The Atlanta Gun Show, held over a weekend in late September, had everything one might need for a coming apocalypse or civil war: flame throwers, hundreds of rifles, thousands of handguns and knives, body armor, survival kits, medical supplies.
Sprinkled among swords, boxes of sutures and night-vision goggles were the insignia of the modern extremist far-right: bright yellow patches for the Oath Keepers militia group, holsters and clothing engraved with the logo of the extremist Three Percenters. A stall at the back sold paperback copies of "The Anarchist Cookbook,” which describes how to make homemade bombs, along with a book called “Two Component High Explosive Mixtures.”
Nestled in the middle of the show at the Atlanta Expo Center, a man proudly displayed Nazi memorabilia: medals, swastika patches and a model of a German amphibious vehicle occupied by toy Nazi soldiers. People crowded around his table, asking questions about buying and selling Nazi stuff.
Gun shows like this have long been part of the connective tissue between mainstream conservatism and the American extremist movement. The vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens, but experts and former members of the extremist far-right said a passion for gun rights often serves as a gateway to radicalization – one eagerly exploited by recruiters and leaders in the movement.
“It is one of those things that far-right activists will use to get in the door,” said Jeff Schoep. He was once the leader of the National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the United States; now he advocates for leaving the life. “Just like illegal immigration, guns – the gun rights issue – all of these things are gateways that can be utilized.”
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The dystopian novel "The Turner Diaries" has inspired white supremacists and far-right extremists, including dozens of domestic terrorists, since its publication in 1978.
The premise of the novel is that Americans have been stripped of their guns by a tyrannical government. The first page refers to the "Gun Raids" and says, "What a blow that was to us! And how it shamed us! All that brave talk by patriots, ‘The government will never take my guns away,’ and then nothing but meek submission when it happened.”
"The Turner Diaries" has been tied to at least 200 deaths and 40 terrorist attacks and hate crimes since the 1980s, according to extremism researcher and author J.M. Berger. Photocopied pages from the book were found in Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s car when he was arrested.
For decades, extremists have been recruiting and radicalizing supporters with the fear that the government is intent on taking Americans' guns away, said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an activist who has tracked white supremacists since the 1990s.
“Remember, you're talking about a circle of people who feel they need to fight a civil war, so yeah, they're going to be all about their guns,” Jenkins said. “This is just a way to galvanize people, and galvanization is very important for these people.”
Jenkins and Berger said gun shows were traditionally hotbeds for such recruitment.
“In the '80s and '90s, this was really the central node in a networking universe,” Berger said. “This was where you could go to meet somebody, when you want to find something.”
Gun shows have been eclipsed by the internet for networking, with countless forums for cross-pollination between gun rights activists and extremists, Berger said.
Although the spaces where extremists exchange ideas have changed, the hysterical messaging about guns being taken away has endured.
Pro-gun propaganda meets extremism
A gun owner and marksman himself, Jenkins remembers seeing extremist literature at gun shows as early as the mid-1990s.
“The first time I went to a gun show was in ‘95, and one tape I purchased was an Alex Jones VHS tape,” Jenkins said, referring to the far-right conspiracy theorist who has been banned from most social media platforms. “There was a guy that had a table of all kinds of weird stuff."
Jones has built a career on fear-mongering, including over gun control. Among the many conspiracy theories he has pushed is the claim the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, which left 26 people dead including 20 children, was staged by the government in an attempt to push for stricter gun laws.
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No federal gun legislation was passed in the aftermath of the attack.
Opponents of gun control have been pushing fears about the government taking away Americans’ guns for decades, said Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, which advocates for stricter gun rules.
“Gun culture and gun rhetoric is, itself, bathed – saturated – in extremist conspiracy theories,” Volsky said. “What all of these conspiracy theories have in common, what this rhetoric really emphasizes, is the fear that a powerful government is going to come in and disarm you and impose their values onto you.”
