During the last weekend in June, a group of Proud Boys showed up to protest at a Drag Queen Story Hour event at a library in Sparks, Nevada. As the demonstration ended, one of the protesters approached the library with a gun, prompting bystanders to run for cover. A month later, protesters with the anti-abortion group Operation Save America were arrested after trying to infiltrate a Planned Parenthood in Nashville, Tennessee. One of them had a handgun.
Guns and extremism have long been intertwined in America. Over the last decade, firearms have surpassed explosives as the weapon of choice for domestic extremists, with shootings accounting for 75 percent of killings by far-right or anti-Semitic extremists, according to a June report from the Anti-Defamation League. Meanwhile, the unwinding of state gun laws over the past two decades has helped boost civilian gun ownership to almost 400 million — with nearly half of those guns owned by just 3 percent of Americans. Easier access to firearms in general has also made it easier for extremists to acquire guns and display them in public.
But the far right is not a monolith. Some groups view gun rights as central to their ideology, while others use firearms as a more precise tool to inspire fear, project authority, and intimidate. To get a sense of the landscape, we turned to Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, who has studied the far right for nearly three decades and advises police and prosecutors on domestic terrorism issues. A military historian, Pitcavage worked on federal anti-terrorism initiatives after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and has served as an expert witness in terrorism and extremism cases.
What is the far-right extremist movement?
By standard definition, American far-right extremism comprises more than a dozen different movements that advocate for a variety of far-right causes. These movements include groups organized around white supremacy, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, anti-government extremism, anti-abortion extremism, nativism, involuntary celibacy (“incels”), the alt-right, and the militia movement.
“The far right has had a long association with violence, and much of that has been firearms-related violence,” Pitcavage said.
Which of those movements are centered around guns?
Primarily militias, which are armed groups operating independently of established governments. Members follow a hierarchical command structure and often conduct drills in military attire.
The modern militia movement emerged in the early 1990s, largely as a reaction to federal gun control measures, like the Brady background check law and the assault weapons ban, as well as botched actions by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas. Militias also experienced a resurgence during former President Barack Obama’s first term. The emergence of social media gave these groups the opportunity to spread their message further and faster than ever before, Pitcavage said.
“These days, most extremists of virtually any stripe don’t necessarily actually belong to a formal organized group,” he said. “But the militia movement does tend to be more group-oriented than other movements.”
Another group that centers Second Amendment ideology is the Boogaloo movement, which is “smaller and newer” than the militia movement but “also has very strong ties to the gun subculture,” Pitcavage said. Boogaloo is a loose assortment of doomsday preppers, anti-government extremists, and Second Amendment activists that emerged in 2019. As The Trace has reported, the beliefs of its largely white, right-wing supporters run the gamut, but gun rights are the central theme, because firearms are the tools they say they need to fight the civil war they believe is coming. The movement’s ties to guns are so strong that at least one gun company has used Boogaloo memes in its marketing.
“They don’t have a lot of beliefs other than they really like guns, they really hate cops, and they want some sort of revolution,” Megan Squire, a computer scientist who researches online extremism at Elon University, told The Trace in 2020. “You pretty much have to be weapons-trained and interested in weapons to be a Boogaloo adherent.” Boogaloo members used converted machine guns to attack a federal courthouse in 2021.
Also engaging with some paramilitary training are accelerationist white supremacist groups like The Base, which aim to foment a race war; neo-Nazi groups like the Atomwaffen Division, started in Florida in 2015 by a former National Guardsman; and armed border vigilante groups, which patrol the U.S.-Mexico border in search of undocumented migrants, cartels smuggling drugs, and sex traffickers.
These border-patrolling vigilante groups claim they’re providing a function of law enforcement, Pitcavage said. Groups active in recent years include Patriots for America, Veterans on Patrol, and Arizona Border Recon. In some places, border vigilantes have been tolerated by and even worked alongside U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.
Border vigilantes have also been convicted of gun crimes. In 2020, the leader of the United Constitutional Patriots, a group known for rounding up migrants at gunpoint on the New Mexico border, was sentenced to nearly two years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm. That same year, another member of the group was sentenced to 21 months in prison for impersonating a federal Border Patrol agent. In 2016, the leader of Rusty’s Rangers, a Texas group, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for illegally possessing firearms as a felon.
Which far-right groups aren’t as focused on firearms?
Other groups tend to use firearms only in limited circumstances. That includes white supremacist groups that aren’t accelerationist (in other words, not actively trying to foment civil war or social collapse); anti-government extremists like the sovereign citizen movement; single-issue extremists like anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, and anti-public-lands extremists; and militant social movements like the Proud Boys.
Non-accelerationist white supremacist groups are generally more united by ideology than tactics, Pitcavage said. “If you see a white supremacist flash demonstration or something like this, most of the time, they’re not bringing firearms with them.” But that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. “All types of extremists not only engage in ideological violence, but also engage in non-ideological violence for the exact same reasons that other people do,” he said. “This is especially true for white supremacists, in part because large segments of the white supremacist movement also were engaged in a lot of traditional crime,” including people incarcerated for drug, robbery, or domestic violence offenses who join race-segregated gangs while in prison. Racist extremists have also committed mass shootings, workplace killings, and other attacks in which ideology wasn’t the main motivator. “For white supremacists, violence is generally an accepted thing,” said Pitcavage, who has educated tens of thousands of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers on terrorism and extremism issues since he first began tracking the rise of the militia movement in the early 1990s. “And in some cases, it’s an admired sort of thing. Because of this, there can be among white supremacists a more general readiness to use firearms.”
