NRA laid the groundwork for deadly Capitol riot for years, say gun control advocates

Militia groups, QAnon, Capitol rioters and anti-lockdown protesters are all linked by toxic NRA ideology

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published January 30, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Wayne LaPierre | Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Wayne LaPierre | Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The deadly Capitol riot on Jan. 6 brought together a wide variety of right-wing militia groups and fringe conspiracy theorists, officially united by former President Donald Trump's false narrative that the 2020 election had been stolen. But the ideology that connected these groups in the first place was cultivated for decades by the National Rifle Association, gun violence prevention groups say.

"The violence that we saw at the Capitol, the firepower that they brought with them, may not have been part of the NRA's call. But they're responsible for getting us to this moment," said Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety. "They should not be allowed to distance themselves from the Frankenstein monster that they've created. This is the NRA's handiwork. Years of conspiracy peddling, fear-mongering that the government is going to come take your guns and your freedom, and the call upon Americans to do something about it, to take action, that's what we saw on Jan. 6. That base of militia groups and white supremacist groups and other extremists has been listening to the NRA's talking points for years, and we saw it play out."

A new report from Everytown detailing findings in police documents shows that officers seized more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition and arrested nine people on weapons charges.

"Quite honestly, that is a likely undercount given the fact that Capitol Police were unable to stop and search everyone," Suplina said. Capitol Police detained only 14 people during the riot, leaving federal investigators to scour social media and hundreds of thousands of tips to identify possible suspects. More than 150 people have been charged since.

"I knew they had guns — we had been seizing guns all day," D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges told the Washington Post. "And the only reason I could think of that they weren't shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost."

Police later discovered some rioters had their own arsenals at home as well.

"Many of the people at the Capitol were armed," Suplina said. "There was enough ammunition seized at the Capitol to shoot every member of the House and Senate five times."

The NRA's rhetoric has long been tied to violent groups. Many mass killers have echoed the words of NRA chief Wayne LaPierre in their "manifestos." In the 1990s, LaPierre repeatedly railed against the "abuses" of the federal government following the standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, calling for people to "take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government."

In 1995, LaPierre referred to federal agents as "jack-booted government thugs" and warned supporters that it was no longer "unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black stormtrooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens."

Days later, Timothy McVeigh, a former NRA member, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City that housed an Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) office, killing at least 168 people.

Numerous NRA board members have also been linked to militia groups.

"At that moment in 1995, the NRA could have said, 'Oh boy, we've overdone it. We've oversold this. We're changing our rhetoric,'" Suplina said. "But they kept it up and intensified it for another two decades, right up until the days before the insurrection at the Capitol."

Some of the members of the Capitol mob, including Richard Barnett, the man who posed in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, have been identified as gun activists, the Everytown report said, citing charging documents and social media posts. William Calhoun, who threatened a "war" over the election, proudly wore an NRA hat in his Twitter profile photo and organized at least one gun-rights rally following the election. Joe Biggs, a Proud Boys leader who led a group of rioters at the Capitol, has been repeatedly mentioned as a member on the NRA website. Len Guthrie, another man charged with illegally entering the Capitol, described himself as a "lifetime NRA member" and shared the "insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment" on his Facebook page, according to the report.

The NRA did not comment on the riot until generally condemning "all unlawful acts" in a social media statement nine days later.

"The NRA has publicly condemned the tragedy that occurred at the U.S. Capitol. It is disappointing but not surprising that Everytown now seeks to exploit that event and the tragic loss of life to attack law-abiding gun owners," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said in a statement to Salon.

He added: "Everytown's assault on the Second Amendment is being firmly rejected by the American people. The recent rise in lawful gun ownership is a referendum on Everytown, Michael Bloomberg, and all who seek to dismantle constitutional freedom."​

But gun violence prevention groups say the NRA can't run from its past.

"For years, we've been watching the NRA take this very extreme position about gun rights and being willing to say things like, 'Obama's not only going to take your guns away,'" said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center. "They have overtly said, 'Government agents are going to break down your door and take your guns away and haul you off to prison.' 

