Who really thinks we can win the war by ballot box? ? But will anyone here mind if we take power in Ireland with a ballot in hand and an ArmaLite in the other? “It was referring to Colt’s commercial version of the M-16 and expressed the IRA’s strategy of combining violence and electoral politics to transform the political system. The images of “ArmaLite and ballot box” inspired a new generation of IRA volunteers and led the group – over 1,000 more dead and Sinn Fein’s political rise – to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In contrast to contemporary American militias, of course, Irish Republicans had, at least in part, legitimate, historically based grievances.
A skeptical answer would be that Northern Ireland in the late 20th century differed from the United States in the early 21st century in that its factions were embroiled in civil war. But the extreme political polarization in the US today is not far from what existed during and immediately after our own civil war. This toxic and potentially explosive intramural hostility has remained latent and is now reappearing in the form of the white supremacism preached by most armed militias. They believe that the country is run by a vicious and treacherous liberal “deep state” and is destined to be ethnically compromised unless they take drastic, violent action.
For many Americans, and especially for these Americans, firearms are a symbol of freedom and patriotism. It is just impractical that using them to enforce political change should be in stark contradiction to American democracy, an issue that needs to be eliminated rather than confronted and resolved.
The high level of gun ownership, the ease of buying more guns, and the absolutism under the Second Amendment only add to the risks that such attitudes pose to the stability of the republic. Any legislative effort aimed at guns, even if it survives the likely challenges of the Supreme Court, is sure to be explosively welcomed by the right. Indeed, the election of a Democratic president had already resulted in a surge in arms purchases, a trend that such elections have followed over the past few decades.
Right-wing extremists hold a disproportionate number of weapons. Law enforcement seems to be compelled to more or less openly tolerate their training in military-style camps and their cutting-edge, often inflammatory rhetoric charged by the internet as a legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. The possibility of muscular legislation such as the “red flag” that allows law enforcement officers to confiscate firearms from individuals deemed to be a public safety hazard has only fueled their anti-government passion.
Large-scale seizure and deradicalization and no realistic prospect for the near future. However, a ban on assault weapons appears to be within the political reach of the Biden government. If the president is to grant his desire to rebuild American democracy, a move to curb armed violence offers an invaluable opportunity and a potentially compelling argument.
Just as in dealing with mature insurrections or ongoing civil wars, smart policies in America today would seek to separate destabilizing extremists from ordinary people with recoverable complaints. That is common sense. The administration’s message to firearms enthusiasts in the garden should be: Don’t let seditious radicals jeopardize your access to the weapons you treasure. Protect your hobby by helping enforcement. Hunting, recreational shooting, and personal defense against criminal threats are fine. There are no anti-government, white supremacist militia activities.
In a deeply divided society and a political sphere in which threats of violence have become an integral part of political discourse, combat rifles can do enormous damage to social cohesion. As with terrorist movements around the world, attacks can be expressive, but they can also be strategic, forcing adversaries to take measures that deepen divisions, make governance difficult and convert converts to the terrorist cause.
Permanently reducing the threat to political stability clearly depends on solving major problems, including income inequality, cultural fears and an overheated media environment. But we will create room and time to address these challenges by reducing the firepower of the militias and the lone wolves that inspire them.