As America learned on January 6, anti-government militia groups are more than willing to jump walls, break doors and disrupt the underpinnings of our democracy. These groups, with transnational ties, also enjoy easy access to high-power, high-capacity, small-caliber semiautomatic weapons—many of which can be converted to fully automatic. The concern isn’t that these weapons will somehow enable militias to challenge the U.S. military on the battlefield, which they certainly will not. It is that they make mass casualty attacks against political or cultural adversaries both easy to carry out, and easy to frame as inspirational events of the kind that mobilize insurrection.
The executive orders Biden issued earlier this month imposing restrictions on gun kits and devices that turn pistols into rifles are marginal safeguards and rather thin gruel overall. But his call for reviving the federal ban on assault weapons is more promising and an acknowledgment that serious action is required. An important additional measure would be more rigorous required background checks. At least one key Republican senator, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, has expressed openness to working with Biden on a gun bill.
Generating bipartisan consensus for an effective crackdown on firearms will always be difficult. While gun control is now unlikely to lose existing supporters, it is also unlikely to win many new ones. But reframing the issue as a national security imperative could galvanize passive backers now focused by the assault on the Capitol on maintaining political stability in the United States. A plausible objective would be to impel the U.S. government to take further substantial regulatory steps and to lay the groundwork for effective legislation should the Democrats consolidate their Senate majority in 2022.
The administration, however, will have to tread carefully to avoid provoking the very behavior it means to deter. Extremists will interpret increased firearms regulation as validating their narrative of government-imposed social engineering and personal disempowerment. The showdowns at Ruby Ridge and Waco, which fueled the militia movement, demonstrate the risks. Law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels need to prepare better than they have in the past for non-violent enforcement. But the increased magnitude of those very risks is exactly why we need to recast gun control as a national security challenge.
As delicate an issue as gun rights is, without action the prospect of cycles of escalating civil violence is particularly worrisome. Even assuming law enforcement agencies adjust their threat perceptions to accord domestic terrorism due attention—as they should—the wide distribution of automatic weapons and abundant ammunition to individuals hostile to the state is likely to be seen as justification for the further militarization of law enforcement in the post-9/11 era.
Heavier police firepower, combined with the martial mindset it tends to engender, stands to increase tensions between law enforcement and political protesters, which started in June 2020 with the death of George Floyd and culminated in the riot at and breach of the Capitol on January 6. While Trump’s nod to white supremacism and incitement of far-right insurrection have already prompted some Black citizens to arm themselves in self-defense, continuing police antagonism on top of that could increase the likelihood that Black militias will emerge. Armed conflict between nonstate groups would be even harder to subdue than one-sided, far-right aggression.
Meanwhile, the broad dispersal of mass casualty small arms makes every individual willing to use one a potentially catalytic lone-wolf terrorist on the order of Brenton Tarrant, the Islamaphobic white supremacist who killed 51 people with a semiautomatic shotgun and an AR-15-style rifle at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019. Many far-right American militias, including the anti-authoritarian Boogaloo Bois, explicitly encourage their followers to act on their own initiative, as Tarrant did, in “leaderless resistance” against the state, and several, starting with Timothy McVeigh, have done so.
The symbol of militia volunteers carrying assault weapons and the reality of their using them lethally have historically been enormously powerful social forces.
In 1981, emboldened by the political impact of the prison hunger strikes, Danny Morrison—a senior official of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army’s political alter-ego—asked rhetorically, “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an ArmaLite in the other, we take power in Ireland?” He was referring to Colt’s commercially marketed version of the M-16, and expressing the IRA’s strategy of combining violence and electoral politics to change the political system. The “ArmaLite and ballot box” imagery inspired a new generation of IRA volunteers, and took the group—by way of over 1,000 more dead and Sinn Fein’s political rise — to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Unlike contemporary American militias, of course, Irish republicans had at least partially legitimate, historically based grievances.
One skeptical response would be that late twentieth-century Northern Ireland differed from the early twenty-first century United States in that its factions were engaged in what amounted to civil war. But the extreme political polarization in the contemporary U.S. is not terribly far from what existed during and immediately after our own Civil War. That toxic and potentially explosive intramural animosity has remained latent and is now resurfacing in the form of the white supremacism preached by most of the armed militias, convinced that the country is run by a malign and treacherous liberal “deep state” and destined to be ethnically compromised unless they take drastic, violent action.
To many Americans, and especially these Americans, firearms are exalted as symbols of liberty and patriotism; it is merely inconvenient that using them to impose political change is starkly inconsistent with American democracy, a subject to be elided rather than confronted and resolved.
The high level of gun ownership, the ease of purchasing more weapons, and Second Amendment absolutism only amplify the risks such attitudes pose to the stability of the republic. Any legislative effort targeting guns, even if it survives the likely Supreme Court challenges, is sure to be greeted explosively on the right. Indeed, the election of a Democratic president had already caused gun purchases to surge, a trend that has followed such elections over the past several decades.
Right-wing extremists hold guns in vastly disproportionate numbers. Law enforcement appears constrained to tolerate their training in military-style camps, more or less openly, and their incendiary, often seditious rhetoric, turbocharged by the internet, as the lawful exercise of free speech. The possibility of muscular legislation, like “red flag” laws permitting law enforcement officers to seize firearms from those judged to be public-safety risks — has only fueled their anti-government fervor.
Large-scale confiscation and deradicalization and are not realistic prospects in the near future. But an assault weapons ban does seem within the Biden administration’s political grasp. If the president wants to follow through on his desire to rebuild American democracy, a push to curb gun violence offers an invaluable opportunity and a potentially persuasive argument.
Just as in dealing with mature insurgencies or ongoing civil conflict, wise policy in contemporary America would seek to separate destabilizing extremists from ordinary people with remediable grievances. This is common sense. The administration’s message to garden-variety firearms enthusiasts should be: Don’t let seditious radicals imperil your access to the guns you cherish. Protect your hobby by backing enforcement. Hunting, recreational shooting and personal defense against criminal threats are all fine; anti-government, white supremacist militia activity is not.
In a deeply divided society and a political sphere in which threats of violence have become part and parcel of political discourse, combat rifles can do tremendous damage to social cohesion. As is the case with terrorist movements worldwide, attacks can be expressive but also strategic, designed to force adversaries to take actions that deepen divisions, complicate governance and win converts to the terrorists’ cause.
Durably reducing the threat to political stability clearly hinges on the resolution of big issues, including income inequality, cultural anxieties and an overheated media environment. But we will buy ourselves room to maneuver and time to deal with these challenges by reducing the firepower of militias and the lone wolves they inspire.
This content was originally published here.