“When can we use the guns?” The question hung in the air just long enough for some in the crowd to begin cheering. “That’s not a joke,” the man added. ”How many elections are they gonna steal before we kill these people?”
The question, posed on October 25 during Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA event in Idaho, made it clear that this man, and others like him, are hoping for a signal.
I’ve met men like this before. I worked in the firearms industry as a sales executive for a long time and beginning during the Obama presidency, gun business leaders like me, who helped build the nation’s top gun companies, noticed this disturbing chatter from gun owners at firearms trade shows. Many in the industry dismissed these threats. I didn’t. And now we hear them from gun owners across the country who dream of deploying their arsenals to kill fellow citizens.
It’s tempting to wish these people away. It’s a big country and there will always be malcontents and criminals. If you wanted to see the glass as half full, you could say that Charlie Kirk denounced the call to violence. Though to be honest, Kirk’s disavowal didn’t inspire much confidence. He rejected the call to murder not because it was wrong but because it would “play into all their plans”—you can guess who “they” are here. And Kirk then qualified this by saying that “we must exhaust every single peaceful means possible”—which sure seems to leave open the question of what to do after all of the peaceful means have been exhausted.
And the glass-half-empty view seems pretty convincing. America has a rapidly growing authoritarian army comprised of thousands of men like that fellow in Idaho. They have been groomed by Trump acolytes such as Kirk and Steve Bannon. They have also been developed as avatar customers by the gun industry, meaning that they are well armed.
But what non-gun owners may not understand is that these men are not your average gun-owning Americans. They are people who have fallen into a cult where it is normal to organize your entire culture around weapons of war. Some make it official by claiming membership in the Oath Keepers or Three Percenters. Some are just average suburban dads who’ve been radicalized. They laugh at “Let’s Go Brandon” chants, drink Black Rifle Coffee, and wave “Come and Take It” flags at political rallies.
Last year I watched as one of these armed men verbally attacked my own young son at a peaceful protest. The man was wearing a MAGA hat and had come to a local BLM rally with more than a hundred like-minded fellows claiming to be on guard against Antifa and serving as self-appointed “Second Amendment patriots.” But as the guy began shoving his finger into my son’s chest in a fit of rage it became clear that they were really there to intimidate citizens who, like us, were alarmed by the frightening rightward lurch of our country.
These cosplay soldiers are kept at a high state of readiness by OAN, Fox News, and various right-wing conspiracy theorists. Watch that video one more time. Do you doubt that if Donald Trump gave the command, that man in Idaho would be part of an armed mob rushing out to kill? These people have already shown us who they are. How many more times until we believe them?
Armed men in Georgia pursued and killed Ahmaud Arbery believing that they were justified in making a “citizen’s arrest.” In Illinois, a 17-year old boy was inspired to grab his AR-15, drive to a neighboring state, and take the law—and the lives of others—into his own hands. At which point Kyle Rittenhouse was viewed on the right not as a cautionary tale, but a hero. Conservative media personalities celebrated that he had “a couple of pelts on the wall” and was “gonna have to fight off conservative chicks with a bat.”
Where do people get these ideas? Perhaps they were following the NRA’s call to deliver a “clenched fist of truth.”
Like so many things in modern politics, this toxic culture was developed and normalized by external forces—in this case, the NRA and the gun industry. I had a front-row seat to the scores of fetishized firearms media campaigns over the last 15 years. I watched as people like Rittenhouse were held up as the ideal gun customer: young, bold, determined, and well-armed. Young men were even encouraged to be the aggressors by predictive campaigns like the Spike’s Tactical advertisement in which heavily armed men heroically wade into protests with their loaded rifles. Advertising works.
There was a time when few Americans would have supported racist vigilantes—a time when most gun owners would have used Kyle Rittenhouse as a way to scare young people into being responsible with firearms. But there was also a time—not long ago—when self-appointed militiamen who believed in QAnon conspiracies were the stuff of fiction. Today they’re running for office.
What we are seeing is nothing less than the normalization of early-stage authoritarianism.
Trump adviser Steve Bannon recently bragged about developing more than 20,000 “shock troops” for the next election. We’ve been seeing these troops in action, in isolated incidents for four years. We saw them collectively on January 6. We’ve read the reports from their think tanks planning for violence. They’re asking, right now, “When can we use the guns?”
After four years of chaos, Americans would rather get back to their lives believing that the crisis has passed. But it hasn’t.
The lights are still flashing red.