At this point, most Americans are painfully aware that instances of gun violence, particularly mass shootings, are on the rise. Yet, as most of us seek solutions to this crisis, it is important to understand that not all such incidents are the same and as a result, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Understandably, the public outcry for more gun control has swelled in the aftermath of three mass shootings in the last two weeks in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.
At this point, 34 people have been killed in these three shootings with that number poised to rise as several of the 63 wounded remain in critical condition as of this writing.
So, would enhanced gun control have stopped any of these shootings? It’s possible, but we will never know for certain. For most people, that’s still reason enough to move forward with such legislation. After all, there have already been more than 250 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot during one episode) so far this year, more than one per day.
Based on that number, we can assume with certainty that at least some of those hundreds of mass shootings would not have occurred if more red flag laws, stricter background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons and closure of the gun-show loophole were in place.
That said, the purpose of this article is to examine the growing violence attributable to white nationalists in this country and sadly, I do not believe gun control of any sort will have any bearing on this type of violence. We’ll have to look elsewhere for solutions to this problem.
I make this observation having spent much of the past 25 years researching and reporting on domestic terrorism. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the company of people considered to be domestic terrorists — some racist, some not — and have written extensively about what I’ve learned. Here are a few observations.
It’s far too late for gun control to have any meaningful impact on the organized racist right. It’s simply a numbers game. There are an estimated 400 million guns already in circulation among the 329 million people in the U.S. Approximately 10 million of those guns are what we call semi-automatic assault rifles. If all gun sales stopped tomorrow, the organized racist right would not find itself lacking for firepower.
When I spent time with people in armed compounds around the country, it was abundantly clear that a lack of guns was not an issue. Everyone had several. There were often multiple long guns stacked by each window of the house in case the government or some other uninvited guest came calling. And shooting guns is pretty much a way of life for these people.
Gun sales data reflects another conundrum for those who believe gun control will help. Every time there is a mass shooting that sparks an increase in gun control rhetoric out of Washington D.C. — I say rhetoric because such talk rarely if ever results in substantive gun control — sales of assault-style rifles skyrocket. The people I’ve met who are today viewed as a white nationalist threat already have three to a dozen of these guns in their possession. The thinking being that someday guns will be outlawed so better to stockpile them now while you can.
In short, any serious white supremacist who wants to commit a mass shooting will have absolutely no trouble getting their hands on all the firepower they’ll need to kill people.
Please note my use of the word “serious.” There is a new subgroup of violent white nationalists that I believe is unique and though it’s too early to say for sure, both the El Paso and Gilroy shooters may fall into this category. I think of them as school shooters lacking a school who find an alternative means of combating their debilitating obscurity by adopting what they see as a greater cause to justify their violent actions in their quest for notoriety. These young white males seem connected to white supremacist cells only through the internet where they have become radicalized in much the same way as ISIS devotees in this country who have never met an actual ISIS member. In such circumstances, it is possible that stricter gun control measures could make a difference. But it is far more likely that any person in need of a weapon for a racist attack can simply use their internet connections to secure one. There are just too many guns available for new gun laws to accomplish a decrease in these racially motivated murders.
I believe that to understand what is happening today — how people are being radicalized — we need to understand the lessons from our past.
There are many parallels between what is happening now and what occurred in the early and mid 1990s when the antigovernment movement swelled to an estimated 3 million adherents and resulted in a good deal of violence, including the Oklahoma City bombing. There are also some significant differences that make today far more dangerous than other times in our past.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. Marshal’s Service and FBI agents botched the arrest of Randy Weaver on gun charges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Weaver had been set up as part of a sting operation designed to force him to become an informant on the nearby Aryan Nation’s compound, but he refused to cooperate. During the ensuing 11-day standoff, agents of the U.S. government wound up shooting and killing Weaver’s wife, Vicki, his 14-year-old son, Sammy, and the family dog.
White racist organizations from around the country including leaders from radical Christian Identity churches saw Ruby Ridge as a golden opportunity to spread their message of hate. They gathered in Colorado and hatched a plan to create a national militia/antigovernment movement based on peoples’ fear that the government is willing to come to your home and murder your family in order to take away your guns.
These early organizers realized that their racist views would limit the number of those who could be recruited to their new movement, so they made the decision to initially downplay their racist rhetoric and to concentrate on the threat to gun ownership and the constitution. With the help of the NRA’s paranoid one-world-government conspiracy rhetoric of the time, millions of Americans, mainly from rural communities hard hit by the farm crisis and other negative economic factors, joined in. From there, the racist right was able to further recruit members into their white supremacist ranks.
In domestic terrorism circles, this process is simply referred to as the funnel. The idea being that the more people who are poured into the large end of the funnel, the more radicalized violent people, such as Timothy McVeigh, will drip out of the smaller end.
