The 13 men charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, a possible reference to the white supremacist vigilante militia in the HBO series Watchmen. The suspects began planning their kidnapping this summer, with live-fire exercises and explosives, according to the charges. Not long before, gangs of armed men, many of them carrying AR-15s, and defiantly not wearing face masks, protested inside the state capitol in Lansing against strict health measures imposed by Whitmer. Similar armed right-wing groups across the nation are planning to privately police polling sites on November 3, as President Donald Trump called for in the presidential debate in late September.
At first blush, it may seem hard to connect the various themes that crop up in recent stories about the armed right. There is, of course, the adamant assertion of their right to bear arms but also a penchant for white supremacy (evidenced by their baleful presence at Black Lives Matter protests and the online contempt they routinely hurl at the movement), a resistance to commonsense public health measures meant to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic, and the specter of voter intimidation. But at a deeper level, what connects this powerful, and dangerous, set of attitudes and reflexes is a collection of myths that have spread like coronavirus mutations through social media, allowing the different groups of the armed right to perceive themselves as good guys fighting various historic evils.
Many of these myths can be traced back to the National Rifle Association, the once-powerful and now-waning gun rights organization that is in the midst of tearing itself apart. The NRA is in decline and in debt, laying off staff and losing members. The New York attorney general’s office is seeking “to dissolve” the NRA over credible charges of massive embezzlement first raised by the NRA whistleblower Oliver North, the Reagan-era White House official at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal. North, identified as “Dissident No. 1” in court documents, was backed by other NRA board directors, including the rock star Ted Nugent.
But even as the NRA teeters, its mythical spirit lives on, entering a welter of new right-wing groups, some of which are neo-fascist—such as the Proud Boys, whom the president notoriously told to “stand back and stand by” at the first presidential debate—or openly white supremacist, and some of which are not. They are united in their paranoia, and in their anti-government agenda, by one of the NRA’s grand theories: the “slippery slope.” The idea is that even a little gun control, like background checks, can start a dangerous slide in disarmament leading all the way to white genocide. Trump himself fuels the myth. “They call it the slippery slope, and all of sudden everything gets taken away,” he told reporters last summer, explaining his own reversal on background checks.
For these armed groups, the slippery slope’s primary example is the Holocaust. In 2016, Nugent posted a graphic on his Facebook page featuring photos of prominent Jewish American leaders, each one next to an Israeli flag, calling them “punks” who “hate freedom” over their support for gun control. Within hours, the Anti-Defamation League denounced Nugent saying that “anti-Semitism has no place in the gun control debate.” Nugent then posted in response, “What sort of racist prejudiced POS [piece of shit] could possibly not know that Jews for gun control are Nazis in disguise?” Nugent was referring to the belief among gun activists and other conservatives across the country that the Nazis used gun control to disarm Europe’s Jews before they killed them.
Another example marshaled to bolster the slippery slope argument comes from the Reconstruction era. “I’m a Black American, and I know that the NRA was started as a civil rights organization training Black Americans to arm themselves and defend themselves against the KKK,” said Candace Owens in 2018 on Fox News, announcing her membership in the NRA.
These gun myths about Reconstruction and the Holocaust are both the work of the NRA. The first is a fabrication wholly invented by its modern leadership, while the second is an old trope that the NRA has endorsed and amplified. The NRA’s messages have spread through social media to animate gun activists nationwide. The work of one NRA-funded scholar, David B. Kopel, has appeared in newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, arguing that gun laws don’t work, usually without disclaimers reflecting the millions of dollars in NRA funding Kopel’s think tank, the Independence Institute, has received. The NRA’s rewriting of history continues to feed viral memes that appropriate the epic struggles of two historically persecuted minorities. These fantasies have saturated the Republican electorate to the point that the “slippery slope” is now embraced as gospel truth on the American right.
The NRA wasn’t always like this. For over a century, it was dedicated to riflery and the shooting sports. It was founded in New York City in 1871, during the peak of Reconstruction. Union Army veterans, most of whom were New York National Guard officers, formed the group to improve riflery among soldiers and able-bodied men in anticipation of future wars. They modeled their organization upon the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom, inaugurated 12 years before by Queen Victoria, and borrowed its name and target designs for their shooting range. In 1876, during the American centennial, the NRA added “of America” to its name to prevent “any international confusion.”
In 1977, an internal uprising that today’s NRA leaders pretend never happened led to the NRA literally shifting overnight into America’s largest gun lobby, in what is still quietly known within its lore as the “Cincinnati Revolt.” This internecine mutiny was over the NRA’s support for the Gun Control Act of 1968, which outlawed, among other things, mail-order rifles like the one tied to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, bought through an ad in the NRA’s own flagship magazine, American Rifleman. “The NRA does not advocate an ‘ostrich’ attitude toward firearms legislation,” explained the NRA’s old guard before it was overthrown. The modern NRA has since embraced an “unyielding” and “absolutist” take on gun rights, and over the past 43 years it has helped expand access to guns across most of the nation.
