Guns Don’t Kill People, But Far-Right Extremists Do.

(cross-posted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen)

With rifle-toting protesters showing up at various rallies and town halls around the country, there’s been a lot of worry – mostly on part of liberals – that these demonstrations could erupt into serious violence.  I happen to think that there is real cause for worry, especially considering the borderline eliminationist rhetoric coming out of the far-right, as well as the fact that members of the far-right have by and large been responsible for a considerable amount of political violence over the past twenty years.  Megan McArdle, however, is unconvinced that we’ll see any violence from these gun-toting protesters:

Numerous people claim to believe that this makes it likely, even certain, that someone will shoot at the president.  This is very silly, because the president is not anywhere most of the gun-toting protesters, who have showed up at all sorts of events.  It is, I suppose, more plausible to believe that they might take a shot at someone else.  But not very plausible:  the rate of crime associated with legal gun possession or carrying seems to be very low.  Guns, it turn out, do not turn ordinary people into murderers.  They make murderers more effective. […]

I suspect that, like the notion that Obama is not a US citizen, or that George Bush either planned the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen, this is for most people what Julian Sanchez calls a symbolic belief.  They don’t really believe that these people are thugs intent on murder–not in the sense that they have, with careful thought, arrived at a conclusion that they are willing to defend vigorously.  But it is pleasurable to tell yourself you believe terrible things about your enemies, and so you don’t examine the thought until someone says, “Well, how about $500 on it, then?” and you think about how much it would hurt to lose $500 on, and realize that you don’t actually have any reason to believe it’s all that likely.

Insofar that liberals are spooked by the presence of firearms at town halls or events attended by the president, it’s not because we believe that firearms possess some magical ability to turn Mild-Mannered Citizen into Bloodthirsty Domestic Terrorist.  Indeed, the suggestion (or implication, really) is more than a little dishonest; very few – if any – liberals have argued that the mere presence of a firearm is enough to spark political violence.

No, liberals are worried about the potential for violence because the ingredients seem to be there.  Last year’s election revealed the extent to which the conservative base is filled with angry, anxious and scared people desperate for some explanation as to why their lives are falling apart.  And since Obama’s inauguration, men like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have successfully convinced a large swath of those folks that the Democrats deserve the lions share of the blame, not only for making their lives miserable, but for electing a socialist, communist, Nazi, America-hating liberal who wants nothing more than to take what’s rightfully theirs (read: America) and redistribute it to minorities, gays and illegal immigrants.

Now, for the vast majority of these people, this is almost certainly a symbolic belief.  If push came to shove – would admit that Obama probably isn’t the second coming of Joseph Mengele, and isn’t trying to off grandma in a desperate attempt to save money.  For them, this really is just something pleasurable to tell themselves about their enemies, and not something to actually act on.  For a very small minority however, these fears are completely – and terrifyingly – real.  In a very real sense, they are cloistered and isolated from reality.  They sincerely believe that Barack Obama has usurped the presidency, and that the United States is well on the road to a totalitarian dictatorship.  What’s more, their fears are bolstered by a steady stream of misinformation and fear-mongering, some of it from fringe talk-radio hosts, and some of it from prominent Republican politicians.

Of course, most of these people won’t act on their fears.  But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there are a few folks who will arm themselves, and will try to take matters into their own hands.  In fact, it’s not a stretch because it has already happenedSince Obama was elected, at least a dozen people have been killed or wounded by far-right extremists, and during the Clinton years, the country experienced one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in its history, carried out by a paranoid, racist far-right extremist.

That’s not to say that every gun-toting protester is a potential Timothy McVeigh, but to say these fears are not unfounded.  It would be one thing if liberals were relying on conjecture and hypotheticals to argue that violence is a real possibility.  If right-wing domestic terrorism were nonexistent – or at least extremely uncommon – then I would agree that liberals are either A) being very paranoid or B) don’t actually believe that their fellow citizens would hurt or kill someone over a political disagreement.  But we know that that’s not the case.  We know that there has been an uptick in far-right activity, we know that there has been an uptick in far-right violence, and we know that liberals and minorities are – more often than not – the stated targets of far-right violence.  At the risk of sounding slightly alarmist, I think that we are fooling ourselves by not at least acknowledging the possibility that something truly terrible could happen.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Words cannot describe how much I loathe that particular post of Megan’s. Whenever someone links to her crap and I read it, I’m appalled at how dumb it is, but that particular one is especially heinous.

  • Very interesting and true commentary. America needs to hold up a mirror to herself. Right wig extremist should be feared as well as religious extremist. To brush it off as fluff is pretty dangerous actually.

  • Rob

    Hmmm, I’m what you would probably call a right wing extremist (what I would call a committed conservative) and I don’t see any reason why guns should be brought to such events.

    I like the Tea Parties with speakers and thought provoking commentary; I do not like the liberal “town hall meetings” that only liberals are invited to (the one here was announced the day before the event – badly – and there was a democrat meeting before hand so the hall was filled before it was opened. Mostly I don’t like them because my fellow conservatives show up shouting.

