Study: Armed Right-Wing Protesters Risk Escalation of Violence

Interview with Justin Wagner, Everytown for Gun Safety's director of investigations, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

On Sept. 18, right-wing activists will descend on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. for a rally called JusticeForJ6. The organizing website says people will be “demanding justice for political prisoners”— meaning the over 600 individuals who have been charged in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Prior to the rally, Everytown for Gun Safety released a first-of-its kind report quantifying at least 560 armed demonstrations that have taken place across the United States since the start of 2020, averaging more than one a day. The report finds that militia groups and militant social movements, like the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, are active in over 54 percent of all armed demonstrations; 84 percent of the groups involved in armed demonstrations are right-wing actors; and demonstrations that feature the presence of armed groups and individuals are nearly six times as likely to turn violent or destructive compared to unarmed demonstrations.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Justin Wagner, Everytown for Gun Safety’s director of investigations who summarizes the report.

JUSTIN WAGNER: The move shows the continued power of the gun lobby and their allies in Congress. They ran a multi-million dollar smear campaign against David Shipman, who was a qualified former ATF agent. So it’s disappointing, but we are happy that we continue to have “gun sense” candidates in the White House. Between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, these are the strongest gun champions we’ve ever had, and we expect them to continue taking strong action on gun policy throughout the federal government.

MELINDA TUHUS: Just give us some of the highlights of what you found when you did this research.

JUSTIN WAGNER: I think throughout 2020, Americans saw vigils on the nightly news of people protesting with weapons. At first it was very disturbing and then it almost became commonplace, where it didn’t make the news anymore. And once we started looking into this phenomenon of armed protest, of bringing guns to demonstrations, we realized there was no hard data on it, so what we did is we partnered with a nonprofit, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, that specializes in cataloguing and systematizing protest data, to build a data set. And in the 18-month period we studied, which was 2020 and the first half of 2021, we identified 560 instances of armed protest in America, and those were throughout the country. We also were able to find that an armed demonstration is a more dangerous demonstration. Armed demonstrations are more violent and destructive. That may be intuitive for some listeners, but actually the gun lobby and the NRA for years has told people that guns make you safer. When it comes to protest and demonstration activity, the presence of a gun increases the probability of violence.

MELINDA TUHUS: Say a little more, if you can, about this whole issue of people being shocked at first. I just remember seeing people at the state Capitol of Michigan, in Lansing, where all these people came armed with guns. And now it’s so commonplace, and the laws in some states have become so lax as to hardly have any laws regarding use of guns or carrying guns, that it’s not shocking anymore, and that’s shocking to me.

JUSTIN WAGNER: I agree with the observation. You mentioned the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, and state capitols are of particular concern, because they are bedrocks of democracy. That’s where people, regardless of their political views, should be able to go and voice their opinions under the First Amendment to their legislators. And the open carrying of weapons, especially by militia groups, in an intimidating manner, really chills First Amendment activities. And so, when we’re talking about guns in protests, obviously we’re talking about safety and dangers, but we’re also talking about protecting First Amendment rights. And that’s why we think states across the country should take action at the very least to protect state capitols and other public locations, to ban guns so that people can have demonstrations peacefully and express those First Amendment views without public safety concerns.

Our data showed that open carry states have more instances of armed protest, so we think one of the findings here is very clear: that states that have permissive open-carry find themselves at risk for these types of armed protests and for more dangerous outcomes when it comes to those protests.

I’d also mention that the kinds of groups that show up at these demonstrations, we were able to identify 94 distinct groups at armed demonstrations, and about 84 percent of them were right-wing actors – groups like the Boogaloo Boys, the Three Percenters, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers – groups that people have seen in the news a lot after Jan. 6.

MELINDA TUHUS: So, Justin Wagner, what are the left-wing groups? Have you identified them, the smaller number of groups that come to demonstrations armed?

JUSTIN WAGNER: There are some groups on the left, which we detail in the report, but we’re talking less than 10 instances over the data period. It really is apples-to-oranges comparison. And if your viewers don’t want to take my word for it, the FBI itself assesses these type of groups as right-wing, white supremacist groups as the number one threat to the homeland when it comes to the type of domestic terrorist threats that we face.

So, in our report we have a legend that has the top seven groups that were in attendance. The fifth group was the New Black Panther Party, which listeners should be careful not to conflate with the traditional Black Panther Party, which was largely peaceful. This new Black Panther Party has different goals and different leadership.

MELINDA TUHUS: Can you just summarize the goals of Everytown for Gun Safety and of this research – what you would like to see happen?

JUSTIN WAGNER: Sure. At the very least, we want lawmakers to protect democracy so people can go out and voice their First Amendment rights. We think the easiest way to do that, for states that haven’t done it already, is to prevent permitless carry, open-carry of guns. We think that’s very clear. It would make people safer; it would be safer to exercise First Amendment rights. At the very least in the alternative, we hope states and localities protect public places where democratic speech often happens, so state capitols, public parks, other places of public importance.

For more information on Everytown for Gun Safety, visit everytownresearch.org.
The group’s report is “Armed Assembly: Guns, Demonstrations and Political Violence in America.”

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