This narrative isn’t limited to fringe media outlets. During the presidency of Barack Obama, when unauthorized militia groups thrived and Americans bought a record number of guns, Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, wrote a book called, “America Disarmed: Inside the U.N. and Obama's Scheme to Destroy the Second Amendment.”
Recruiting the 'normies'
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, social media companies scrambled to shut down accounts sharing misinformation about the presidential election or seeking to organize anti-government events.
Those users flocked to a new platform, the secure messaging app Telegram.
Computer science professor and extremism expert Megan Squire and others who monitor the extremist right watched as newcomers struggled to understand Telegram, which Squire calls "Terrorgam."
Also watching were extremists who were using the platform to recruit, communicate and organize.
On Jan. 13, Squire saw a message posted on one channel, Corona Chan News, with more than 8,400 subscribers. It laid out guidelines to accelerate the radicalization of incoming “normies” – people unfamiliar with the hateful messaging of the extremist world.
“When entering the chats be less combative,” the message read. “Push the most extremist focus points they already have in their heads thanks to Trump:”
The message included talking points people could use, including: “They’re coming for our 2A guns even before Biden is elected.”
Squire said messaging like that is an example of the “accelerationism” tactic extremists have used for decades. The idea is to raise mainstream, conservative talking points with newcomers and gradually introduce more controversial and hate-based ideas.
“It’s the operationalizing of a marketing concept,” Squire said. “First we’ll get you on this, and then we'll move you to this."
This marketing message has resonated beyond the far-right.
Guns: the uniting principle of the far-right and far-left
The White House now acknowledges the most severe threat from domestic terrorism in the U.S. comes from the far-right. In the post-9/11 era, white supremacists and other race-driven terrorists have killed and injured far more people than any other extremist group in the country, according to every trusted tally of domestic extremism.
But the pipeline from Second Amendment activism to extremism isn't exclusively a far-right problem.
On July 13, 2019, 69-year-old Willem van Spronsen was shot and killed while trying to attack a privately run immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Washington.
Van Spronsen was a self-declared supporter of Antifa, a political movement of far-left militants who oppose white supremacists. He was also an early member of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, a leftist organization that describes itself as "an anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-worker community defense organization."
In farewell letters to friends, Van Spronsen wrote that "detention camps are an abomination" and "I'm not standing by."
Leftist gun clubs, including several named for Brown, the abolitionist leader, have sprung up across the country in the last few years. Armed, left-wing activists have patrolled in public spaces in displays more typical of the far-right.
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And then there's the "Boogaloo" movement – a mishmash of ideologies that is neither far-right or far-left, but puts guns and the Second Amendment firmly at its center. Named for an internet meme, the Boogaloo movement has been associated with several acts of violence, including a 2020 rampage that left two law enforcement officers dead and four injured.
The popularity of guns at both fringes of the political spectrum worries experts like J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who has studied extremists for 25 years.
"Joining a gun group makes you feel powerful," MacNab said. "I'm worried about the street war. I'm worried about two very heavily armed groups meeting each other in the streets."
Michael Cargill has run Central Texas Gun Works, a gun shop and firearms academy in Austin, Texas, for more than 10 years.
The vast majority of his clients are everyday Americans of all backgrounds looking for security, said Cargill, who is Black and has been in a same-sex relationship for more than 20 years.
"The new shooters are people that are liberals, who are concerned with that threat from the right, from the extremist groups," Cargill said. "They're saying, 'Look, you know, we may need to defend ourselves, we may get caught up in something going down the road.'"
Buying guns, reluctant to talk
Shoppers approached outside the Atlanta Gun Show said they have never seen any advertising or recruitment by extremist groups at this gun show or any other. None would give their names.
RK Shows Inc., the organizer of the Atlanta Gun Show, did not respond to requests for comment.
Two young men, one white, one Black, packed multiple bulletproof vests, rifles and handguns into the back of their vehicle. They said they pay no attention to politics and have been interested in guns since they were kids. They wouldn't give their names.
Shortly afterward, security guards approached the USA TODAY reporter and ejected him from the grounds with a stern warning not to return.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How gun rights activism can expose people to extremism