The Light Foot Militia from Pennsylvania organized other militia groups from around the country to have this roving phalanx of militia men marching around the area during a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building on January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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The looming specter of gun control is once again becoming a rallying cry among America’s self-styled “militias,” which are drumming up paranoia about a potential large-scale Joe Biden-backed campaign to disarm the American populace. And experts fear that hysteria over guns could bring the simmering militia movement to a full boil.
The gun control bills that Biden helped pass when he was a Senator in the 1990s, including the now-expired assault weapon ban, were among the key factors driving the emergence of the militia movement. Back then, anti-government extremists stoked fears of an impending disarmament campaign to rally supporters.
Now, nearly three decades later, the militia movement is seizing on Biden’s promises to reinstate the ban on manufacture and sale of assault weapons, like the controversial AR-15, and his support for an optional buyback scheme to incentivize people to turn in their guns.
Those kinds of Biden policies are running rampant in the collective imagination of hardline gun activists and militias. Gun control fears are also being folded into baseless conspiracy theories about a “stolen election.” The false narrative emerging on fringe sites like MyMilitia, Parler, and MeWe, insist that Democrats committed widespread fraud to rig the election and their next step will be to seize peoples’ guns.
“Democrats plan to DISARM and MASS MURDER all conservatives,” reads one automate your posting written last week on MyMilitia, an online organizing hub for anti-government extremists.
“The Demonrats have Declared War On Us,” someone else wrote on the site, adding that Democrats were trying to “disarm us by all means.”
The president-elect has been a consistent and effective proponent of gun control throughout his career by backing the 1993 Brady Bill to create federal background checks and playing an instrumental role in passing the assault weapons ban in 1994, which expired a decade later.
He’s proudly touted his voting record on the campaign trail and in debates. Once in office, Biden says he wants to pursue legislation to reduce gun stockpiling by limiting individual firearm purchases to one gun per month.
He’s also proposed giving states financial incentives to adopt “red flag laws,” which allow authorities to temporarily seize guns from individuals who are believed to pose a danger to themselves or others. But his support for an assault weapon ban is perhaps his most controversial policy point.
Biden says he plans to pursue such a ban through legislation, and while that’s pending, use an executive order to ban their importation. But whether he can make good on that—or enforce gun buyback schemes once he’s in office—depends on which party controls the Senate, and that will be determined by the runoff election in Georgia next month.
Even if Democrats gain full control of Congress with victories in Georgia, a proposed assault weapon ban, the holy grail for the gun control lobby and a major political flashpoint, could still struggle to muster enough votes to pass.
The Biden transition team declined to comment.
“I’ve felt for some time that if Biden were to win the election, there would be a very good chance that the militia movement would experience a significant resurgence.”
Regardless, disarmament fantasies and paranoia will likely continue to mobilize the armed far-right and militias, according to Mark Pitcavage, an expert with the Anti-Defamation League who has tracked militias for decades.
“Should Biden speak out about gun violence, or do minor things via executive order, that will be greatly exaggerated by the militia movement. State measures, too, will be rolled onto Biden,” he said.
Pitcavage also noted that the U.S. militia movement, since it emerged in the 1990s, has historically thrived on “conspiratorial antagonism toward the federal government, with a strong focus on firearms.” He fears that the U.S. might be on the verge of a “militia resurgence,” which has previously happened during Democratic presidential administrations.
“I’ve felt for some time that if Biden were to win the election, there would be a very good chance that the militia movement would experience a significant resurgence, to mobilize on the basis of his election,” said Pitcavage.
The gun control bills that Biden helped push through in the 1990s, as well as deadly high-profile armed standoffs between citizens and federal agents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, were key factors in the emergence of the militia movement. Then in 1995, Timothy McVeigh, a 33-year-old anti-government extremist with ties to the militia movement, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people. He later claimed that his actions were revenge on the federal government.
Then, Barack Obama’s election in 2008—and the baseless and racist “birther conspiracies” that plagued him—helped drive a surge in the militia movement, according to Pitcavage. Social media also played a role: The movement relied on Facebook to freely organize and recruit up until this year, when Facebook and other mainstream social media companies began cracking down on anti-government groups. Now, the militia movement retains a small presence on mainstream platforms, but most of its online activity happens on fringe platforms like MyMilitia, Zello, or MeWe.
