Gun Control in the US: The “Cohen Act”?
Gun Control in the US: The “Cohen Act”?
Leonard Weinberg & Matthew Feldman
As US gun sales soar in anticipation of proposed curbs to gun ownership following the Newtown massacre, Leonard Weinberg and Matthew Feldman look at the narratives that fuel far right groups and warn of the potential dangers posed by anti-gun legislation.
In the weeks following the Newtown, Connecticut shootings on December 14, 2012, there have been highly publicized appeals for Congress and the Obama Administration to enact measures prohibiting certain guns (e.g. assault rifles) and requiring background checks on those wishing to purchase firearms. Most notably, in the days after Adam Lanza’s massacre of twenty-six children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, Vice-President Biden was given the difficult task of proposing recommendations to restrict rampant American gun violence – responsible for some 30,000 American deaths each year. Biden’s recommendations were endorsed by Obama on January 16, 2013, with “universal” background checks now a “top priority” for ensuing legislation.
In partial consequence, gun sales soared throughout the US following the Newtown killings. The AR-15 assault rifle, the type of weapon used by Lanza, was an especially big seller. This dramatic increase in sales is part of a normal pattern. A spike in transaction typically follows each mass murder in the US in the gun business, such as that in Colorado last year; in fact, AK-47 assault rifles were selling “like hotcakes” after the re-election of President Obama. By and large this spike was precipitated by a fear that the massacre will lead to new restrictions on gun purchases.
Responses to Biden’s taskforce on gun control have been swift and inflamed – particularly on further reaches of the conservative and the far right. These developments occur in a heated political context, one in which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identified more than 1,000 “hate groups” scattered around the country last year (e.g. neo-Nazi, KKK, racist skinheads, white nationalist, Christian Identity advocates). This total excludes so-called “patriot” groups, often synthesizing various right-wing themes and concerns, ranging from taxes to immigration. Rejection of gun control tout court also remains another longstanding consideration. Regarding more extreme proponents of unrestricted Second Amendment rights, the SPLC also estimated more than 1,200 “patriot” bands active in 2011, of which some 330 were organized as explicitly paramilitary militias.
These American “patriot” groups initially emerged in the early 1990s, fearful that the federal government was under the control of a “New World Order”. “Patriots” believed that the UN and other supposedly evil forces were eroding American sovereignty. This fear was prompted by a speech delivered by President H.W. Bush just days before the first Iraq War: “we have a real chance at this new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the U.N.'s founders.” Alleged federal conspiracies quickly followed, aiming to curtail American gun ownership through heavy-handed government actions in Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and Waco, Texas in 1993. For these burgeoning “patriot militias” during the Clinton administration (1992-2000), armed resistance was a chief method for preventing any encroachment upon the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Since then, many of these one-time far-right ideas have seeped into the conservative mainstream. While the development of the Tea Party and similar groups has been relatively well covered in the media, much less has been written about the way in which these patriot militias have returned with renewed growth under the Obama administration. Of perhaps still greater importance, and indeed necessity, is the pressing task of evaluating recent responses by conspiracy-minded, far-right activists to proposed firearm legislation in the wake of Newtown’s spree killings.
With the possible exceptions of“Mein Kampf”and“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the most widely circulated book amongst American far right activists is “The Turner Diaries”. Originally published in 1978 by ‘Andrew Macdonald’, this novel was, in fact, written by William Pierce, a key figure in the American neo-Nazi movement, the National Alliance. Pierce turned to neo-Nazism in hopes of igniting a racist revolution in the US. This violent uprising would overthrow the Jewish-controlled federal government (known as ZOG, or the Zionist Occupation Government), immediately leading to the restoration of Aryan domination of American society. The Jews would be killed and non-whites – so-called “dusky hordes” – expelled or worse.
Violent far right activists have long scoured “The Turner Diaries” for inspiration. The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was so impressed by the book’s message that he used to sell copies at Midwestern gun shows. In Pierce’s novel, moreover, the first major act of terrorism committed by the neo-Nazi “Organization” was the bombing of an FBI headquarters. McVeigh evidently derived his inspiration for his lethal attack – which killed 168 people in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building on 19 April 1995 (itself the second anniversary of the ATF storming of Waco) – from “The Turner Diaries’”extreme message.
Robert Jay Mathews was another key figure in the recent history of far right terrorism in the US. In 1983 Mathews left the Aryan Nations’ compound in Idaho to create his own terrorist group, the Silent Brotherhood. Mathews found the Aryan Nations – at that time under Reverend Richard Butler – too tepid, and backed by too little direct action. As a result, Mathews sought to model his group after the “Organization” described in “The Turner Diaries”. Mathews and his roughly two-dozen followers then staged a number of bank robberies and various acts of mayhem before being arrested in 1984. Mathews himself was killed in a shootout with the FBI near Seattle, Washington, that same year. Since then, Mathews’ grave has become a site of pilgrimage for North American neo-Nazis.
