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On August 25, 2020, in my hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse joined several other white vigilantes with AR-15-style rifles. They came purportedly to defend businesses from people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a twenty-nine-year-old Black man. A few days earlier, a police officer had shot Blake seven times in the back outside of his car, while his sons were in the backseat.
Despite violating a city curfew, Rittenhouse and other vigilantes were given bottles of water by the police, who told them, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” Within hours, Rittenhouse had shot three protestors, killing two of them. Overnight he became a hero among the far right, which enabled him to crowdsource his $2 million bail. After his release, Rittenhouse was photographed with members of the far-right nativist group Proud Boys, flashing a white supremacist sign and wearing a T-shirt that said “Free as Fuck.” Shortly after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, he would fly to Miami and lunch with Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio. The day after his acquittal in November 2021, he returned to Florida for a meeting with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
Rittenhouse’s actions, acquittal, and celebrity status are the culmination of a tactical turn in U.S. gun culture, which began in the late twentieth century. Tactical clothing, training, weaponry, and language have now become commonplace among private gun owners and law enforcement, rendering both nearly indistinguishable from soldiers. Individual gun owners are increasingly seeing themselves as de facto militia members regardless of whether they engage in paramilitary training or formally associate with an organization. Even law enforcement officers who don’t serve in tactical units are now “armed, dressed, trained, and conditioned like soldiers,” writes Radley Balko in Rise of the Warrior Cop (2014). The U.S. Department of Justice has supplied police departments with funding for military-grade hardware since the uprisings of the 1960s, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 Program has turbocharged the supply lines since 1997, directly funneling billions of dollars’ worth of “excess” military equipment to local police. Black communities had been suffering under these militarized police for decades, but the 1033 Program didn’t really come to the attention of average white Americans until 2014, when they watched media coverage of local police in Ferguson, Missouri, rolling into Black Lives Matter protests with armored personnel carriers and body armor.
This tactical turn is a distinct phase in the long history of what historian Richard Hofstadter called “gun culture,” and is a reaction to the rise of legal egalitarianism, evolving gender norms, a waning white majority, and increasing demands by communities of color to share social, political, and economic power. In his classic article “America as a Gun Culture” (1970), Hofstadter developed a critique of the “American historical mythology about the protective value of guns” and the role the National Rifle Association (NRA) had in sustaining it. He also expressed his bewilderment with the “otherwise intelligent Americans” who clung, he wrote, “with pathetic stubbornness to the notion that the people’s right to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm safeguard of democracy.” The idea that an armed citizenry is necessary for democracy, he wrote, is easily refuted. Fifty years later, he is still right.
Hofstadter’s critique was misplaced, however, inasmuch as he assumed that the nationalism of these gun enthusiasts—their talk of democracy and “the people”—was inclusive. The freedom they defended was, indeed, not intended for everyone and the purpose of an armed segment of the population, as U.S. history has consistently demonstrated, was to enforce its exclusivity: an armed white citizenry, working in tandem with law enforcement, has for centuries sustained white rule in the United States through legal and extralegal violence. Violence is necessary to maintain what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over Black Americans.” As for those “otherwise intelligent Americans” Hofstadter referred to, the history of white supremacy is replete with those who speak about universal rights yet doggedly pursue a white-dominated racial order.
In the late twentieth century, what had been, at the time Hofstadter was writing, still only a subculture with disproportionate influence rose to the level of popular culture. At the same time, the forms of white supremacist rule it has historically supported now face legal challenge on par with what they faced during the classic civil rights era and Reconstruction. Scholars like Robin D. G. Kelley have even gone so far as to describe our present moment as a Second Reconstruction. This has been met by increased militarization among law enforcement and talk among the far right of civil war.
Though the story of this tactical development in U.S. gun culture is complex, I focus in this essay on a few particularly crucial components. The first is that border enforcement has been increasingly militarized since the 1970s and diffused deeper into the interior of the country. This has blurred the boundary between domestic and foreign conflict, brought the use of exceptional police powers into nearly every U.S. town, and turned militarized “border security” into a ubiquitous mechanism of racialization. This has also corresponded with the militarization of local police forces, which was certainly worsened by the War on Terror, but which historian Elizabeth Hinton has identified as having deeper roots in the Johnson administration’s War on Crime. Like the nationalization of “border security,” it turned the nation’s city streets into sites of militarized racial enforcement.