In the early 1990s, it was the relatively small number of white nationalists and Christian Identity adherents coupled with a couple of million concerned, right-leaning gun owners who comprised the majority of folks being poured into the top of the funnel. But from there, news events like the government’s violent assault at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, were reinterpreted through a lens of increasingly paranoid and racist conspiracy theories. These theories tended to be built around the myth of a Jewish-led, one-world government intending to enslave white people and therefore needing to first confiscate all the guns. You get the drift.
But for people who had been primed to believe these theories, they were a powerful force for pushing people deeper into the funnel of radical racism where, eventually, a few fully indoctrinated radicals dripped from the funnel’s small end. They were willing to murder innocents in their effort to overthrow the government and bring about a race war.
There was no more powerful tool for pushing people deeper into the funnel than the book The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel by white supremacist leader William Pierce writing under the pseudonym “Andrew MacDonald.” The book is often credited with giving birth to the modern white nationalist movement.
McVeigh slept with the book under his pillow. He sold it at gun shows, and he had a well-worn copy in the front seat of his car when he was arrested in Oklahoma just miles from where he had detonated the bomb that killed 168 people including 19 children in the Oklahoma City federal building’s day care center.
For people in the movement, The Turner Diaries has never been treated as a novel, but rather a blueprint for bringing about, and winning, the race war adherents believe is coming soon. The book describes a violent revolution based on race wherein the federal government is overthrown and non-whites, liberal politicians and race traitors (whites who intermarry or assist people of color in any way) are all systematically murdered.
The book ends with what is, for white supremacists, a glorious vision of people of color and race traitors hanging from every electric poll from East Coast to West. In this gruesome story line, Earl Turner, the book’s white-supremacist protagonist, blows up a federal building killing children in a scene eerily similar to McVeigh’s real-life bombing. Turner and other characters in the book fund their race war by robbing banks and armored cars. It is no coincidence that such robberies have historically been the preferred mode for funding the modern day white-supremacist movement in their effort to create a white homeland.
While The Turner Diaries is certainly a powerful resource for radicalizing people as they move through the funnel, it is hardly the only such resource. The book Might Is Right or The Survival of the Fittest written under the pseudonym Ragnar Redbeard is another tool. This book was mentioned in an online post by the Gilroy shooter shortly before he opened fire on people at that city’s Garlic Festival.
Back in the ’90s, you had to be pretty deep into the antigovernment movement to fully understand its racist roots and the desire of its most radical adherents to start a race war. Many in the upper end of the funnel never saw race as an issue and never moved beyond gun rights and what they saw as an assault on the Constitution.
The makeup within today’s funnel is different, largely thanks to Earl Turner’s new best friend, President Donald Trump.
Trump has brought his own brand of racist conspiracy theories into the funnel mix and given them mass exposure as only a sitting president could. It’s a deadly combination.
Let me quickly say it is not the intent of this article to frame our current crisis of racist violence in terms of Republican versus Democratic party politics. The goal is to simply examine how Trump’s actions and words are impacting today’s funnel of racist extremism and why the current era of racist violence has so much destructive potential.
Whereas racist organizations, Christian Identity adherents and gun rights advocates were once the primary entrants to the funnel, today it is all of those plus the millions of cult-like followers of Donald Trump.
If the 4 million people being fed into the top of the funnel in the 1990s could produce millions of antigovernment adherents, hundreds of armed militia groups, tens of thousands of white nationalists and a handful of McVeighs, what will pouring 20 million people into the top of today’s funnel eventually produce at the other end?
And worse yet, in the 1990s, the racist component of the movement was tamped down, largely hidden from those who were primarily motivated by their fear of losing their right to own guns just entering the funnel. But today, thanks largely to Trump and the mainstreaming of his racist conspiracy theories, the fear of brown immigrants has largely taken the place of the fear of having your guns taken away as the principal point of commonality for those entering the funnel.
It only stands to reason that if you pour five times as many people into the top of the funnel, then five times as many people willing to kill for their cause will eventually come out the small end. But it will likely be worse than that because, in the 1990s, people had to be slowly and methodically transitioned from the gun issue to the race issue by way of blame-shifting, racist conspiracy theories.
But the millions of folks being poured into the funnel since 2016 are already primed to be racist via Trump’s fear-mongering that often includes his fictional accounts of an ongoing invasion of brown murderers, brown drug dealers, brown rapists and brown MS-13 gang members who are said to be attacking our southern border. Trump constantly dehumanizes people of color whether they live in black urban communities in the U.S., his proclaimed “shithole” countries in Africa and the Caribbean, or are asylum-seekers fleeing violence in Latin American.
He calls them breeders. He says they are an infestation looking to replace this country’s white population. And as a result, his followers are fertile ground for violent racist recruiters.
Trump’s rallies are more blatantly racist than those of the infamous segregationist politician George Wallace a half century ago. Trump actually laughed when a supporter at one of his rallies suggested shooting immigrants as a fix to the president’s imaginary invasion problem. He laughs or grins in silence as his supporters chant “build the wall” and “send her back.”
