Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

This Ain’t About Freedom

The right’s gun fetish isn't about the Second Amendment. It’s about intimidation.
January 13, 2022
This Ain’t About Freedom
A supporter of President Trump holds a flag and gun outside the Arizona State Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza for the Washington Post)

One of the subtle evolutions of American conservatism under Donald Trump has been the transformation of gun culture from an enthusiasm for freedom to a mechanism for instilling fear.

Because if you look beyond the statements of faux patriotism and the claims of gun fetishists to be defending the Constitution, what you see is something that looks like early-stage fascism.

Consider the lionization of Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse is a high school dropout turned vigilante who went out of his way to insert himself into a situation that resulted in him killing two human beings. Both Rittenhouse and the men he killed were idiots, all in the wrong place at the wrong time and had the situation developed slightly differently, it could have been Rittenhouse who was shot dead and the other guys who were acquitted under the banner of self-defense.

Rittenhouse isn’t a hero. He’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when gun owners act irresponsibly. And yet the conservative movement has treated Rittenhouse like a conquering warrior: Donald Trump brought him to Mar-a-Lago. He’s been feted by Fox News. And just days ago Charlie Kirk introduced him to a standing ovation at a large gathering of Republicans. “You are a hero to millions,” Kirk said. A hero for doing what? Looking for trouble, finding it, and killing two people.

Maybe the most revealing thing Donald Trump ever said was a comment he made to Robert Costa and Bob Woodward in 2016: “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.”

This wasn’t a one-off. Trump has repeatedly expressed deep admiration for totalitarian strongmen, from the Chinese Communists who perpetrated the Tiananmen Square Massacre (“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”) to Vladimir Putin (“I think Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia, he’s been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you.”) to Kim Jong-un (““He’s the head of a country, and I mean, he’s the strong head, don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”).

How do you get “your people” to sit up at attention? It helps to have guns.

Look at the case of Republican Rep. Thomas Massie. He has always been tough to pick out of a crowd. In college, he maintained membership in the “solar car club” and then submitted a riveting thesis on “the force-reflecting haptic interface.” But in a political movement where over-the-top stunts and masculinity are now demanded, Massie understands that his pocket-protector past weighs on his political future.

So December, the Kentucky congressman deployed an arsenal to fix that troublesome image. Days after a deadly school shooting in Michigan, Massie posed for a Christmas card cradling a machine gun, joining his similarly well-armed family to create the sort of holiday greeting that could only reasonably be interpreted one way.

Massie wasn’t using any normal rifle. In his Christmas card he’s brandishing an M60, a military weapon that is not available to average citizens. It is a heavy gun, usually carried by elite soldiers of exemplary physical fitness. “Real” men, like the bandana-wearing muscled-up Donald Trump depicted on those weird flags we’ve seen for the last two years.

Massie’s Christmas card was similarly weird. In it, he seems to be smiling at the thought of firing that badass, belt-fed, long-range, fully automatic weapon of war, at a rate of more than 600 rounds per minute. If the gun looks familiar it’s because John Rambo used it in the movies.

By way of context, in September 2020 the House undertook a resolution reaffirming a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power following the 2020 election. Massie voted against it.

Many aspiring GOP authoritarians are using guns to send messages of intimidation. High school dropout turned congresswoman Lauren Boebert armed her children for a similarly disturbing holiday greeting. Rep. Boebert, a woman whose arrest record reads like an outtake from Tiger King, is also not a great representative for the cause of responsible gun ownership. There’s only one reason to put AR-15s in the arms of young children, and that’s as a performance piece. So the questions again become: Who is the intended audience for this performance and what is the message? We know. “Real power is . . . fear.”

And then there’s Marjorie Taylor Greene. Between racist rants and QAnon kookery, Greene fires .50-caliber sniper rifles at imagined socialists in her campaign commercials. Which is absolutely a thing that mentally stable, well-adjusted adults do and not something at all indicative of sociopathy.

Nobody wants to hear the Hitler analogies, but the Brown Shirt paramilitary operation was not entirely dissimilar to this growing band of GOP weirdos. Like other authoritarian revolutionary movements, the Nazi party recruited disaffected citizens, armed them, and then fed a constant diet of hateful conspiracy. Old grievances, arrest records, and other failures were erased by the legitimacy conferred by a gun and a flag. Street violence by the paramilitaries was encouraged. All in the name of instilling fear as part of the pursuit of power.

We aren’t there yet. The embrace of Rittenhouse’s vigilantism and Massie’s Christmas card hasn’t yet brought us to an American Kristallnacht. But these are steps in that direction.

And they also defy the long-held norms of responsible gun ownership.

The first step back is going to require responsible citizens—especially gun owners—to wake up to the transformation of gun culture. They need to understand that the modern embrace of extreme gun radicalization isn’t about freedom, but about fear and intimidation.

But this version of gun culture is neither normal nor patriotic.

It’s irresponsible and it’s wrong. It’s time for gun owners to stand up and say so. Freedom doesn’t just depend on the Second Amendment. It depends on having the courage to oppose those who would rule by fear.

Ryan Busse

Ryan Busse is a former award-winning executive in the firearms industry who is now a senior policy advisor for Giffords. He is the author of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America. Twitter: @ryandbusse.