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Truthout - February 7, 2020

Media reports, pundit commentary and social media simply seemed unable to reckon with the reality of the January 20 pro-gun rally at the Virginia state capitol.

Under a Democrat-controlled legislature, a collection of relatively moderate gun control measures — increased limits on gun purchases, increased areas where guns are banned and universal background checks — were set to be pushed through the statehouse in what many thought was impossible in a Southern state. In response, 22,000 people flooded the capitol in what was euphemistically labeled a “lobby day,” but was instead the capture of Martin Luther King Jr. Day by one of the largest open-carry rallies in recent history.

The pro-gun protesters were there to put on a show, carrying sniper rifles, semi-automatics and shotguns. But with the memory of Charlottesville still in people’s minds cemented by years of white supremacist violence, many expected blood.

Yet little happened. The rally, though adorned with political flags and attended by militia organizations like the III%ers, remained largely nonviolent. The gap between expectation and reality left onlookers with an inability to make sense of the event and how to situate it into the 2020 political landscape. Some media outlets have turned on their original predictions, using this as an example that the people at the protest may, in fact, be nonviolent after all.

But looking at the event in isolation obscures the actual history of the far right militia movement, the role the perceived threat of gun control continues to play, and how right-wing fantasies about a second American civil war signal what is to come from the right.

How Militia Violence Takes Shape

People often equate the militia movement and the white nationalist movement, particularly given the militia movement’s origins in the Christian Identity movement. Today, however, open white supremacist rhetoric has been all but completely whitewashed from most militia organizations, and many of these groups have more in common with the fringes of the GOP than they do with someone like the infamous white nationalist Richard Spencer.

Self-described “patriot” organizations fall under the broader ideological umbrella that can encompass some of the radical right militias. The “patriot” movement, particularly its ancillaries in the militias of the 1990s, fed heavily off the Libertarian, anti-environmentalist and conspiratorial wing of the Republican Party. Because of this tacit alliance — particularly on the regional level in states like Nevada, Montana, Oregon and Washington — militias got their key support often from local linkages to the GOP.

The violence that did occur, including attacks against federal agents in the 1990s that ultimately culminated with the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, came as militia growth and influence was approaching its zenith. Militia violence grows as militia numbers grow, which can stray from the moments of white power terror attacks that can often act as a rearguard against a failing movement.

“Violence is a byproduct of the movement period, so when the movement swells, there will be more people producing the byproduct,” says Spencer Sunshine, a researcher who focuses on the far right and the militia movement. “There certainly is a threat that when the movement expands, the violence expands.”

While the Virginia rally may have the appearance of a peaceful rally, it wasn’t the behavior on display that matters; it’s what comes later. For instance, far right activists from the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League were joined by elected officials, including Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan, in what could be the beginning of a strategic alliance. Several counties have preemptively declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” that will not follow imposed gun laws they think violate constitutional gun protections.

Moreover, law enforcement used their kid gloves to deal with protesters during the Virginia rally, including ignoring a law that makes wearing a mask during a protest a criminal offense. While such laws are regularly used against left-wing protesters, the police seemed obliged to offer leeway to the far right. ...
Read full report at Truthout