Far-right extremist groups are talking explicitly about using gun rights rhetoric and conspiracy theories concerning hypothetical gun confiscation under President Joe Biden as a way to attract new members, according to experts and a review of online postings.
“They are seeing this as a moment to recruit to their side and recruit to that viewpoint,” said Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice’s national security division who is now the legal director at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. “What we’re seeing now is: ‘Now we have Democrats — a Democrat in the White House, Democrats control the House and Senate. They’re coming for your guns, we have to stand up against that.’”
The Trace reviewed hundreds of chat room messages and posts on forums popular with right-wing extremists. On the site Telegram, an encrypted messaging platform that has become a haven for conspiracy theorists and far-right activists after they were booted from other platforms, a moderator of one popular channel instructed members to recruit Trump supporters “by the millions.” The post advised evangelists to “be less combative” when entering more mainstream dialogue. “Instead push the most extreme talking points that they already have in their heads thanks to Trump,” they wrote. One of the talking points the moderator listed, “They’re coming for our 2A guns.” (The Trace is omitting the names of most accounts, groups, and Telegram channels to avoid amplifying them)
Anti-government militias, white nationalists, and proponents of accelerationism — a radical white supramacist ideology that hopes to bring about a race war — are all looking for ways to pull in new adherents and issues that can be used to coalesce the broader far-right like the “Stop the Steal” mantra did on January 6.
Jared Holt, a researcher who tracks right-wing extremism and disinformation online for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said, “The thing that immediately comes to mind is any sort of gun control regulation that the administration may be considering or Congress may be considering.” Despite widespread deplatforming and an unprecedented law enforcement response after the chaos of January 6, extremists are still organizing online, just in smaller groups. Meanwhile, intelligence and law enforcement agencies warn that such groups will be an ongoing threat. One former Homeland Security official and counterterrorism expert told a House committee on February 4 that the problem would likely persist for the next two decades.
The overlap between gun rights and anti-government movements is not new — it’s a fixture of the right-wing militia movement in the United States. But the growth of online extremist groups over the past several years, combined with President Biden’s campaign promises that he’ll pursue serious gun reform, could contribute to a volatile situation.
“Recruitment is easier now for extremist groups than it ever has been before,” Elizabeth Neumann, a former Homeland Security assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention, said during the February 4 hearing. “Extremist ideas have been mainstreamed and normalized through political speech, conspiracy theories, and communications that use humor and memes to mask the danger of the ideas present.”
The Gun Rights Rhetoric That Helped Seed the Insurrectionist Mindset
After January 6, major platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube permanently suspended former President Donald Trump’s accounts, saying that his posts had incited violence. That, combined with Apple and Amazon sidelining Parler, sent thousands of Trump supporters flocking to services like Telegram, MeWe, and Gab — platforms and messaging apps also frequented by right-wing extremist groups. In the hours before Parler went offline on January 11, one Telegram group started by the Proud Boys but branded as a place for pro-Trump Parler “refugees” grew by nearly 6,000 users in only four hours.
Several other Proud Boy and QAnon groups and channels also grew by thousands of members. Members of the so-called accelerationist movement saw an influx too, with some members and leaders recognizing the salience of the Second Amendment as a rallying cry. “Someone with a big channel needs to put out the message to capitalize on the momentum of normie pig hate,” one member of a popular extremist channel on Telegram wrote as the Capitol Police faced criticism for fatally shooting a rioter. “Start spreading the message to these boomer gun/tactical shops that sell gay blue line flags and pro-cop bullshit that it’s unacceptable and pigs are serving the system and enforce anti-2A laws.”
Members of extreme-right groups on Telegram have also shared guides to “red-pilling,” a process by which someone is radicalized through increasing exposure to right-wing ideas and conspiracy theories. One user advised: “start with the small red pills and increase the dosage from there.” In one of the guides, opposition to gun control is listed as an example of a way to “find common ground” before moving on to more fringe viewpoints and ideas.
Few issues appeal to and unite such a broad swath of the American right quite like gun rights. Abortion restrictions animate religious conservatives while often alienating more libertarian or anti-authority elements of the right. Tax policy may anger pro-business conservatives, but does not draw out the same emotional response. But fervent opposition to gun restrictions is a unifying force for the right.
“You see that being exploited by militia groups who will encourage a conservative like, ‘Hey, to be a true conservative, you know you need to be able to defend yourself. You need to be able to defend your family,’” Neumann told The Trace, adding that extremist groups will build up to a more extreme conclusion: You can’t trust the government because someday, somebody might try to take your guns. For most people, when the conversation moves on to plotting violence, they’re out, she said. “But what we are concerned about is there are certain individuals that are vulnerable to being recruited into something darker.”
The scope and number of people considered vulnerable to radicalization is particularly large after six years of priming by Trump, according to Neumann, who served in his administration. “He’s created grievance and a common way to talk about that grievance. There is an identity now among them that didn’t exist before, which allows for those darker elements on that far-right fringe to come in and, of the vulnerable, recruit some of those into the darker path,” she said. As University of Chicago researchers writing in The Atlantic recently noted, the crowds at the Capitol were more middle-class and, in a lot of cases, middle-aged, without obvious ties to what would normally be considered far-right extremism.
