How January 6 Will Forever be a Turning Point in the Movement to Prevent Gun Violence

Image provided by Andy Feliciotti via Unsplash

On January 6, 2021, our nation watched in horror as a mob of violent rioters stormed the United States Capitol, smashing windows, destroying property, and hitting police officers with lead pipes. As a result of the rioting, five people died, including a capitol police officer who was hit with a fire extinguisher. And the violence could have been far worse: their intent was to overthrow the election and assassinate the Vice President and other political leaders.

Gun violence prevention advocates have warned for years of the increasing danger of gun extremism across the country. These concerns, fueled by rhetoric from the NRA and the gun lobby to drive gun sales, have touched every facet of our movement and the safety of our country.

“The violent extremism that America is witnessing has been fomented by the gun lobby for decades and now poses an imminent threat to our future as a safe and civil democratic society. It is impossible for our movement, for our government, or for our country to move forward without directly addressing this threat.” — Brady President Kris Brown

At Brady, we fight to pass life-saving gun laws across the country, unlink the intersection of historic white supremacy and gun violence, and protect our democracy to ensure that leaders are responsive to their constituents — all to save lives. These efforts are interrelated pieces of a puzzle to stop weapons from falling into the wrong hands and create systems that protect all Americans and respond to their needs.

The rise of armed extremism is inseparable from this work and is intertwined with the gun lobby’s effort to stop and roll back evidence-based and lifesaving gun laws.

Former U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel, members of federal law enforcement, and experts in domestic terrorism said a month before the Capitol riot that President Trump had downplayed a surge in extremism during his administration. Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College or Art, wrote after the riot that the idea Americans must come together and overthrow the government has been the “key to establishing and expanding” the gun market since the 1990s, and politicians have “played up the insurrectionist argument for guns” because they believe it ignites a committed constituency of pro-gun voters.

Even before the attack in D.C., large scale, armed protests against government officials and legislatures over gun laws and executive measures taken by governors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 threatened and derailed proceedings throughout 2020. Propelled by a false narrative oftentimes utilized by the gun lobby that individuals have a right to intimidate and overthrow what they believe to be a tyrannical government, armed intimidators showed up at protests at state capitols across the country.

Last spring, armed groups protested Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, ultimately violently pushing their way to the Michigan State Capitol and attempting to enter the floor of the legislative chamber. It was at one of these Michigan rallies that two of the men indicted in the alleged plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer met one another and agreed to work together to kidnap her, put her on trial and execute her.

A similar rally of about 100 people at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort began as a celebration of the Second Amendment and morphed into a protest against coronavirus restrictions. Protestors hung Governor Beshear in effigy from a tree with a sign that read, “sic semper tyrannis,” meaning “thus always to tyrants.”

These are the kinds of anti-government protests that Donald Trump openly encouraged through a series of all-caps tweets in response to protests against social-distancing orders, calling to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Notably, President Trump tweeted “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

President Trump’s actions were not new. Many Americans view the Second Amendment as not just the right to own a gun but as the authority to engage in armed insurrection against the government. In 2013, 72% of those with a gun in their family said they believed the Second Amendment ensures people can protect themselves from tyranny, while 57% of those without a gun in their home held the same view.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., said in a fundraising letter for his 2016 presidential campaign that the Second Amendment is a “constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty.” Shannon Alford, the National Rifle Association’s Maryland liaison told USA TODAY in 2018 that the Second Amendment is about “self-defense” and the ability to “stop people who would do you harm, whether that’s a criminal or the government.”

By claiming that government action — from COVID-19 restrictions to gun laws — as an impermissible infringement on personal freedom, today’s armed anti-government extremists embody the sentiments that Wayne LaPierre was committed to instilling in Americans in a letter to Congress in 1995:

“I want to use the power of T.V. and radio to show the American people that, if the NRA fails to restore our Second Amendment freedoms, the attacks will begin on freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure…

…And that unless we take action today, the long slide down the slippery slope will only continue until there’s no freedom left in American at all.”

The NRA succeeded in seeding messaging that foments insurrectionism. The events of January 6 were the culmination of a marketing campaign that fosters a view that if you disagree with the actions of an elected official, the appropriate response is to take up arms.

Democracy cannot work in a society where citizens believe the appropriate response to the decisions of freely elected representatives, that they disagree with, is to take up arms against them — and where they have arsenals to act on those beliefs. And although it is possible that a few current Justices may disagree, that is not consistent with any right enshrined in the Second Amendment.

President Biden rightly noted in his inaugural address that “few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we are in now.” He noted “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and will defeat.”

He was right.

In his inaugural, President Biden charged that we must rise to this moment through “unity,” focusing on the need to support one another and cling fast to common and shared values. We see this every day in the gun violence prevention movement, as people from all walks of life work together in the effort to save lives. It is why these policies are so broadly popular — because the common values of protecting our communities and raising our children free from the threat of school shootings and neighborhood violence is shared by all Americans. Policies like universal background checks have overwhelming support from members of both parties and across all demographics. The vision and promise of a safer country is a powerful, uniting force.

To be sure, unity is not unanimity. As President Biden said in his speech, “enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.” This is true of our movement. In the 1980s and ’90s, the nation, including Joe Biden, rallied with Jim and Sarah Brady to pass the cornerstone of our nation’s gun safety laws, its background check system. This progress did not occur without pushback — including, of course, lobbying against it from the NRA — but it was created because our movement is not a monolith. It is not homogenous. It represents a broad swath of Americans who were united in creating a safer country for their children.

Today, fear and misinformation about the links between gun ownership and domestic extremism have led certain individuals to encourage lawmakers to dismiss future gun violence prevention legislation. They fear that more discussions about guns will only fuel the domestic extremism so deeply-rooted in our country.

We must be clear in this: those calls are plainly wrong. These are popular and common-sense policies. We cannot allow this effort to be silenced through intimidation by a vocal minority.

We face a challenging time that has been fomented by a variety of sources, including the gun lobby. They succeeded in pushing a mandate in which extremism is married with anti-government rhetoric and too often, a passion for solving all problems with firearms.

“Our ability to function as a democracy is at stake. If we want to defeat these threats, we must take on the NRA-backed myth that more guns make us free, and that any gun regulation, no matter how sensible, inhibits the Second Amendment.”

— Brady President Kris Brown

We applaud President Biden and his team for rightly identifying the threats we face, but also know that unless we re-imagine and re-frame the role of guns in our lives — and the sensible regulation of guns — then we will not confront and defeat extremism, white supremacy, or domestic terrorism.

Without standing firm against this misinformation and threat, armed intimidation and insurrectionism will continue to hijack our legislative processes; it will continue to threaten our legislatures; it will continue to threaten and intimidate peaceful protests and the lawful exercise of First Amendment rights; and it will threaten our most fundamental right, the right to live.

Brady will continue to mobilize across Congress, courts, and communities to end gun violence in America. We are calling on all concerned Americans to join us in this effort, which includes rejecting misinformation and rooting out the causes of extremism in our country. We cannot end gun violence without eliminating this threat.

It will require all of us to “take action, not sides” — as is Brady’s motto — and work together as Americans to put an end to violent extremism and to reject fictitious and radical rhetoric from the gun lobby.

Join us. Let’s get to work.

We’re uniting Americans from coast to coast, red and blue and every color, to end gun violence.

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