Second, individuals once arming themselves for self-defense—often out of racial fears or a perceived threat to their masculinity—are now frequently claiming to do so in defense of the Constitution and freedom itself. The NRA has played an outsize role in this vigilante reframing by promulgating the myth that gun ownership has always been an individual, constitutional right and oriented toward a nativist vision of self-defense. This vigilantism operates in conjunction with the extralegal violence of law enforcement officers and is fueled by an individualist notion of sovereignty more dangerous than any military-grade weaponry. It rejects the freedom of others as equal to one’s own and views any attempt to support such equality as tyranny. Most importantly, this sovereignty is assumed to grant the individual the power to take life (vitae necisque potestas) in defense not of law, but of particular social and racial orders.
There are now twenty-five federal agencies with special tactical units. In May and June of 2020 alone, sixteen deployed their tactical teams to Black Lives Matter protests including Border Patrol; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the Bureau of Prisons; the U.S. Marshals; the U.S. Coast Guard; and every one of the FBI’s fifty-six field offices. And at the local law enforcement level, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units are now a staple of daily policing. Their very ordinariness is a testament to how dramatically local policing has changed since 1969, when a SWAT unit was first used to raid the Black Panthers headquarters in Los Angeles, pioneering what was at that time an almost unprecedented domestic use of military force.
The issue is not only that these units have been outfitted with military gear and are organized like military units. It is that they are suffused with militant narratives calling for a new, war-like approach to domestic policing. In law enforcement, popular training programs and workshops cultivate a “warrior cop” mentality. “For Warriors, hypervigilance offers the best chance for survival. Officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making,” writes Seth Stoughton, a professor of law and former police officer. Lt. Col Dave Grossman is perhaps the most well-known law-enforcement trainer, conducting hundreds of workshops every year. Grossman has popularized the “sheepdog” theory of policing, which neatly divides populations into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. “If you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens,” he writes in On Combat (2004), “then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.”
The civilian equivalent of these warrior workshops are the militia narratives cultivated by the NRA and vigilante organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers. Vigilantism, as cultural critic Richard Slotkin defines it, is “the assertion of a privilege of extralegal violence in a social setting where some form of law already exists.” Indeed, most of these groups assert such an extralegal privilege in their fight for a mythical racial order—even as they simultaneously assert that they are merely safeguarding constitutional rights and traditions. This is particularly true of the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and NRA.
Vigilante groups often use fictional texts to promulgate a paramilitary worldview among their members and potential recruits. Novels have been “central to building and maintaining many of the ideological communities and the celebrity activist personas connected to the paramilitary right,” writes literary scholar Alex Trimble Young. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was inspired by the white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries (1978), which is still a favorite among white-power paramilitary groups for its portrayal of a race war sparked by gun confiscations and so-called race traitors. A more recent example is Lavoy Finicum’s novel Only by Blood and Suffering (2017), which depicts a second civil war intending to restore, as Young writes, “US sovereignty through acts of law-making violence.” Finicum participated in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy in 2016, and was killed by police when he reached for his gun at a police roadblock.
The impact of such novels is dwarfed, however, by the influence of the NRA, which has been the most significant cultural force in mainstreaming a militia narrative and tactical turn in U.S. gun culture. Toward this end, it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars employing public relations firms, branding strategies, and various media platforms.
The NRA did not begin this way, though. It was chartered in 1871 by former Union Army officers Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate. The NRA’s mission was to promote marksmanship among future soldiers in the U.S. military. Over the next century, it expanded to promote shooting clubs, competitions, and the interests of hunters.
The NRA we face today was born in 1977 and is animated by a neo-Confederate spirit. Under the leadership of Harlon Carter, who served as president (1965–67) and executive vice president (197–85), the NRA has relentlessly promoted authoritarian populism to a heavily-armed, mostly white and male audience. To better grasp how this shift happened, and how it played a significant role in the spread of tactical gun culture, it is worth a detailed review of Carter’s role in shaping the NRA.