He has ordered brown babies be pulled from the arms of their parents and caged in despicable conditions. He has established camps to hold Latinx people in cages so overcrowded and filthy as to be torture — no room to even lay down, no showers, soiled clothes, one toilet for more than a hundred people.
He has publicly declared himself a nationalist. He has a 50-year-long track record as a racist from redlining his real estate holdings to calling for the Central Park Five to be put to death and then refusing to take back his pronouncement of guilt even after the courts declared the young black men innocent. He was the leader of the birther movement against our nation’s first black president. He has surrounded himself in the White House with racist advisers like Stephen Miller. He has defended white nationalists in Charlottesville even after they killed an innocent young woman.
He took weeks to finally distance himself with a wink and a nod from the endorsements and praise of racist leaders such as David Duke of the KKK. He even regularly retweets racist conspiracy theories he finds on the internet.
And starting in early July, he launched a re-election strategy that has so far included some of the vilest and most blatantly racist things that have ever been uttered in public by a president of the United States, including slurs against a famed civil rights leader and women of color elected to Congress. He has called them communists, racists, idiots, haters of America, and has told them to go back to where they came from.
In short, he has painted targets on their backs and without having to say the words, invited his funnel full of radical racists to pull the trigger.
His campaign has created, paid for, and launched more than 2,000 ads on social media eluding to the president’s false claims that we are being invaded by murderous, raping, brown criminals at our southern border.
And what has happened since he launched this racist re-election campaign with its invasion ads? A lot of people have died.
It appears two of the most recent mass murderers were motivated by their racist ideology. One of them drove 10 hours to El Paso to stop Trump’s imaginary invasion.
The El Paso shooter appears to have posted an online mission statement on a white supremacist forum explaining why he was going to shoot people. His post used Trump’s language to hit most of the president’s racist talking points.
This cannot come as a surprise to Trump. He can’t claim to be ignorant of his power to motivate people to kill those he declares the enemy, the other.
When he declared the press the enemy of the people, pipe-bombs were mailed to journalists by one of his rabid supporters. When he declared Democratic leaders in Congress the enemy, the pipe-bombs came to their offices. When he disparaged the men and women who came to his rallies to protest, they were beaten by his followers while Trump egged on the violence promising to pay for any legal fees incurred. And thanks to researchers, the president now knows with absolute certainty that in the cities where he holds his rallies, hate crimes increase in their wake.
So please don’t try to claim that Donald Trump is ignorant of the impact his racist rants and tweets are having. Like The Turner Diaries and other conspiracy theories, Trump’s racist words and actions are pushing thousands of people deeper into the funnel of white racist extremism.
When the president’s words dehumanize people of color or when he leads his racist chants at his rallies, he knows who is listening.
When the president’s policies and actions cause the torture of migrant men, women and children by way of overcrowded conditions and family separation, he knows who is watching.
And when he declares that the biggest threat to America and our way of life is the ongoing invasion of our country by violent criminal immigrants at the southern border who are trying to replace the white people in this country, he knows exactly what he is asking his most extreme followers to do — commit acts of violence.
It is no accident this violence has increased with the launch of his racist reelection campaign. It is Trump’s twisted strategy and he will continue to incite violence with his racist words and actions so long as he is in office.
As for those of us in the media, we need to talk about this elephant in the room. We have to stop questioning whether Trump is a racist and start reporting that Trump is a racist. We can’t continue to try to normalize this president every time he manages to stumble through a teleprompter speech calling for unity. We know who Trump is. He has been telling and showing us for five decades. He is a racist, white nationalist who believes that racism is a valid path to continuing to hold onto his power and he doesn’t care who or how many get hurt in the process. He is sick and we have known this since 2015, but he has always been the ratings-enhancing car wreck from which the media can’t look away.
Just think about the lack of context in reporting in recent days. Just this week following the El Paso shooting, Trump has suggested multiple times we should do something on gun control so long as it was linked to immigration reform. In other words, we should do something to address both causes of the El Paso mass murder: guns and too many brown people. It’s truly outrageous.
And finally, there is another reason that the current Trump-fed funnel of racial extremism has the potential to produce so much violence. There is now a growing funnel on the other side of the racial spectrum, something that did not exist 25 years ago. Whether black, brown or white, there are a lot of people who are not willing to sit back and allow millions of people to be caged in tortuous conditions, threatened with having their love ones arrested and deported, or shot to death in a Walmart or at a local food festival. These people too are being increasingly radicalized by the current racist discourse. As a result, the potential for tit-for-tat violence at this point is very high.
And if both sides are lured into Earl Turner’s and Donald Trump’s race war, this thing is going to get very bloody, very fast.
Joel Dyer is the author of Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is only the Beginning. He has been previously subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism.