It makes sense to worry that Donald Trump’s recent comments about the Second Amendment could encourage an assassination attempt against Hillary Clinton. But, as a long-time follower of the gun-rights movement, I think Trump’s words mean something else.
His controversial statement in a speech that “Second Amendment people” could stop Hillary Clinton from appointing liberal judges and cracking down on gun rights fits in with a familiar National Rifle Association message to members—that gun owners should prepare for an armed insurrection against the state. Trump is stoking the coals of an extremist movement that in the long run may prove more dangerous than any crazy would-be assassin inspired by Trump.
“He pointed out that an armed populace is a check on lawless politicians,” wrote a commenter about Trump’s Second Amendment remarks on the pro-gun ar15.com forum, adding, “I wonder if anybody else ever thought of that? Or codified it in a document of some type?”
While Trump and his supporters claim he is upholding the Constitution, these latest comments are an escalation of his ongoing attack against the credibility of our constitutional democratic process. Since he started losing ground in the polls, Trump began claiming without evidence that “the system” and the elections are rigged. Now he seems to be suggesting that some kind of collective act of resistance may be necessary to stop an overreaching government should Clinton win the November election.
This is a message that resonates with the hardline base of the gun lobby and the NRA, which this year, for the first time, had an official speak from the stage of a Republican National Convention. It also appeals to people like the small group of armed men who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. And it’s a message that strikes a chord with white supremacists and neo-Nazis who have never felt so comfortable with a major party presidential candidate as they do now.
Americans should not forget that Timothy McVeigh was a gun-rights absolutist who was following the plot of a novel, The Turner Diaries, written by a neo-Nazi leader, in 1995 when he blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Nor should we forget that he did so on the second anniversary of the federal siege at Waco, Texas.
For most people, the death of seventy-six people at a compound in Waco was the result of a tragic standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians, a messianic cult. For gun rights absolutists, Waco remains a galvanizing example of federal abuse of power. Most important to gun advocates, the original reason for the raid was the presence of illegal, fully-automatic weapons.
Seen in that context, Trump’s recent remarks are potentially more treasonous than encouraging Russian agents to hack into Democratic National Committee emails. They are a more serious threat than Trump’s remarks that riots might break out if he did not receive the Republican Party nomination. Trump’s appeal to “Second Amendment people” is the kind of claim you might hear from a failing candidate in an underdeveloped nation prone to coups.
For the first time in modern history, a major U.S. presidential candidate seems to be promoting a possible armed insurrection against the U.S. government.
Trump’s words, as usual, were sketchy and ambiguous. Clinton wants to essentially revoke the Second Amendment, Trump falsely contended, adding:
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”
A Trump spokesman claimed he meant that “Second Amendment people” would act before the election by “voting in record numbers” to defeat Clinton. A Trump spokeswoman later said he meant “Second Amendment people” would act afterward, exerting their clout to stop Senators from approving Clinton’s nominees to the Supreme Court.
Neither explanation is what countless gun-rights absolutists heard. For them, the Second Amendment is about their right to keep arms in order to fight an insurgent war against our own government, should one ever become necessary to keep tyranny at bay. This may sound ludicrous. But go to Twitter and search terms like #2A, #NRA and #MolonLabe, an ancient Greek expression of defiance that means “come and take them.” Or spend any time on websites like InfoWars.com. Or read NRA statements.
“Our Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment so Americans would never have to live in tyranny,” said NRA chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre in 2012 before a United Nations arms control panel in New York City. “When you ignore the right of good people to own firearms to protect their freedom, you become the enablers of future tyrants whose regimes will destroy millions and millions of defenseless lives.”
This view has nothing to do with hunting or sports shooting, which is where the NRA—until hardliners took over the organization in the late 1970s—had its roots. In fact, NRA hardline advocates today deride hunters who don’t share their Second Amendment views as “Fudds,” short for the bumbling cartoon character Elmer Fudd who never managed to shoot Bugs Bunny. The late President Ronald Reagan was the NRA’s most famous Fudd for supporting gun control both during his tenure and after.
Gun rights absolutists don’t entirely trust Trump, either. “Never trust a Fudd,” wrote “waltdewalt” on a gun politics page on Reddit, suggesting Trump is not as committed to the Second Amendment as he claims.