In 1975 Carter had taken charge of the NRA’s new lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, which then created the Political Victory Fund PAC to fund and rate political candidates. At its Cincinnati convention in 1977, however, the NRA executive board was set to repudiate this political shift undertaken by Carter. The board proposed to sell the NRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., move to Colorado Springs, and reverse course, returning to a focus on shooting sports and firearm safety. But a hardline faction led by Carter rebelled; the board was removed and the new proposal scrapped. Carter was elected executive vice president. In his victory speech, he declared, “Beginning in this place and at this hour, this period in NRA history is finished.” The post-1977 NRA was decidedly partisan, took an absolutist position against gun regulation, and redoubled its efforts to cultivate a social identity and authoritarian political ideology among its members.
The authoritarian tendencies of tactical gun culture intersect strikingly in Carter’s biography. Harlon’s father was among the first cohort of 450 U.S. Border Patrol agents in 1924 and was transferred to Laredo, Texas, after a purge of Mexican American officers there in 1927. In 1930 Harlon, only sixteen, became an NRA member. A year later, he picked up a shotgun and went in search of the “Mexicans” his mother suspected had stolen the family’s car weeks prior. In court documents, Harlon testified that he found the boys returning from a swim and, shotgun in hand, ordered them to come with him for questioning. The oldest among them, fifteen-year-old Ramón Casiano, was the first to refuse. “Hell no, we won’t go to your house,” he said. According to twelve-year-old Salvador Peña, a witness, Ramón added, “And you can’t make us,” pulling out a knife. Harlon responded by shooting directly into Casiano’s chest, killing him on the spot.
Harlon was sentenced to three years in jail. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction later that year because the presiding judge supposedly did not properly instruct the jury on the law of self-defense. The charges were eventually dismissed since “several of the material witnesses for the state [including the twelve-year-old Salvador Peña] have been discredited, having been convicted of infamous crimes,” according to the state attorney. Harlon enrolled at the University of Texas that year under a slightly different name. The second “a” in his name—originally Harlan—was changed to an “o” to conceal the record of his murder.
Before entering leadership at the NRA, Carter led the U.S. Border Patrol and commanded its notorious Operation Wetback in 1954, which he called the “biggest drive against illegal aliens in history.” More than a million people, mainly Latin American farm workers, were apprehended. The previous year he had tried to convince President Dwight D. Eisenhower to override the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibited the military from performing domestic law enforcement. Carter wanted to enlist the U.S. Army as a deportation force, but Eisenhower refused. Eisenhower’s compromise was to appoint retired general Joseph Swing to lead the Immigration and Naturalization Service and work with Carter on what would become Operation Wetback. During his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump referred to the operation as inspiration for his own plans to forcefully deport 11 million people.
But Carter was not the only murderer in NRA leadership. Robert J. Dowlut, whom Carter hired in 1977—the same year he hired future NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre—and who became the NRA’s general counsel, was convicted of murdering Anna Marie Yocum, the mother of his then-girlfriend, in 1963. Dowlut also robbed and shot the owner of a pawn shop. Like Carter and Rittenhouse, Dowlut was seventeen years old when he pulled the trigger. He confessed to the shootings and served six years in prison before his conviction was overturned on a technicality. His crimes were not made public until 2014. The monumental role he played in cultivating an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment remains relatively unknown today.
As political scientist Matthew J. Lacombe documents in his book Firepower (2021), the NRA has been able to generate zealous devotion in its members by cultivating a collective identity. Key to this has been offering a narrative that clearly identifies enemy out-groups, and which then ceaselessly instills panic among members by portraying these purported enemies as forever on the verge of destroying members and their culture. In an editorial after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, LaPierre warned NRA members that a “hateful and bigoted war has been declared against American firearms owners” and that their domestic enemies seek a “cultural cleansing” that is “specifically targeting the bedrock Second Amendment beliefs of firearms owners for extinction.” In 2017 LaPierre identified “academic elites, political elites, and media elites” as “America’s greatest domestic threats” and warned that Black Lives Matter protestors and anti-fascist activists sought to “eradicate all individual freedoms.” (Reality paints a different picture: 2019 was the deadliest year for violent extremism since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, over 80 percent of the fatalities were attributable to white supremacist attacks.)