    Discussion is our only hope. Again, I am deeply conservative, but the Hannities and Limbaughs who talk at callers and don’t engage in an honest exchange of views leave me cold.

    I consider liberals completely misguided but not always unintelligent (current president notwithstanding) and find conversations stimulating and informative. Anything that shuts down discussion is so counter-productive it’s a shame.

  • Rich

    You don’t need to worry about right wingers and guns. If you are a liberal politician in the United States you need to worry about average Americans and votes.

    People are finally figuring out that the latest liberal agenda is all about Socialism/Communism and making the United States a third world country. People are getting fed up. If liberals are afraid then maybe they should rethink their policies.

  • LRP

    Rob, your kind of conservatism is essential to the health of our democracy.

    Rich, take away the works of liberals over the years and you’d still be living in mean hut on a feudal estate — unless, of course, you are from the manor born.

    It’s essential, I believe, for conservatives and liberals who share commitment to evidence-based discussion to parse out the mindless, and often vicious, rhetoric of radical extremists of every stripe.

    The misinformation and disinformation swirling around the health-care debate, and those propagating it, amply reinforce the fears expressed by Jeff Sharlet (The Family, Harper Perennial, New York, 2008) and Chris Hedges (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America) that religious extremists are seeking to destroy our democracy and substitute their rigid hierarchies of power.

    If you choose not to believe Sharlet and Hedges, then seek out the source — study the writings of Rousas Rushdoony, Gary North, Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Dr. D. James Kennedy, and various others of their persuasion. What these guys espouse, increasingly influential in recent years, is not the America most of us would choose to live in — liberal or conservative.

  • I think that if you believe that having some government controlled health care makes you a socialist or a communist country, then you need to educate yourself on those words. I am from Canada and live in the U.S. Back home, we have “socialized” health care. Here, I am appalled at the price of health coverage and at the amount of control that private, for-profit companies have over what kind of health care you should have. If you think that having the big bad government control your access to health care is worse than having corporations control it, you are dead wrong. One reason why we might have to wait a few more days for a specialist appointment (in Canada) is because people are actually getting the health care they need and not ever being rejected for anything deemed unnecessary by some insurance company. I work closely with people that actually grew up in a bonafide socialist country, and trust me, they are astonished and disgusted with the notion of Obama being associated with such terms. It’s just malicious talk from people who have no idea what they are talking about.

  • Interesting. I like Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter. I believe Timothy McVeigh was not connected in any way to a militia and because of the media connection, all militias have a bad rap. Militias are not bad. Has there been any “militia” attacks since then? No. Not to my knowledge.

    If you consider me a “dangerous” right winger, well thank you. I’m dangerous to the government because I speak, write, and vote the Bible and vote freedom. I do not like what our President is doing to our country and throwing away all our forefathers hard work down the toilet. I was not fond of how we were armed at the Presidential site in Phoenix, but those people would not have shot at the president. They were within their rights though I personally would not have done the same thing, but I do not blame them. Our rights have been repeatily stepped on when it concerns the second amendment. Criminals do not follow laws and so how do you think the liberal ideology would have affected them? They would still get a weapon and they would go after the unarmed citizen. If you check out the stats crime is on the rise in countries that all ready ban guns. Has there ever been a shoot out at an NRA convention? No. Why? Because everyone is armed there.

    I think it would be stupid to shoot the president. It would make him a hero. Plus, it is only fanatics who shoot presidents. I would rather impeach him. Please people…read your history. Governments tumble when its people sleep and compromise its core freedoms.

  • Coco McBean, Then you are one of the few in your country that does like socialized medicine. I happen to like my private insurance company. I had state insurance (aka gov’t insurance) and it got pricy. Not to mention, most of your countrymen flock here to get healthcare in the United States. Read the fine print in the 1000 plus pages of the health care bill. It’s not going to help our country and it will worsen healthcare.

  • Gregg

    Your article is full of mind reading and psychoanalysis which detracts from your central point, that is, gun carrying right wing extremists attending town halls may engage in deadly violence. This possibility exists regardless of who is President. I would be curious to see what the current crime statistics say, rising or falling? At any given time there are quite a few extremist groups operating in the US.

    I remember the increase in violence from right wing fringe groups during the Clinton presidency especially following Waco and Ruby Ridge. How many people died there? Those events preceded a greater number of deaths at Oklahoma City. It’s tragic when Americans attack each other. We should debate vigorously but we should never divide.

    Its really just risk management. In the aggregate, random violence is like a natural disaster, you know it will happen you just don’t know when.

  • People are afraid of what they perceive to be “change”. Now that it is apparent that everyone ISN’T a white, preferably male, heterosexual with money, attitudes must adjust along with behavior. “I want my America back” was on one sign held at a meeting; a local newspaper man summed it up for me: Tell that to the Indians. Complaining about this health care proposal is like saying you want to continue shooting yourself in the foot for all eternity. Toting a gun to a discussion about this, or anything else really, seems to me to indicate that this is a very raw struggle over power itself, and not the facts of any specific issue or situation.

  • Lex

    Any sort of extremist is bad, Right wing, Left wing, what ever.