The gun lobby is playing a long game. They have managed to withstand the fallout from one horrific mass shooting after another, including the heartbreakingly tragic loss of first-grade children in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and the largest such tragedy in our nation’s history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Gun reformists, meanwhile, have managed to make progress in just a handful of states, while they have failed to pass even token legislation in Congress. In the long run, the gun lobby faces the same demographic challenges as the Republican Party. But no one should count them out anytime soon.
As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the NRA’s transition from a sports shooting club to a gun lobby, the group’s vision for an armed America is becoming a reality. The change was led by a small group of determined advocates who, through some parliamentary jockeying using the NRA’s own bylaws, assumed control in 1977 at the NRA annual convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. (I attended NRA meetings and reported on the machinations of extremists controlling the NRA board for The Village Voice.)
Since then, the NRA has grown into the nation’s most powerful single-issue lobby, and has managed, through both transparent and shadowy means, to dramatically expand Americans’ access to guns across the nation.
In 1986, just nine states required the granting of concealed-carry-weapon permits; now at least forty-one states allow concealed carry, some without the need for permits. A majority of states also allow the open carrying of firearms. When gun reformists talk about passing federal gun reform legislation in Congress, they need to remember that these gun-permissive state laws are already nearly a fait accompli.
The patchwork of gun laws across the nation is precisely what allows weapons to flow unchecked across state and city lines. States with permissive gun laws are the main suppliers of guns used in crimes in states and cities with stricter laws. Of 3,806 crime guns confiscated in New Jersey last year, more than 86 percent came from other states. Of the 12,390 crime guns confiscated in Illinois, more than two-thirds came from out of state. These statistics are from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which now, due to an executive order by President Obama, is once again allowed to compile data on guns used in crimes (a simple law-enforcement practice previously outlawed thanks to successful NRA lobbying in Congress).
A few pundits have boldly predicted the NRA’s demise. But the gun lobby continues to endure, for a number of reasons. First, it controls the message, including running a script designed to deflect debate away from gun reform after every mass attack. Second, it uses “independent experts” like lawyers David Kopel and David T. Hardy, each of whom testified after Sandy Hook on national television in the Senate without anyone disclosing that Kopel in particular had by then received $1.39 million from the NRA.
Third, the NRA sets up shell organizations like the Law Enforcement Alliance of America to claim more support from police than actually exists. And, finally, the group intimidates politicians by wielding funds from its gun-industry-filled coffers, less to make donations to the candidates it supports than to finance attack ads against opponents, usually on nongun issues (like Benghazi).
The racial tensions that have exploded over the past two years since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have only bolstered the gun lobby. Yet the sniper attack on police in Dallas, Texas, led some law enforcement officers to challenge policies long championed by the NRA. After the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attacks, the head of the Cleveland police union raised the safety of police officers to try to get Ohio to ban both concealed and open-carry of weapons in downtown Cleveland during the Republican National Convention. The effort failed, but it shows that law enforcement is not lined up behind the gun lobby as the NRA claims.
Since Sandy Hook, a number of new gun reformist groups have emerged, including one funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But all of them combined still pale in comparison to the kind of deep-rooted national and local voter networks painstakingly built over decades by the NRA. One Pennsylvania gun-rights blogger mocks these gun reform efforts as little more than astroturf, meaning you can buy it and lay it down but it still won’t grow into a grassroots movement.
This year, the gun rights movement is enjoying a higher national profile than ever before. Meanwhile, the gun reform movement, despite the very good work of groups going back decades like the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center, is in many ways just getting started. Gun reformists need to pace themselves for the struggle ahead.
The gun lobby will outlast Trump. But his campaign has helped bring far-right gun enthusiasts and white supremacist groups into the mainstream.
“We have a wonderful OPPORTUNITY here folks, that may never come again, at the RIGHT time,” wrote Rocky Suhayda, the chairman of the American Nazi Party last fall, as was recently reported by Buzzfeed. “Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that ‘our views’ are NOT so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”
Mainstream pundits and the Clinton campaign are right: Trump’s talk is inciting violence, and America has a tragic history of political assassinations. We have a history of homegrown terrorism, too.
Frank Smyth is an award-winning investigative journalist and gun owner who covers the gun lobby the The Progressive. He has written about the NRA for more than twenty years for outlets including The Village Voice and The Washington Post.