This use of a friend/enemy distinction to crystalize a political identity is a well-known authoritarian technique, popularized by fascist theorist Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political (1932). According to Schmitt, sovereignty is the power to decide who is an enemy, a category of person against whom it is justified to use lethal violence. Schmitt was interested in the sovereign power of rulers to suspend or make an exception to the law. However, advocates of vigilantism ascribe this power not to rulers but to private individuals, which reminds us of Herman Melville’s insight that “freedom is more social than political.” The important question is therefore not “who rules the state, but who rules me.” People like LaPierre desire a form of political sovereignty that allows for petty sovereigns within social relations; that carves out a space beyond the political where individuals and groups can violently exercise a social form of rule. This is the kind of rule that Carter exercised when he murdered Casiano.
There is a long history of sovereign powers ceding some of their monopoly on violence: the latitude granted in ancient Rome to the male head of household is a classic example, but we might also count the practice of lynching in the United States, which tacitly deputized whole communities to enforce the Jim Crow racial regime. Texas’s S.B. 8, a law which effectively bans abortion, does so by ceding the state’s enforcement power to individuals, who are authorized by it to regulate women’s bodies and reproductive rights. (Whether the Supreme Court will agree this is constitutional is another matter.)
Most germane to the vigilante sovereignty that the NRA has cultivated over the past fifty years, however, are the vestiges of the common-law Castle Doctrine which holds that “a man’s house is his castle.” Historically this doctrine meant that state authorities turned a blind eye to intimate partner violence, and it continues to justify lethal violence against home intruders. The NRA’s legal innovation was to extend Castle Doctrine immunity to the armed subject outside of their home through Stand Your Ground legislation, which empowers individuals to aggressively defend themselves while in public from almost any perceived threat.
Alongside lobbying for the widespread adoption of this legal doctrine, the NRA has worked tirelessly to deregulate the purchasing and carrying of firearms, helped establish the right to carry as a constitutional right, and popularized the notion that the armed individual can be the “militia” enshrined in the Second Amendment.
Until the 1970s, the prevailing legal view was that the Second Amendment was a collective right associated with militias and aimed at providing for national defense. Hofstadter noted this in 1970: “The right to bear arms was a collective, not an individual, right, closely linked to the civic need (especially keen in the absence of a sufficient national army) for ‘a well regulated Militia.’” At the NRA, however, Dowlut relentlessly promoted an individualist interpretation—namely, the idea that the Constitution not only protected state-regulated militias, but also the right of private individuals to bear arms. Before 1960 there had never been a law review article endorsing an individualist reading of the Second Amendment. Between 1960 and 1970 there were only three. Between 1970 and 1989, however, twenty-seven articles endorsed the individual-right interpretation—more than half of them written by lawyers employed by or representing the NRA or other gun rights groups. Dowlut authored three of them himself.
Dowlut’s efforts were not in vain. What had been a fringe interpretation soon became orthodoxy in state legislatures and courthouses throughout the country, including among most Supreme Court justices. The landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller ruled, for the first time in U.S. history, that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to possess and carry a firearm—a monumental shift in understanding.
The Heller decision fueled the growth of a kind of homegrown authoritarianism that understands “militia” to include self-appointed “patriots” with the sovereign power to take life not in defense of self or law, but in support of a particular social or racial order. Despite the majority decision in Heller explicitly stating that the individual right recognized is “unconnected with service in a militia,” militia-of-one vigilantism has long been promoted by the NRA and other populist authoritarian and paramilitary groups. Gun owners have been refashioned as citizen-soldiers tasked with defending a particular notion of freedom—a freedom to use violence to establish order, despite the bounds of the law. As Fox News’ Tucker Carlson put it in his defense of Rittenhouse: “How shocked are we that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
Most justifications for this interpretation of the Second Amendment rely on an out-of-context quote from George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. In the written record of the convention, Mason says: “I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” Mason was concerned that the draft of the Constitution would allow a future government to exempt the wealthy and powerful from service in state militias. The “whole people” he referenced meant to include those from all classes or ranks. One need only read a longer excerpt of Mason’s statement to see this: “I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But . . . if that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor; but they may be confined to the lower and middle classes of the people.” This sentiment is also found in Section 13 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), which Mason authored and which served, years later, as the model for the U.S. Bill of Rights.