The NRA’s royal British roots hardly make for a good story for the modern NRA to tell. It has come up with a new origin story more than once, most recently in 2013, after the reelection of a Black president, Barack Obama. “We are the largest civil rights organization in the world, and we have been part of the fabric of America ever since 1871,” wrote NRA head Wayne LaPierre in February 2013 in an article that appeared in the American Rifleman. The idea of the NRA being the world’s largest civil rights organization planted a new notion that soon morphed into another. “As members of the oldest civil rights organization in the nation, NRA members know tyranny when we see it,” wrote LaPierre six months later, on the conservative news website The Daily Caller.
LaPierre and NRA chief spokesman Andrew Arulanandam each declined to comment for this story.
Since then, the NRA has made this specious claim—that the NRA is the nation’s oldest (or longest-standing) civil rights organization—its new mantra, repeated by leaders, lawyers, and the group’s website. Just last year, the NRA laid down the keystone of its new genesis story by falsely claiming that the early NRA “stood with freed slaves” during Reconstruction. This is a canard that tries to turn the history of gun ownership in America from one dominated by white men armed to help maintain an unequal social order into a mythical one where white gun owners and the NRA itself were on the front lines of America’s earliest struggles for racial equality. “Those Who Call the NRA Racist Don’t Know Our History,” wrote LaPierre in 2017. “In our [149-year] history, open doors for minorities, and defense of our common rights, has been at the center of the NRA’s existence.”
By then the NRA had already helped boost a novel theory about the Holocaust: that German gun control laws were “essential elements” leading to the genocide of six million Jews, the idea being that Jews could have defended themselves from Nazi fascism if the Gestapo had not first seized their guns. Needless to say, this claim has no basis in any prior scholarship. “For whatever reason, historians have paid no attention to Nazi laws and policies restricting firearms ownership as essential elements in creating tyranny,” one NRA-funded scholar lamented. This theory turns the worst atrocity of the modern era from one with many documented factors leading to the Nazis’ consolidation of power into a myth where the Holocaust itself is the cautionary tale of gun control.
The NRA’s attempts to identify itself with the Black struggle for equal rights can be seen in the case of Roy Innis and the award named after him.
In 1968, around the time of the start of the gun rights rebellion within the NRA, Innis emerged as the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, running on an independent “Black Nationalist” agenda. His predecessors had helped establish the Freedom Rides and led them through the deep South in the early 1960s. By the early 1990s, after Innis had seen first one and then another of his sons “murdered,” in his words, “by young, Black thugs,” he joined the NRA’s board of directors, among the first African Americans to do so.
In 2017, after Roy Innis died, the NRA established a memorial award in his name. The first recipient was honored posthumously in 2019. Otis McDonald was an Army veteran and retired maintenance engineer from the South Side of Chicago. It was McDonald who brought the pivotal Supreme Court case McDonald v. Chicago, decided in 2010, that extended the right to keep arms in one’s home throughout the nation.
This ceremony last spring was the high point of the NRA’s convention in Indianapolis—a weekend marred by breaking news of the embezzlement scandal. The commemoration was led by NRA board director Allen West, a former Army lieutenant colonel whose mock execution of an Iraqi policeman had led to him receiving a fine but keeping his rank. He also served in Congress as the first African American representative from Florida since Reconstruction. He rose in the Tea Party Caucus until, after redistricting, he lost his seat. West is now the chairman of the Texas Republican Party. He made the QAnon phrase “We are the storm” the new slogan of the Texas GOP, putting it on fundraising emails, social media, T-shirts, and hats.
West joined fellow board members Oliver North and Ted Nugent in making accusations of financial improprieties against LaPierre, and it was West who called for him to resign. Yet West and LaPierre still managed to maintain a united front when it came to the ceremony for McDonald, which led to the NRA announcing that its founding fathers had armed freed slaves.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to Otis W. McDonald for his courage, his commitment, and his sacrifice to take a stand and be steadfast in his belief in the United States Constitution,” West said from the stage with LaPierre and his staff sharing the dais. Close to 1,000 NRA members, many wearing NRA gear or MAGA hats, were in the hall. West went on to fold McDonald’s action into the myth of the early NRA’s role during Reconstruction. “Know the history. The NRA, this organization, stood with freed slaves to make sure they had their Second Amendment rights,” he said. Everyone in the room rose and applauded, in the longest standing ovation of the meeting.
“As an American black man, the history of the National Rifle Association has a special meaning for me, and I often reflect on it,” West wrote in a 2018 column for the Conservative News Service. “At a time when recently freed slaves were transitioning to being American citizens, they came under assault during the Reconstruction Era. When faced with the threats, coercion, intimidation, and yes, violence of an organization called the Ku Klux Klan, it was the NRA that stood with and defended the rights of blacks to the Second Amendment.”
