In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election loss, guns have taken a more visible place in United States politics, with armed demonstrators, including supporters of the former president, appearing last year at many rallies and state capitols across the country.
And where there are guns, there is more likely to be violence, data tabulated by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S. non-profit, has found. Violent or destructive behaviour is 6½ times more likely to occur at demonstrations where people are armed.
The display of weapons has become more commonplace at the country’s most prominent institutions of democracy. In 2021, more than a third of armed demonstrations in the U.S. took place on legislative grounds, more than double the rate in 2020. Armed demonstrators appeared at 8.8 per cent of pro-Trump events, up from 6.2 per cent the previous year. The project tracked more than 610 armed demonstrations over both years.
The project’s collection of such data began in 2020, meaning it is not possible to draw a lengthier comparison. Relative to 2020, the U.S. saw fewer demonstrations in 2021, which was not an election year.
But Americans will return to the polls this fall for a midterm election, and “it doesn’t bode well,” said Roudabeh Kishi, the project’s director of research and innovation. The presence of guns at rallies tends to chill debate and choke off public discourse.
“With this increased tactic of armed pro-Trump demonstrators showing up specifically at state capitols and on legislative grounds, it really seems like the focus now is on the intimidation of local officials,” she said. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 169 militia groups across the U.S. in 2020, including organizations like the Boogaloo Boys, who have regularly made armed appearances at protests, and the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, both of whom had members at the Capitol riot in Washington a year ago.
Bringing a gun to a rally is not, in many parts of the U.S., against the law. More than 30 states allow unconcealed carrying of handguns.
As firearms become more visible in the political arena, some in the U.S. far right have “shifted towards a notion that there’s less and less viability in the current system,” said Matthew Kriner, senior research scholar at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, which is associated with Middlebury College.
“So we have this presence of arms that increases as we see a disaffection with the liberal democratic system in America.”
Members of the far right have become convinced that they could be targets of radical left-wing violence, and this has produced calls for vigilance in self-defence.
Some far-right influencers have recast the Capitol riot. They have claimed “either that events that really happened didn’t happen, or suggested the people who engaged in criminal and violent acts on Jan. 6 were patriots and were defending democracy – which of course they weren’t,” said Sam Jackson, a scholar at the State University of New York at Albany who studies anti-government extremism.
“That could encourage people to go to a state or federal capitol building and try to disrupt the proceedings.”
One way to see the relationship between weapons and the far right is as a sort of game, albeit one with potentially deadly consequences. Think of protesters with guns as acting “in the spirit of play,” said Sara Polak, a scholar at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. It is a kind of costume play – a menacing posture for the cameras, made for social media, she said. The exercise involves an element of “play with the boundaries of democracy,” she added
“By imagining something, you also already make it kind of real, to some extent, in lots of people’s minds. And it becomes likelier that people are actually threatened by it,” she said.
It makes sense that protests with armed demonstrators would see a greater risk of violence, she said, since the very presence of guns can trigger a feeling that people have reason to be afraid.
“People really feel, and then are, less free,” she said, and that could “invite some people to actually use violence.”
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