However, the NRA manipulatively uses only the first two sentences of Mason’s comment to claim he meant that every individual is de facto a militia member—independent, self-appointed, and unregulated. Moreover, the NRA leaves out the “now” in the second sentence, obscuring Mason’s comparison of the present condition with a future one. The altered version of this quote is cited frequently. In his book Guns, Crime, and Freedom (1994), LaPierre writes, “Mason made explicit his deep-set belief that the individual armed citizen was the key to protection against government excesses and in defense of freedom.” The definition of militia on the website of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action is the truncated and altered Mason quote. In a 2001 letter to NRA leadership, former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft pledged support for the individualist reading of the Second Amendment by citing the chopped-up Mason quote. In 2018, in a televised town hall after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch was asked how she defines a well-regulated militia. “George Mason was one of the founding fathers,” Loesch replied, without noting that Mason refused in the end to sign the Constitution. “And he said ‘the militia is the whole of the people.’ It’s every man. It’s every woman. That is who the militia is.” Paramilitary groups such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters have also relied on this intentional misreading.
The mainstreaming of this particular understanding of what the Second Amendment means by “militia” results from a decades-long campaign to legitimate far-right vigilantism among law enforcement and civilians. It is rooted in a reinterpretation of the Second Amendment that allows for a rhetorical focus on individual freedom and a tendency toward militarization. Those on the far-right claim that private individuals constitute the militia in the Constitution, and since the Second Amendment recognizes the right to bear arms for militia members, defending their use of arms is a defense of a constitutional right. Any effort to regulate that right is, in turn, interpreted as an attack on the Constitution itself.
Indeed, LaPierre has called the Second Amendment “freedom’s most valuable, most cherished, most irreplaceable idea.” Charlton Heston, who served first as NRA vice president and later president, provided the most succinct formulation of this view in a speech to the National Press Club in 1997. The Second Amendment, he said, “is, in order of importance, the first amendment. It is America’s first freedom, the one right that protects all the others. . . . The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows ‘rights’ to exist at all.”
Underlying this claim is the notion that vigilante violence is simultaneously foundational and exceptional. It need not conform with the law, because such violence is necessary for law to exist at all. This is an intoxicating invitation to authoritarianism. It is a formula for self-appointed saviors unconstrained by law or norm. They determine who the enemy is and deputize themselves, in the name of the Constitution (and “the people”), to use violence against that enemy. The paramilitary groups that illegally occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 named themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. This formula for authoritarianism also animates organizations like the Oath Keepers (whose “oath” is to the Constitution) and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA).
These groups venerate the Constitution because they believe it entitles them to suspend it, to achieve their ends beyond the law. They believe it grants a kind of constitutional time-out in which they return to a mythical state of nature where their sovereignty supersedes the law. The CSPOA refers to its members as “Constitutional Guards” and, according to its mission statement, its members’ powers “supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of the county . . . the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President.” In order to defend the Constitution, the Oath Keepers violently disrupted the constitutionally-mandated peaceful transfer of power at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. A similar logic was at work when insurrectionists yelled, “We’re doing this for you!” as they beat Capitol police officers with the poles of their American and Blue Lives Matter flags. The authoritarian notion of sovereignty grants the insurrectionists the authority to determine when and by whom the Constitution is threatened. This leads authoritarian populists to present every policy, practice, value, or person they disagree with as an existential threat to the Constitution—from mask and vaccine mandates during a pandemic (and those who advocate for them) to immigration and teaching about racism in our schools.
Although “law and order” are joined in the ideological pronouncements of the right, they remain divided in the right’s social and political projects. The Constitution’s promise of equality before the law is incompatible with the inequality of their desired racial order, yet it is the Constitution they lean on to justify their violence in service of that order. The promise thus remains forever unfulfilled. Whenever the government or social movements attempt to transform the social order to reflect legal egalitarianism—for instance, through voting rights legislation or Black Lives Matter protests—acts of vigilantism among law enforcement and civilians increase to ensure that law and order remain divided. Ida B. Wells documented this dynamic long ago. In “Lynch Law in America” (1900), she wrote of the vigilante response to the Fifteenth Amendment: “Hardly had the sentences dried upon the statute-books before one Southern State after another raised the cry of ‘negro domination’ and proclaimed there was an ‘unwritten law’ that justified any means to resist it.” The “lynch law” ensured the preservation of a social order that written law no longer guaranteed.