"They've actually pivoted in the last couple of years, very aggressively, to saying, 'What you need to fear is the government. The government is the enemy and your guns are the only thing protecting you from a government that you can't trust.' That's been NRA messaging." The Capitol siege, Thomas argued, was the "logical end" of that process.

While the NRA seized on Obama's attempts to implement gun control measures in the wake of numerous school shootings — especially the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20 children and six adults were killed — Trump and his allies echoed the group's rhetoric for years, including in the moments leading up to the attack on the Capitol.

"So much of the rhetoric and the kinds of speeches that we heard from Trump and [Rudy] Giuliani and other people on that stage, leading to the march from the Ellipse and the White House to the Capitol, is absolutely consistent and fueled by NRA rhetoric," said Kris Brown, president of the gun violence prevention group Brady. That rhetoric, said Brown, "is all about this notion that the gun is the essential tool to take down a tyrannical government."

In an effort to sell more guns, the NRA has "painted a picture of a dystopic universe" akin to "Mad Max: Thunderdome," Brown said.

Speeches delivered at the rally that preceded the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, Brown added, were loaded with NRA talking points. "If you add guns, extremism, misinformation and white supremacy together," she said, "the natural conclusion of that, the alchemy of those things, makes Jan. 6 and Liberate Michigan and [the protests in] many other state capitals not a notable event but an inevitable event."

Though the groups that came together at the Capitol have espoused a wide range of grievances, gun rights are at the heart of their ideologies.

"The militia groups that were there, some of the far right-wing white supremacist groups that were there, the flags saying, 'Come and take it.' All of this is part of the vocabulary that the NRA has been pushing for years," Suplina said. "The NRA has adopted and really fueled the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment, this notion that your right to bear arms is actually about taking up arms against a government that you believe is violating the Constitution or your rights. And what we've seen is just how dangerous that is. Because who's the arbiter of that decision? The answer is, a mob at the Capitol that has been fed lies about elections or gun confiscation taking up arms because they think it's their right to do that. And that's why guns are relevant. They were there, and they are the reason that people showed up there."

Discussions of an armed revolt started long before Trump called his followers to Washington in an effort to stop Congress from making President Joe Biden's election official. An analysis commissioned by Giffords found 17 million mentions of guns and related terms in reaction to election-related events in the months leading up to the vote. These discussions often focused on coming to the polls armed, defending the election and preparing for violence surrounding the results.

Thomas said she wasn't surprised to see how much overlap there was between the different groups who discussed guns because "those connections have been intentionally drawn by groups like the NRA."

"One of the things that's really interesting to us is the way it all fits together," she said. "This idea that they're being pitched: 'You need to be afraid of your guns being taken away. You need to be afraid of the governments and how they're going to strip away your rights.' And the idea that you as an individual, or as a part of these groups, have an individual responsibility. They frame it in terms of fighting tyranny, but really what they're doing is pushing people to fight legitimate government on an individual basis, using guns as a tool."

The number of mentions of guns was "astounding" and is likely an undercount given how many of these groups operate in private on the internet, according to the report.

"When you couple it with the threats and with the aggressive extremism, it's a huge risk," Thomas said, adding that there may never have been "a more dangerous moment than we're in right now."

While militias have echoed NRA rhetoric for years, newer online-based fringe groups like QAnon and the Boogaloo Bois have adopted a similar ideology.

"It's all lodged in the same rhetoric and the same theory," Suplina said. "There's a deep conspiracy to rob you of what you care about most, and the only response is a violent reckoning. That is the QAnon 'Storm.' That is the Boogaloo call for inciting a civil war. And the fact is, again, that the NRA's language is not seen as hysterical by many of the people who hear it. They are hearing it as a call to action. We see it in QAnon. We see it in the Boogaloo boys. We see it in the militia groups."

The Giffords analysis found a lot of overlap between QAnon and other groups on the topic of guns.

Many of these groups accept "absurd premises with regard to what's happening in our government," Thomas said, but also a "secondary piece, which is that it's your responsibility to help trigger this overthrow." Thomas said. "It imparts this sense of distrust, to the point of requiring you to help with this civil war, or revolution in the case of the Boogaloo Bois or the Proud Boys. I think QAnon has a lot of those same messages. That you, individually and in connection with this group, whatever that group is, have to get involved in helping spur this revolution."

Though the NRA spread its talking points through magazines and other media for years, its foray into NRATV marked a turning point in its rhetoric. Hosts on the network repeatedly stoked anger and fear as a way to draw viewers.

"You don't need to look much further than that to see that the NRA has helped build this framework of conspiracy backed by extreme acts of violence, and brought it into mainstream discourse," Suplina said. "NRATV for years was talking this talk. I think they need to be held accountable by being named as a cause of this. We honestly are not going to fully deal with this problem until we recognize the role of the NRA."

The NRA cut ties with NRATV in 2019, calling it "racist," amid a legal dispute with the group's longtime PR firm Ackerman McQueen, which operated the network. The NRA has since filed for bankruptcy in New York, where state Attorney General Letitia James has sued to dissolve the group over allegations of illegal self-dealing. The group has claimed that it is financially solid and intends to move to Texas to set up shop there. That, however, could backfire in bankruptcy court.

"If you are a solvent entity, bankruptcy court can't be used to shed yourself of litigation you just don't like," Brown said. "We are very eager to make sure that the interests of the American public are represented here, because the American public cares, as taxpaying individuals, how nonprofits are run in this country. And what's clear from the allegations in Tish James' complaint is that the NRA has not been run as an organization that is consistent with the law. They think they're above the law. They think they're untouchable."

Gun violence prevention groups have also called for lawmakers to step up in response to the Capitol riot and the growing threat from violent extremists. The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday warned of a "heightened threat" of violence from groups potentially emboldened by the Capitol attack.

Thomas said Giffords is pushing to expand extreme risk protective orders, which are typically used to remove guns from people dangerous to themselves or others, for example, to "disarm an extremist who we have evidence is making specific threats or coordinating an attack, pending a hearing." The group also believes that hate crime laws should be expanded so they could be used for "removing guns or at least preventing violence or similar types of acts."

But many of these reforms are no different than the ones violence prevention groups have demanded for years with limited success.

"There's things that have to happen. For one, guns don't have a place in our democratic discourse," Suplina said. "There should not be guns at Capitol buildings or grounds or at protests or at polling stations. Both Congress and state legislatures should take those issues up immediately, and many are.

"But more broadly, the problem of armed extremism can't be dealt with without dealing with the gun laws that had been kept weak by the armed extremists," he added. "Background checks have a lot of good uses, but one of them is to stop prohibited people from obtaining firearms. We know that some of the folks arrested at the Capitol were former felons and would not be allowed to legally own guns. We know that ghost guns which completely cut the background check system — or any check at all — out of the process are quickly becoming the guns of choice for militia groups and white supremacist groups because they're untraceable, you can make them at home, and there's no paper trail."

Brown argued that leadership on the gun issue has to start at the top and expressed disappointment that President Joe Biden did not discuss the link to guns when discussing the risk posed to the country by white supremacy and extremism in his inaugural address.

"If you want to reduce the peril of those kinds of extremist groups to democracy and to the free and fair election process, to racial justice and all of those things, you have to also say how you're going to tackle the issue of guns," she said. "You can't tackle those issues without also addressing the role of guns. We want the administration to say that."

Brown said strengthening gun laws was critical to democracy: "I want to be free to share my views in a public square without being intimidated by someone who's standing next to me with a semiautomatic weapon."

"That weapon speaks to me. That weapon chills my voice, it chills my First Amendment right," she said. "In that sense, it matters to our democracy. If we want the ability of everyday Americans to exercise their voice in the public square, and that includes voices who think guns should be everywhere, then guns can't be part of that equation. That chills our ability to have a conversation about what needs to happen, and that's the essence of our democracy."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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