Is there any actual historical link between the NRA and the Black struggle? In the six years after it was founded in 1871, the NRA kept busy. It took the organization two years, after lobbying for funding from Albany, to finally open its first range, known as Creedmoor, in what is now Queens, in 1873. Over the next four years, NRA shooters honed their skills, defeating first the Irish and then the “Imperial Team” of their royal role models, both times at Creedmoor, to become the undisputed rifle champions of the (English-speaking) world in 1877. It was an American triumph in the Victorian era, and the early NRA’s greatest accomplishment. Yet, like most of the NRA’s actual history, this is something that the modern NRA would prefer to forget.
It is also true that co-founder William Conant Church and other early NRA leaders, all based in New York, supported President Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts during Reconstruction to crush the Ku Klux Klan, in order to put an end to ongoing Southern resistance. The filmmaker Michael Moore’s insinuation in his 2002 film Bowling for Columbine that the NRA and the KKK were somehow linked, because they were founded five years apart, is another canard, flying in the other direction.
The use of Black Codes to outlaw gun ownership by freed slaves in the South was painfully real. But even this important issue was not raised by the early NRA or the men who founded it. Church, an unabashed Grant admirer, wrote one of the first books about the Civil War and its aftermath, titled Ulysses S. Grant and the Period of National Preservation and Reconstruction. In it, Church dealt explicitly with the challenges faced by freed slaves, including violence by Southern groups and authorities:
The negroes had ceased to be slaves, but they had not yet become free men, and there was no guaranty that they might not be subjected to some new form of oppression.… [O]ne Southern State after another passed laws designed to perpetuate the scheme of enforced labour by establishing a system of apprenticeship, more heartless and cruel than slavery had ever been, and lacking the ameliorating features of the “patriarchal institution.” … Negroes were killed in large numbers throughout the South without even an attempt to hold any one responsible for their murder.
Church made no mention whatsoever of any group, whether private or governmental, coming to the aid of freed slaves by helping to arm them. (Although he did mention the Union Army’s decision during the war to start “arming the negro” to add “a powerful ally” and “make good soldiers.”) Nor did he mention any need to arm freed slaves or even any discussion about the matter. As a matter of fact, Church did not mention the NRA at all.
Eighty years after Reconstruction, however, at the start of the civil rights era, there was a case that involved the NRA and the KKK. A Black man named Robert Williams, who had served as a Marine in a segregated unit during World War II, became the president of the local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina. He helped integrate the town library, but trouble started when he and other activists tried to desegregate the town’s swimming pool after several Black children drowned in nearby swimming holes. The local KKK mobilized in response. “So we started arming ourselves,” said Williams. “I wrote to the National Rifle Association in Washington which encourages veterans to keep in shape to defend their native land, and asked for a charter, which we got. In a year we had 60 members.” They called themselves Monroe’s Black Armed Guard.
In 1957, a group of hooded Klansmen fired shots at the home of a Black doctor who was another local NAACP leader. They were surprised when “Williams and the black men of Monroe fired back from behind sandbags and covered positions,” wrote Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham University law professor and the nation’s leading African American scholar on gun rights. The firefight was covered by newspapers as far away as Norfolk, Virginia, with the headlines “Citizens Fire Back at Klan” and “Shots Exchanged Near Residence of NAACP Head.” But the American Rifleman said nary a word, and the NRA did nothing subsequently to support its Black Monroe chapter, either.
The NRA did support at least one African American group in the South during the civil rights era. A half-century ago, it sold surplus government ammunition to the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The group “provided their own guns.” Yet today’s NRA falsely claims that “the NRA was their arsenal of democracy.”
The NRA’s use of the Holocaust myth began, as so many things do in the world of conservative politics, with a think tank.
Stephen P. Halbrook, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, has been described by the UCLA law professor Adam Winkler as “the nation’s leading expert on the right to keep and bear arms.” Halbrook filed an amicus brief in Heller v. District of Columbia, the watershed Supreme Court case that established that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep arms, on behalf of 250 members of the House of Representatives, 55 senators, and the president of the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney—all without making any mention of having received nearly $300,000 in NRA funding. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller cited Halbrook’s brief twice. Halbrook was later one of the attorneys representing the NRA in McDonald v. Chicago, which extended the Heller ruling throughout the nation.
In 2013, the Independent Institute published Halbrook’s book Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the States.” “Based on newly discovered secret documents from German archives, diaries and newspapers of the time,” the book “presents the definitive, yet hidden history of how the Nazi regime made use of gun control to disarm and repress its enemies and consolidate power,” read the review of the book in the NRA’s American Rifleman. “While voluminous scholarship has documented the Third Reich and the Holocaust, this is the first thorough examination of the laws restricting firearm ownership that rendered Hitler’s political opponents, as well as the Jews, defenseless.”