Three Percenters and Oath Keepers groups are often made up of military veterans and law enforcement officials who say they’re more loyal to the Constitution than to the government, and reserve the right to disobey laws that they believe are unconstitutional. Both groups have provided armed security for Republican lawmakers, participated in armed standoffs against federal agents, patrolled businesses during pandemic lockdowns, and guarded Confederate monuments.
Oath Keepers, in particular, tend to take a defensive posture in public, and believe that reacting to violence rather than provoking it allows them to claim the moral high ground. But several Oath Keepers have been charged with seditious conspiracy over their participation in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Prosecutors allege that they discussed storing guns at a hotel in Virginia so that a “quick reaction force” could shuttle to Washington, D.C., in the event of a government takeover.
The Proud Boys are an exclusively male group that grew out of the alt-right in 2016 and encourages political violence. The group “doesn’t have much of a record of firearms violence,” Pitcavage said. But its leader was arrested ahead of the Capitol insurrection and charged with conspiring with followers who participated in the riot. Prosecutors say he also met with the founder of the Oath Keepers the day before the attack.
Among single-issue extremist movements, the anti-government public lands movement has flourished in states where the vast majority of land is owned by the federal government, including Nevada and Idaho. Armed groups have engaged in standoffs with federal law enforcement over ranchland in Nevada in 2014 and a wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016. The battle over public lands has become a flashpoint in the anti-government extremist movement, with federal land management employees reporting at least 360 threats and assaults between 2013 and 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office. Incidents range from phone threats to attempted murder.
Anti-abortion extremists don’t typically carry guns when they protest outside of women’s health clinics, but they have perpetrated violence. According to data published in December by the National Abortion Federation, 11 abortion providers were murdered between 1977 and 2020, all but one with a gun. Anti-abortion activists were also responsible for 26 attempted murders and 956 threats of harm or death during that period.
How often do far-right extremists actually use guns?
There are few situations in which extremists intentionally fire their weapons to further their cause, Pitcavage said, reflecting on what he’s noticed from tracking these groups closely over the last few decades. They’ll take firearms to an Antifa rally in anticipation of a street clash, and, if they ever shot someone, they would maintain it was in self-defense. Members of the “sovereign citizen” movement, who deny the legitimacy of nearly all government, may be spurred to gunfire by perceived government overreach into their personal lives, and typically lash out at police officers at traffic stops, as well as at zoning officials and staffers of child-protective services.
“Out of all the public events over the past five years involving extremists, there have been very few where extremists actually shot their weapons,” Pitcavage said.
Pitcavage identified two potential flashpoints that could spark extremist violence in the public sphere: battles over Supreme Court justices, and presidential elections. Clashes of this kind, as we saw with January 6, can involve everyday Americans not typically active in extremist circles. “What you really have to worry about when your society becomes so polarized is that it’s not just extremists who become willing to consider violence,” he said. The country’s direction is concerning, he said, adding: “We’re still going towards, and we’re still engaged in, increased polarization and increased confrontation, and I don’t see much in the way of mitigating factors that can act as a brake. Does America actually have a stomach or not for civil conflagration? That would not be a test I’m confident we would pass.”
How else do extremism and gun culture intersect?
Far-right extremism has worked its way into gun lobby messaging, most infamously in the mid-1990s, when the National Rifle Association vilified federal agents as “jack-booted thugs” in a fundraising mailer six days before the Oklahoma City bombing. The incident prompted former President George H.W. Bush to publicly resign from the group. The NRA had adopted extremist messaging to capitalize on “a huge upswell of anger at the government” following the ATF operations in Ruby Ridge and Waco, Pitcavage said. That anger was felt not just by extremists, but also by the general public. The NRA’s messaging, which compared federal agents to Nazis, was an attempt “to find any sort of sentiment in the public that they might be able to use to justify or protect firearms,” he said.
Extremists have used gun-rights rhetoric to attract new recruits. After the January 6 insurrection, moderators on online forums popular with right-wing activists instructed members to use conspiracy theories about hypothetical gun confiscation to recruit Trump supporters. As The Trace’s Chip Brownlee reported last year:
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.
What can be done to prevent armed extremist violence?
States can pass laws that allow cities to enact their own ordinances regulating guns, Pitcavage said. Currently, only a handful of states allow municipalities to enact their own gun laws. States could also tighten gun ownership and carry requirements. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of states required residents to obtain permits to carry concealed firearms; today, half allow concealed carry, even without a permit. That loosening of gun laws has allowed people who might have been denied guns or carry permits in the past to amass weapons. And while every state has some type of law addressing paramilitary activity, they’re rarely enforced, and they don’t apply to militant social movements that don’t technically fit each state’s specific definition of a militia.
“There appears to be, at this point in time, no prospect for using laws and regulations to rein any of this in,” Pitcavage said. “So, we’re basically embarking upon a national experiment in which the people are the involuntary subjects. And going forward, we’re going to be seeing how many people get shot, wounded, killed, or threatened or intimidated by weapons.”