During the summer of 2020, federal forces in tactical gear snatched demonstrators off the streets of Portland, Oregon, and spirited them away in unmarked vans. They did not wear insignias, a rejection of democratic accountability, but many of them were members of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit. Although these elite forces were deployed to serve the political interests of an autocratic president, Portland is within the jurisdiction of Customs and Border Protection. The Department of Justice interprets Title 8, U.S.C. §1357(a)(3) of the Immigration and Nationality Act as granting Customs and Border Protection extra-constitutional powers—such as operating military-style checkpoints and executing warrantless searches—within a “reasonable distance” of the U.S. border. In 1957 this distance was defined in federal regulations as being within a hundred miles of any “external boundary.” Since the coast counts as an external boundary, the jurisdiction of Customs and Border Protection extends over many of the country’s most populous, diverse, and liberal cities, including New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In short, most of the country’s population lives within Customs and Border Protection’s jurisdiction.
The practical reach of “border security” into communities everywhere is aided by the explosive growth of U.S. Border Patrol ranks, a new power to deputize local law enforcement, and the 2003 creation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The size of U.S. Border Patrol has ballooned over the past few decades, growing from 4,000 agents in 1992 to approximately 20,000 today. As sociologist Alex S. Vitale observes in The End of Policing (2017), the agency is larger than the FBI, ATF, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) combined. ICE alone has over 8,000 agents, including the tactical Enforcement and Removal Operations’ Special Response Team, and is allowed to operate beyond Border Patrol’s hundred-mile range. Moreover, Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (1996) empowered the Department of Homeland Security to deputize state and local law enforcement as immigration enforcement agents.
The militarization of border security happened in fits and starts, beginning with Operation Wetback in the 1950s. Paramilitary border-patrol groups swelled with veterans and white power vigilantes two decades later, after the economic recession, civil rights movement, and end of the Vietnam War. In the mid-1980s, refugees from Ronald Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America crossed the southern U.S. border. Government and private forces seized upon this as a communist threat and exploited it to further justify border militarization. As historian Greg Grandin documents in The End of Myth (2019), paramilitary organizations like Civilian Materiel Assistance (CMA) were sending “weapons and other supplies to the Contras in Honduras and to right-wing death squads in El Salvador,” while also “organizing vigilantes in Arizona to patrol the border.” Since the 1990s we have witnessed a massive increase in border militarization, including the right’s now ascendant vision: a huge, impenetrable wall running along the entire southern border.
Increased and militarized border enforcement is not, however, the same as increased law enforcement. It is the lawless violence and cruelty of some border agents—in service of a racial order, rather than a particular law—that the far right valorizes. Recent images of border agents on horseback chasing down Haitian refugees and whipping them with their reins is just the latest example. This is violence in defiance of law, but it is often carried out by state authorities and law enforcement agents. When authorities and agencies no longer tolerate this lawlessness, they too become targets of vigilante violence, as we witnessed on January 6.
In The Injustice Never Leaves You (2019), historian Monica Muñoz Martinez documents the “state-building function” of vigilante violence at the southern border. Extralegal violence, writes Martinez, is a “common and sanctioned practice of state policing in the twentieth century.” Although some scholars draw a distinction between “crime control” and “social group control” vigilantism, as H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg do in Vigilante Politics (1976), the racialization of criminality and “border security” make this distinction difficult to maintain in practice. The camera obscura of race in the United States can easily turn perpetrators into victims and victims into villains. This is in part achieved by considering widespread racialized violence within the frame of individual self-defense, and by narrowing its justification to the killer’s state of mind—namely, whether they experienced fear, regardless of its racial motivation. As Jennifer Carlson’s Citizen‐Protectors (2015), Angela Stroud’s Good Guys with Guns (2016), and Caroline E. Light’s Stand Your Ground (2017) demonstrate, the rise of a self-defense gun culture in the late twentieth century is deeply informed by racialized fears and patriarchal aspirations.