The Washington Times, the conservative daily controlled by the Unification Movement (associated with the late Sung Myung Moon), also reviewed it but notably hedged the book’s extravagant claim that gun suppression was pivotal in setting the Holocaust in motion. “There is no way to prove it,” Robert VerBruggen wrote of the book’s thesis. But he did note that the book provides an “extensive history” of the matter.
Halbrook’s book glosses over evidence that prior scholars like Raul Hilberg have established that would seem to counter, if not disprove, his thesis. “Preventive attack, armed resistance, and revenge are almost completely absent in two thousand years of Jewish ghetto history. Instances of violent opposition, which may be found in one or another history book, are atypical and episodic,” Hilberg wrote in his 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews. “The critical period of the 1930s and 1940s is marked by that same absence of physical opposition.”
The biggest hole in Halbrook’s research is one he admits himself, albeit in the pages near the back of his book. Halbrook notes, “Police were required to list all weapons taken from Jews and to send the weapons seized and listing to the Gestapo.” Yet he has failed to locate any significant records of seizures of weapons from Jews, and no large caches of any weapons at all. As Halbrook writes:
Police reports listing weapons seized from Jews have been difficult to locate. Many such records may have been destroyed during the war, either by the Nazis themselves or due to Allied bombings. Routine police reports mention arms and seizures along with other incidents. For example, a report to the commander of the municipal police in Leipzig dated November 29, 1938, noted: “Based on the decree regarding the surrender of weapons in possession of Jews, three Jews surrendered their slashing and thrusting weapons and one Jew surrendered his hunting rifles. Two bayonets and a 85 mm grenade were reported found and surrendered.”
If this all seems rather cracked, which it is, consider that this issue came up in the last election cycle, when Ben Carson, now secretary of housing and urban development, suggested on CNN that gun control led to the Holocaust. His claim prompted a response from Alan E. Steinweis, a professor of history and Holocaust studies at the University of Vermont, that this argument “is strangely ahistorical, a classic instance of injecting an issue that is important in our place and time into a historical situation where it was not seen as important. I can think of no serious work of scholarship on the Nazi dictatorship or on the causes of the Holocaust in which Nazi gun control measures feature as a significant factor.”
The “slippery slope” and its theoretical underpinnings are fueling today’s armed right. Its members disagree over matters from hate speech to the rules of engagement for use of force, with some openly advocating opening fire on BLM marchers. But what unites them is the shared notion that they are on the right side of history. The NRA-boosted myths about Reconstruction and the Holocaust reinforce their claim that it is not them, but gun control itself that is racist. “Thank God that the NRA was able to come to the black community’s defense” during Reconstruction, posted Old North State Patriots on Facebook in 2019. “There’s a reason that Hitler did it,” said former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka on Fox News the same year, referring to the Fuhrer’s alleged gun control to disarm the Jews. “This isn’t a theory—It’s history.”
The Oath Keepers/Patriot Movement in 2008 adopted the “Hitler took guns away” argument to Hillary Clinton’s campaign: “Imagine that Herr Hitlery is sworn in as president in 2009. After a conveniently timed ‘domestic terrorism’ incident (just a coincidence, of course) … she promptly crams a United Nations mandated total ban on the private possession of firearms.” The idea has become a fixture on Fox News, with host Andrew Napolitano extending the example to include Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones took up a similar line, telling Piers Morgan in 2013, “Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chavez took the guns, and I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!”
Many of today’s paramilitary groups keep a low profile. Instead of their own banner, many fly the Gadsden flag, a yellow militia banner of the Revolutionary War with a coiled green snake over the words “DONT TREAD ON ME.” Cadres greet each other online and in person through shared phrases, insignias, and other signs, creating a rich environment for racist extremists to operate in. What else unites the armed right is its ongoing support for President Trump. He has called forth a movement bigger than himself, one that seems likely to outlast him.
America’s pro-Trump armed right would not be the first to invent a new ideology to justify in advance its violence against others. Genocidaires developed propaganda ahead of the mass violence in late-1930s Germany and early-1990s Rwanda. The modern NRA’s whitewash of history today helps armed right-wing gangs from neo-Nazis to Three Percenters rationalize their intimidation of and violence against others, including fellow Americans exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech. Many of the same pro-Trump paramilitaries, who will be policing voters on Election Day, may grow more aggressive after the votes are tallied, especially if the top of their ticket comes up short.
It no longer matters to many of them, either, that the same NRA that helped inspire them is now nearing the previously unthinkable possibility of default. Unlike the NRA, which worked largely within the system, these armed gangs—with or without Trump—say they are ready to overthrow it.
Research for this article was supported by a Logan Nonfiction fellowship.