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We must stop Trump’s hateful, unregulated citizen militia

Even after 30 years of working in gun violence prevention, weekends like this past one never get easier. Two mass shootings within 24 hours. Dozens dead. Warning signs of violence unheeded. Weapons of war ripping families apart. And in one case, a racist manifesto that echoes the rhetoric of the President of the United States. In my decades of working in this field, I have seen the evolution of armed hatred in this country. And this weekend made one thing frighteningly clear: we have a heavily armed, unregulated citizen militia acting on behalf of Donald Trump.

I have spent much of my career studying and writing about insurrectionism — the anti-democratic notion that unfettered access to private arms provides a check on government tyranny. In my 2009 book, Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea, co-author Casey Anderson and I discuss the rise of insurrectionism in the United States — and the dangerous consequences of this ideology throughout world history.

Until Trump took office, insurrectionism in American culture generally centered on changing the interpretation of the Second Amendment. Rather than a protection of one’s political right to serve in the militia, insurrectionists have interpreted the Second Amendment as a protection of an individual right to wage war against a potentially tyrannical government. But now, this notion has taken an even more toxic twist — individuals are taking up arms to promote Donald Trump’s hateful ideology and intimidate those who disagree with him. It is the logical and highly dangerous maturation of the insurrectionist idea, and it is something I predicted a decade ago.

The rise of heavily armed, Trump-supporting white supremacists did not happen overnight. Historically, the stage must be set in the years before dangerous leaders rise to power. In Trump’s case, the development and internalization of the insurrectionist idea laid the groundwork for the terror we are witnessing now. The National Rifle Association (NRA) marketed the insurrectionist philosophy aggressively during President Barack Obama’s time in office while simultaneously feeding racial divisions. Gun rights extremists stoked fear about people of color, including immigrants. As my book notes, “…opposition to immigration — both legal and illegal — (has been) a major focus of many gun rights propagandists.”

Using fear-mongering and race-baiting, the NRA told their followers that Obama was planning to confiscate all guns. They told their followers they needed to arm themselves in preparation. As NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre famously stated, “The guys with the guns make the rules.” And it worked. Gun sales spiked.

Insurrectionism became more and more mainstream. Prominent Republican leaders bought into the insurrectionist idea. They normalized it. They sold the concept to their supporters. They aligned themselves with the increasingly radical NRA. They quipped that the Second Amendment wasn’t about duck hunting. Trump was no exception — and he took the insurrectionist rhetoric a step further. At a campaign stop in North Carolina, then-candidate Trump implied that “Second Amendment people” could assassinate his political opponent, Hillary Clinton.

This abhorrent statement represented a subtle change to the insurrectionist idea; the future president was beginning to direct and co-opt the insurrectionists. This is a tactic we have seen before. The rise of the Third Reich was precipitated by a well-armed private militia supporting the Nazi party and using force to limit political participation. When Hitler rose to power, this private militia did not stay outside the government as a check on power. Rather it became his private army — and Germany turned from a democracy into a dictatorship.

Now, Trump is the commander-in-chief. And, as he proposed during his campaign, some of those “Second Amendment people” — emboldened and encouraged by his racist rhetoric — are killing and threatening his opponents. The groups of people he has identified as “others” are being targeted. White supremacists are carrying out acts of horrific violence to terrorize and subdue people of color. With the 2020 election looming, armed hate is again being used as a tool — a political weapon.

In 2009, I wrote: “When the use of violence becomes routine in partisan politics, the democratic process falls apart, and with it the belief that citizens are equal, because force becomes a substitute for representative mechanisms of political expression.” I had no idea how close to home this would hit just 10 years later.

We must take a lesson from history. What we saw in El Paso is eerily familiar. While the United States is not akin to Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, we must be vigilant of the parallels between the two. The biggest threat to our democracy is the rise of totalitarianism supported by private arms — and we are watching it develop now. These shooters are acting to quell the opposition, to carry out Trump’s vision for America, to stop the “others.” This is political violence. This is terrorism. And it is time to call it out — and act — before it is too late.

Josh Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) is a 501(c)(4) organization founded in 1974. We are the nation’s oldest gun violence prevention organization.

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