Law enforcement violence against unarmed people of color is also rationalized as individual acts of self-defense, although the collective result is “social group control” vigilantism. This is particularly clear with federal immigration agents, since nearly all the violence they employ is against people of color and executed with near impunity. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform recently detailed the systemic failure to hold Border Patrol agents accountable for widespread racism. Despite more than 190 people dying in encounters with agents over the last decade, no agents have been convicted for using excessive, deadly force. In 2010 a Border Patrol agent shot across the southern border, killing fifteen-year-old Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca on Mexican soil. Although unprovoked, the agent claimed self-defense. The Department of Justice determined that the agent had not violated Border Patrol policy. When no charges were filed, Hernández’s parents sued and the case advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in Hernández v. Mesa (2017) that agents have immunity.
In addition to unaccountable Border Patrol agents, numerous vigilante and paramilitary groups patrol the southern border. These groups, according to a 2006 congressional report, “do not appear to need statutory ‘authority’ to conduct their volunteer border activities.” These groups, preoccupied with maintaining both a white majority and white supremacy, fixate on borders. For them, dividing lines must not only be drawn, but continuously policed, physically and psychologically. David Duke, founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975, brought national attention and new recruits to the fledgling group by organizing a “Border Watch” at the Mexican border in 1977. “Unless we slow down and cut off immigration by beefing up border control and encourage welfare recipients to have fewer kids, the white population in America will be swamped,” he said. This is a sentiment most recently echoed by Tucker Carlson in a critique of immigration: “In political terms, this policy is called ‘the great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries.”
Other paramilitary groups followed the KKK’s lead, including United Constitutional Patriots, Civilian Materiel Assistance, and Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Chapters of these groups have popped up around the country—and far from the U.S. border. In The End of the Myth, Grandin quotes the leader of the Minutemen’s Kansas City chapter, which had been targeting suspected immigrants in city parks: “The border is no longer in the desert. It is all over America.” Until recently, Grandin writes, “the borderlands, with all their seething racism and militarized and paramilitarized cruelty, remained apart—a world away from the American heartland.”
The militarization of the border and the inward drift of “border security” offers an attractive us/them dichotomy for constructing and reenforcing racial identities. As if to drive this point home to his supporters, Trump invoked the National Emergencies Act in February of 2019 to declare border security a national emergency and secure funding for his wall. The problem with racial identities, however, is that neither increased policing nor imposing border walls can achieve the stability supremacists desire, leaving them in an anxious state of perpetual vigilance and those they victimize under constant threat. “Tension grips the inhabitants of the borderlands like a virus,” writes Gloria Anzaldúa.
A similar border logic is at work in the right’s notion of freedom: if one’s understanding of freedom is predicated on an absolute independence from others, be they individuals or nation-states, violence is never far behind and freedom remains elusive. The motto of a long-running NRA campaign is, “I’m the National Rifle Association and I’m freedom’s safest place.” In “America as a Gun Culture,” Hofstadter encourages readers to take these claims about freedom and armed civilians seriously, despite how naïve they may appear, because they take a heavy toll on human lives. His discussion of the political consequences of such ideas is, however, meager; he focuses only on the failure to federally regulate firearms.
Hofstadter is, of course, aware that, in what he calls the “historic system of the South,” state forces and armed civilians enforced slavery and white supremacy. But his understanding of gun culture excludes the history of white vigilantism in northern states, ongoing vigilantism throughout all states, as well as past and present gun cultures in the military, among veterans, and in law enforcement agencies. For example, Hofstadter’s reflections on the South are of a bygone era when arming oneself was a “white prerogative,” guns had “a necessary place in the work of slave patrols,” and firearms served as “an important symbol of white male status.” Armed civilians once had a very real function in sustaining white rule in the South, and this has some resonance in southern gun culture today, but, he argues, it does not explain the perseverance of a national gun culture.