But the militia movement actually liked, even loved, Donald Trump. So conspiracy theories about a tyrannical federal government became a lot harder to sustain.
“The militia movement spent the last four years looking for alternative enemies to keep their juices flowing. Antifa, George Soros, Black Lives Matter, red flag laws, lockdowns,” Pitcavage said. “They’re all searching for something to pay attention to. But once Biden takes office, they don’t have to search anymore. It’ll be something on a silver platter for them to focus on, and everything else will just be gravy.”
When Pitcavage talks about a “resurgence” in the militia movement, he means a substantial increase in people joining and participating in militia activities. And judging by the uptick in armed extremist activity in 2020, the U.S. is already trending in that direction.
A slew of gun control bills introduced by the newly Democrat-controlled Virginia Legislature last year sparked fresh grassroots militia activity in conservative parts of the state. About 20,000 gun rights protesters flooded the area around the state Capitol last January, including many heavily armed militias. Around that same time, a group of anti-government extremists had come together online to discuss potential violence against elected officials, including Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. That period was also the beginning of the “Boogaloo” movement, an anarchist offshoot of the traditional militia movement whose adherents advocate for a second civil war.
When coronavirus reached the U.S., anti-government extremists across the country shifted their attention to Democrat governors whom they demonized as “tyrants” for instituting measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. Anti-lockdown protesters, including armed militiamen, rallied angrily at Michigan’s Capitol in April, and at one point even stormed the building. Six months later, some of the individuals involved in those protests were arrested for allegedly plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The Black Lives Matter protests that swept cities across the U.S. after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd also became a lighting rod for militia activity in 2020. Armed militias and Boogaloo Bois began showing up to protests with different intentions— from “peacekeeping” measures like guarding shops, to intentionally fomenting unrest.
The growing ubiquity of guns at protests, uptick in political violence and surge in militia activity created an uneasy atmosphere heading into the presidential election on Nov 3. Fears of Election Day violence never materialized, but rising tensions around the baseless “Stop the Steal” movement have since resulted in violent protests. In the weeks that followed, armed groups have continued to threaten the safety of election workers and elected officials.
Several events that may attract militias are already in the works for January. Militias have been discussing protest activity in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, when Congress is expected to convene and receive the results of the Electoral College vote ushering in Biden, according to SITE Intel, an non-governmental organization tracking online extremist activity.
There’s also been chatter of a coordinated, armed protest at state capitols a couple weeks after that, though it’s not clear how much traction that’s received. Based on some of the symbols on a flier advertising the coordinated events, the effort appears connected to the Boogaloo movement.
And far-right groups, including the Proud Boys, are using the internet to boost a “resist march” in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day. A flier that surfaced over the weekend touted it as a “Million Militia March,” a play on words from the “Million MAGA March” that drew more than 10,000 Trump supporters to the city last month after Election Day.
The ebbs and flows of the militia movement are not particularly surprising to Pitcavage. But what alarms him the most right now is the violent intensity of “civil war” chatter. That chatter isn’t just contained to the loudest, most pugnacious elements of the fringe, it’s across the right-wing spectrum, from militia-types to gun rights activists, to mainstream Republicans with huge platforms. The official Twitter account for the Arizona GOP retweeted a prominent Stop the Steal activist’s automate your posting saying: “I am willing to give my life for this fight, are you?”
Meanwhile, Stewart Rhodes, head of the Oath Keepers, one of the largest militia networks in the U.S., posted an online letter to Trump last week urging him to declare “martial law” and stop Biden from taking office—if not, he said right-wing militias will be forced to resort to a “much more bloody war.”
“There’s always been a smattering of civil war talk in segments of the far-right that pops up now and again. But that’s all it was. A smattering. But over the course of the past year, discussions of civil war greatly increased,” Pitcavage said. “I take that seriously. Widespread chatter about civil war reflects widespread perceived irreconcilable differences.”