Michael Edison Hayden, who tracks extremist groups at the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, (SPLC) says they are appealing to fear and frustration over speech and gun issues in particular. “Those things are kind of the only foundation that’s there, other than Trump. At a base level, those two are very, very big and weigh very heavily in people’s minds. ‘I’m allowed to have guns, and I’m gonna say what I want to say in this country.’ Using a fear of Second Amendment [restrictions] and the free speech issue is going to increasingly become a way for people who adhere to white supremacist ideology to bring people into that fold. And that mix is really volatile.”
Megan Squire, a researcher and professor at Elon University who tracks extremism on social media and other online platforms, has seen a noticeable uptick in extremist groups using gun rights rhetoric as a recruiting and radicalization tool. Over the last nine months, she tracked boogaloo groups that moved from Facebook to Discord after being banned. When boogaloo groups were booted from Discord, she followed at least two groups to Keybase, a chat and file-sharing platform now owned by Zoom. The groups were attracted, in large part, by 3D gun-printing communities that flourished on Keybase until recently, operating on ideological underpinnings of usurping efforts at gun control.
Boogaloo adherents “may claim to be libertarians, but everything is about the guns,” she said. “That issue can pull people in. It taught me something about boogaloo, which should have been obvious: That issue is their salient concern.”
Deplatforming hate movements has proven an effective way to disrupt their organization and reduce the size of their audience — and their potential to grow, according to the experts who spoke with The Trace. But such a move does have downsides, too. Trump supporters will not only be in the same online spaces as extremists, they could be exposed to more extreme views. One study showed that when extremist groups are pushed from mainstream platforms to more “niche” sites, they lose members, but the community that remains seems to be more toxic.
Experts who spoke with The Trace said taking advantage of gun rights rhetoric is not the only means by which groups are attracting new adherents. Public health restrictions related to COVID-19 and perceived suppression of free speech also remain salient concerns. According to the SPLC’s Hate Watch, neo-Nazi groups like the National Justice Party have extended solidarity to Trump supporters in chat rooms, seeking to recruit. And according to NBC News, white supremacists discussed targeting “Parler refugees” in messages like: “Focus less on trying to red pill [or recruit] them on WW2 and more on how to make them angrier about the election and the new Democrat regime. …Heighten their burning hatred of injustice.”
Telegram rarely enforces content moderation, which is why it is popular with the far right. It’s also encrypted and, some believe, more difficult for law enforcement to track, though the public groups are not difficult to find and private groups not hard to infiltrate. Telegram has taken action to shut down some of the most extreme accelerationist channels, though they quickly pop back up in backup channels. QAnon, Proud Boys, and white nationalist channels remain active on the platform.
Trump’s departure from the White House has left adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory in shambles. Followers expressed a gamut of emotions from resignation and despair to fury. While some seem to have abandoned Q and its predictions, many still believe the theory’s underlying canon that Democrats are engaged in a worldwide child sex-trafficking cabal. “And if you actually believe that, you might take it into your own hands to be violent,” said Nicholas Grossman, a political scientist and national security expert at the University of Illinois, adding that intense disillusionment in the face of Trump’s loss could serve as “a break that motivates them to be more violent.”
Second Amendment advocacy has long been used by far-right militia groups to recruit and justify their activities. “It’s a through line,” McCord said. “If you go back to Waco and Ruby Ridge, which was sort of the start of the modern militia movement, it was oftentimes an anti-government ideology that brought them together, but always core to that was a very absolutist view of the Second Amendment.”
A review of posts written by the far-right Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes shows common themes since late 2019: Trump, COVID lockdown orders, and gun control. While coalescing around Trump and against COVID-19 lockdowns over the last year have been effective for his group, those issues are temporary and opportunistic, McCord said: “Whenever they lack for some other issue, they fall back on guns.”
In a January 2020 post ahead of planned armed demonstrations in Richmond, Virginia, against Governor Ralph Northam’s package of gun reform laws, Rhodes directed supporters of the Second Amendment to organize county-level militias and begin “musters,” or training sessions where paramilitary groups drill and practice. “That will send a message of defiance loud and clear,” Rhodes wrote at the time, directing followers to “declare Northam to be a domestic enemy of the Constitution.”
In October 2020, the FBI and state prosecutors charged a group of 13 Michigan militia members with conspiring to kidnap and murder Michigan Governor Gretechen Whitmer and violently overthrow the state government. The group, tied to a militia that called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, also discussed hatching a similar plot against Northam. An NBC News investigation also found links to the broader anti-government boogaloo movement, another example of how far-right extremist ideologies often overlap. Some of the suspects met at Second Amendment and anti-COVID lockdown rallies, according to court filings.
Militias and extremist groups see the Capitol attack as a success. While it did not stop the certification of the election, it showed that with greater numbers, they could gain attention and disrupt business as usual. The period after major events like the January 6 insurrection “is actually sometimes more dangerous,” Squire said. According to the January 13 intelligence bulletin, it will be an enduring inspiration for an “increasing threat” of violence in 2021. Law enforcement’s response and President Biden’s inauguration may deter some on the right, but they also motivate those on the fringes. “It gives them something to act against. They have an ‘enemy.’”
“Usually when it comes to things like terrorism, when there’s a bigger spectacular attack that gets a lot of attention, most people are appalled by it,” Grossman added, “but a few people are encouraged by it.”