Hofstadter maintains that the same could be said of the role of armed civilians in settler colonialism: they had a practical and deadly purpose at the time, but that was then. According to Hofstadter, gun culture in the United States owes to the entrenched belief, originating in “radical English Whiggery,” that militias are essential to national defense. This belief, he writes, gained “permanent sanction in the nation” when it made its way into the Constitution. Unlike the gun cultures of slavery and colonialism, where the practical purposes of armed civilians were identifiable and subsequently mythologized in popular culture, a national gun culture has, Hofstadter argues, always been grounded in “genial fictions.” “Despite the poor record of militia troops in the Revolution, as compared with the courage and persistence of Washington’s small and fluctuating Continental Army,” he writes, “the myth persisted that the freedom of America had been won by the armed yeoman and the militia system.”
Hofstadter thus implies that gun culture in the United States has been sustained, for centuries, by an idea that never had any grounding in reality, or any practical purpose in social relations. The idea has endured, he argues, simply due to ignorance, “pathetic stubbornness,” and its inclusion in the Constitution. This is an unconvincing explanation, to say the least, and leads to problematic conclusions. It is unconvincing because the determination of the value of an idea—that is, whether it has a practical function—relies solely on its truth or correspondence to reality. The limitations of this view are clear if we look, for example, at the myth that white people are a biologically superior race. The myth of white supremacy (and biological race generally) has always been a fiction, but the tenacity of this untruth is not due to stubbornness, ignorance, or its inclusion in the Constitution. Rather, its tenacity owes to the fact that it plays an essential role in perpetuating a ruthless, centuries-old system of social domination, providing what Charles W. Mills calls the “cognitive and moral economy” psychically required to do whatever it takes to “establish and maintain the white polity.”
One problematic conclusion that follows from Hofstadter’s explanation concerns the community-defense practices of groups like the Black Panthers. Rather than understand them as a response to real threats of civilian and law enforcement vigilantism, he views practices of armed community defense as self-defeating and the result of faulty thinking—of subscribing to the “mythology about the protective value of guns.” The Panthers’ “accumulations of arms have thus far proved more lethal to themselves than to anyone else,” he writes. “Militant young blacks,” he continues, are, in general, merely “borrowing the white man’s mystique” by taking up arms.
Critically engaging Hofstadter is useful for two reasons. First, it is still common to overlook the practical and dangerous aspects of ideas which, at face value, do not appear to reflect social, political, or economic realities. Contemporary paramilitary groups are often described as engaging in live-action role-playing (LARPing) or “cosplay” when they show up at protests or grocery stores in tactical gear carrying rifles. Rittenhouse was called “a LARPer” when he showed up at the Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha. This ridicule relies on the assumption, shared by Hofstadter, that these people are arming and training for no real purpose. From this perspective, if they are neither defending nor fighting the government—which has a standing army and nuclear weapons—then it is little more than political theater. And if you dismiss these “patriots” as fanciful, you likely view the fear and self-defensive measures of the communities historically subject to white violence as equally unwarranted, just as Hofstadter did. In other words, you miss their function in sustaining particular forms of rule.
A second reason for a critical return to Hofstadter’s argument concerns its focus on public health and government regulation, and the debate over individual versus collective rights. Hofstadter is not alone in formulating a framework too narrow to capture the integral role gun culture plays in sustaining a racial order, how it can reflect and cultivate authoritarian commitments, and how it shapes group identities and political subjectivity. This framework is common, and it does not provide us with a vantage point from which we can see the larger context: how increased militarization coincides with the decline of legalized racism and the rise of Black liberation movements, from Black Power to Black Lives Matter; how “border security” has been extended into the heartland, blurring the line between policing and soldiering; or how claims to sovereignty have a racializing function.
The emergence of a tactical gun culture among civilians and law enforcement is just one component of a broader cultural shift toward authoritarianism, but we fail to understand it if we view it outside of this larger context. Gun culture and authoritarianism are, of course, not new in the United States. Brute force and antidemocracy have always been instrumental in sustaining the formal and informal regimes of racial domination that have characterized post-contact life in North America. For most of this history, however, the law explicitly supported white rule. Now, with formal support declining since the mid-twentieth century and a non-white demographic majority on the horizon, sustaining this racial order requires different mechanisms. The rise of a tactical gun culture is not sufficient to achieve this end, but it does cultivate the material and ideological conditions necessary for a return to an authoritarian legal and political order.
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