“The Most Controversial Book in America”
The reason for our brief account of “The Turner Diaries’”past influence on right-wing extremism in the United States is to speculate about its future impact. What sets off Earl Turner and his band of racial revolutionaries is “The Cohen Act”: a law requiring the confiscation of all guns held by Americans, promoted by a fictitious Senator Cohen. Pierce’s apocalyptic tale begins with the passage of legislation: immediately afterward, “all of us in the Organization had cached our guns and ammunition where they weren't likely to be found.”This law so infuriated “patriotic” citizens that they became sympathetic to appeals of a so-called racial holy war (“RAHOWA”) and the extermination of the Jews. Pierce’s novel directly held the latter responsible for anti-gun legislation.
Amongst copies of “The Turner Diaries” trundling around extreme right websites, a telling example of the novel’s recent influence is provided by Solar General, “The Most Controversial, Censored and Forbidden Web Site in the World”. The reason for this audacious claim, it seems, is due to strident calls for “White Revolution” throughout its webpages. Solar General’s library section, containing several hundred neo-Nazi texts ranging from books on Holocaust Denial to paramilitary “field manuals”, also, and not unexpectedly, provides a free online copy of “The Turner Diaries”. An additional foreword offered in this online version of Pierce’s novel begins in bold letters: “What will you do when they come to take your guns?” This short foreword then concludes:
"Earl Turner and his fellow patriots face this question and are forced underground when the U.S. government bans the private possession of firearms and stages the mass Gun Raids to round up suspected gun owners. The hated Equality Police begin hunting them down, but the patriots fight back with a campaign of sabotage and assassination. An all-out race war occurs as the struggle escalates. Turner and his comrades suffer terribly, but their ingenuity and boldness in devising and executing new methods of guerrilla warfare lead to a victory of cataclysmic intensity and worldwide scope.
The FBI has labeled The Turner Diaries "the bible of the racist right." If the government had the power to ban books, this one would be at the top of the list. The Turner Diaries is the most controversial book in America today and it's a book unlike any you've read!"
Writing in the 1970s, Pierce was naturally confined to the realm of futuristic fiction. As demonstrated by the actions of McVeigh and The Order, the racist fantasies propounded by “The Turner Diaries”have already provided inspiration for quite indiscriminate violence by a very real American extreme right. Perhaps now more than at any time previously for American militias and radical right activists more generally, the very steps “prophesied” by “The Turner Diaries” can be interpreted as coming to pass now, some thirty-five years later.
Thus, we cannot help but notice though that a number of prominent Jewish public figures have taken a lead in the emerging gun control campaign, inadvertently playing into the racist narrative of the far right. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York and billionaire businessman, intends to spend some of his own fortune on waging a publicity campaign aimed at raising public support for gun control. Another mayor and Jew, Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago, has been an outspoken critic of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its opposition to gun control measures. At the federal level, both Senators Diane Feinstein and Charles Schumer have taken a lead in promoting new controls on gun ownership. Former Representative Gabby Giffords (herself the victim of a mass shooting episode in Tucson, Arizona) has also played a highly visible role in the new campaign to restrict the sale of assault weapons.
Furthermore, the rhetoric emanating from the far right on the issue of gun control is already bordering on the apoplectic. By way of ‘mainstream’ example, Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano recently argued: “Here’s the dirty little secret about the Second Amendment, the Second Amendment was not written in order to protect your right to shoot deer, it was written to protect your right to shoot tyrants if they take over the government.” The neo-Nazi leader Matt Koehl, head of the New Order (and one of George Lincoln Rockwell’s numerous successors), echoed this violent sentiment by claiming that private gun ownership represents a “final check” against tyranny. At the end of last year, Koehl went on to assert that this concept was originally a Germanic idea borrowed by America’s Founding Fathers in defense of “free men”. In short, we can contemplate a potentially combustible situation.
Observers of terrorism have largely abandoned the idea that this type of political violence must have deep-seated or underlying causes. There is an abundance of instances where such causes have been identified but terrorist violence, thankfully, has not occurred. On the other hand, terrorism has become widespread in places where the alleged “causes” seemed to be lacking. Rather than pursuing a set of such determinants, many informed commentators on terrorism now prefer to use the term “risk factors”. In short, analysts seem able to identify certain risky circumstances bearing some likelihood of giving rise to terrorist campaigns.
We think that the United States may now find itself in such a situation. The efforts at gun control, the prominence of certain Jewish public figures in these laudable efforts, and the presence of a not inconsequential cluster of armed and angry groups, may together set-off a wave of political violence carried out either by “lone-wolves” or small-cell groups as described by William Pierce’s “The Turner Diaries”.
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