The attack on the Capitol is the latest — not the first, nor the last — demonstration of the danger armed extremism poses to our democracy. Threats abound of armed protests being organized at all 50 state capitols and during the inauguration of President Biden. Failure to address this threat will lead to the continued growth of extremist groups and violent incidents.
The deadly insurrection attempt at the Capitol was fueled, in part, by gun rights extremists who brought their firepower to Washington to stop the certification of the electoral college votes. At least nine people who were at or around the Capitol on January 6 have already been arrested on weapons charges, including a heavily armed man in D.C. who authorities alleged had texted his intention to be “putting a bullet” in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s head. Strong laws prohibiting guns at the Capitol and on Capitol grounds kept more of the crowd from being armed, but the situation is typically far different in the states. Data shows at least 85 instances of armed protesters and incidents involving guns at protests at state capitals from May through December 2020.
Armed extremists seeking to undermine our democratic institutions are a chronic and ongoing problem. In 2020, anti-government extremists, including the ascendant boogaloo movement, and white supremacists used guns, in particular assault weapons, as tools of intimidation and violence in increasingly open ways, including taking advantage of weak state gun laws to brandish weapons at anti-government protests, to intimidate peaceful protests for racial justice, and in plans and actions to kill. These events were precursors to the attack on the U.S. Capitol and foreshadow a violent escalation in the months to come. Examples of the violent extremism in 2020 include:
- In January, heavily armed protesters descended on Richmond to decry anticipated changes to Virginia’s gun laws. If not for the work of the FBI in disrupting an accelerationist plot by white supremacists who were building untraceable ghost guns, the Richmond rally could have been a mass-casualty event.
- In California, prosecutors linked a man charged with the murder of two law enforcement officers to the boogaloo movement. The man allegedly viewed Black Lives Matter protests as an opportunity to accelerate armed conflict, and attacked a federal courthouse during a George Floyd protest in Oakland.
- In Kenosha, Wisconsin, after an online call for “Armed Citizens,” extremists carrying assault weapons and handguns were visible throughout the chaotic events on the night of August 25, which ended with one self-described militia member killing two people and wounding another.
- In Michigan, armed militia men stormed the state capitol building to brandish their weapons and intimidate lawmakers during their legislative session. The FBI later arrested and charged affiliated extremists who were plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
While there are many reasons for the rise in anti-democratic extremism, we know that strong gun policy is critical to address violent extremists’ access to firearms and establish clear and strong legal standards on what conduct is not acceptable in our democracy.
Lawmakers and officials at every level of government can take the following three steps to disrupt how extremists and white supremacists use firearms to undercut democracy and promote insurrection.
1. The law should prohibit the carrying of firearms in and around sensitive government facilities.
The carrying of firearms by members of the public intimidates citizens, emboldens extremists, and is ultimately the means by which a protest can morph into an insurrection or escalate into a gunfight. Federal law already prohibits firearms at the Capitol and on Capitol Grounds. Federal and state lawmakers should extend the prohibition on gun carrying to all state capitals and their grounds, and the other buildings essential to the functioning of government and the electoral process, including polling locations and vote counting facilities.
2. Guns should be prohibited at demonstrations on public property.
Peaceful protest is an essential form of expression and a pillar of American democracy, however, the dangers inherent to the carry of firearms in demonstrations are very real. For example, a recent Department of Homeland Security memo warned that “militia extremists” are prepared to take advantage of public demonstrations to incite violence. The presence of armed protesters is in and of itself a show of intimidation, and the armed extreme right’s targets of intimidation are often members of already marginalized communities.
3. Armed extremists must be held accountable under existing laws for their criminal conduct.
Federal and state officials must enforce laws against unlawful carrying and armed intimidation with a focus on the armed extremists and white supremacists who have abridged civil rights or sought to intimidate democratic institutions. Laws on firearm brandishment should be enforced to capture the tactics we have seen deployed by extremists and white supremacists, including those armed extremists who go to the homes of elected officials and government workers. All 50 states prohibit unauthorized, so-called “private militias,” from engaging in activities reserved for the state, including law enforcement activities, but those laws are being underutilized to address the unlawful conduct by armed extremists.