"A Society Preparing for War"
On a bright, sunny morning in North Carolina, Bob Owens treated himself to a pleasant stroll through the downtown. His car, suffering from a worn-out clutch, had been left in the shop. Of all the businesses that lined the path, only the two gun stores were attracting any attention. Bob stopped for a moment. He'd stopped by a few days ago to get some .22 Long Rifle ammunition for an article he was writing for Shooting Illustrated. The massacre at Sandyhook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and the ensuing political fallout had reignited the gun control debate. Bob was curious if the effects could be felt in his own corner of the world. He walked through the door and witnessed something incredible.
A staff of at least six clerks worked tirelessly to serve a throng of customers. Like a swarm of locust, they had descended upon the establishment, and as Bob walked the aisles, the scope of the damage became apparent. Shelves which had usually been stocked with entire cases of ammunition were picked clean. Not a single round of popular calibers, like .223 Remington, 9mm Luger, .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 7.62x39mm, and 7.62mm NATO remained. The only weapons left were a few off-brand pistols, lever-action rifles, and hunting shotguns.
When Bob asked, he got a few words from a passing clerk busily going to his next task: There was no way to tell if anything would be restocked any time soon. Manufacturers were operating at full speed, only to watch their backorder lists grow day by day. Then, Bob saw something that drove it home: every military-patterned weapon was gone, not just the AR-15 an AKM derivatives, but every single firearm that had been designed within the past century for the sole purpose of killing human beings. American Springfields, British Enfields, and German Mausers. M14 clones and FALs were missing too, along with M1 Garands and M1 Carbines. Even the Mosin Nagant M91/30, the most common surplus rifle, was gone along with the otherwise abundant and cheap cases of 7.62x54mmR ammunition that it fired. "Only a dust-free space marked their passing," Bob later wrote. "This isn't a society stocking up on guns because they fear they'll be banned. This is a society preparing for war." Consumer trends validated his statement, at least, to the point that something unusual was going on. People were buying everything from spare parts to cleaning kits and military field manuals on proper maintenance and tactics. Stores that had not already run out of supplies began rationing.
At the same time Bob was sharing his thoughts with his subscribers on December 31, I was recovering from nasal surgery. I had the operation on December 15, one day after the shooting at Sandy Hook. The anesthesia made me so nauseous that I could not use a computer for several days. When I finally stabilized, I found an industry imploding. Distributors like Cheaper Than Dirt, Walmart, and Dick's Sporting Goods had pulled all firearm sales from their websites, namely AR-15 rifles. Magpul Industries published a statement condemning the price-gouging of their PMAGs (a popular polymer-framed magazine for self-loading rifles), which had gone from a retail price of $12.99 to $59.99 overnight. Outraged customers called for boycotts. A company's pricing was used to gauge their loyalty to the very concept of American civil liberty.
As I sat on my couch with a bandaged nose watching the firestorm burn in the public forums, the question came: why was this happening? People are scared, I thought. Whenever a politician makes a speech about gun violence and the need for more control, sales go up.
But this time it was different.
Events over the next five months drove those words home. Panic runs in the American firearms industry are not new. Someone might pay more for ammo at a local store, but the store would never run out. In 2011, Gallup reported that only twenty-six percent of the population favored a handgun ban. The mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Oak Creek, Wisconsin, did not change much. The presidential debates gave little attention to it. The issue would die down and the panic would stop, as it always did.
But this time it didn't stop. It accelerated. What I failed to understand was that Bob Owens had witnessed a microcosm of something that was taking place across the nation. It was, perhaps, the single greatest logistical feat in modern history. Tension had built over the course of four years, then erupted. All things gun-related were flying off the shelves. According to Gateway Pundit, Americans bought enough weapons and ammunition to fully equip the Chinese and Indian armies, the two largest on Earth. In December of 2012 alone, NICS recorded over 2.5 million requests for background checks. That means that over 2.5 million people, assuming none were denied, bought guns from licensed dealers. It would be logical to conclude that there were just as many unrecorded private sales.
With these sales came words and ideas that had dire implications. A great standoff began as people took sides. Government officials, police officers, soldiers, celebrities, ministers, business executives, anyone with an Internet connection and something to say. All loudly professed their beliefs amid the flurry of legislative proposals and rallies in Washington and every state capitol.
This wasn't just another panic run. It was a mobilization of everyone and everything. But why here? Why now? Those were questions I couldn't answer with a Google search. Something else was at work. A deep wound had been opened and was bleeding profusely. In writing this article, I sought to understand what many still do not. In one year and six months, between December 2012 and May 2014, America was pushed to the brink of violence. There was no Confederacy or secession movement, but we came closer to shooting it out than at any single point in the last one hundred and fifty years (that is, until the 2016 election).
A House Divided
In order to give clarity in an age of confusion, allow me to express myself in the only way I can: through history. Talk to anyone about the Civil War today and I almost guarantee they will not mention one of its most important players: John Brown. The radical abolitionist who killed for his cause in Kansas is barley a footnote in today's retrospective. We're focused on tactics and whether or not flying the Confederate battle flag is racist.
While Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 prompted the first round of Southern secession, historian Ed Baers maintained Brown didn’t get enough credit for his role in the worsening climate:
"[He was a] very important person in history, though, for only one episode. [He was a] failure in everything in life, except he becomes the single most important factor, in my opinion, in bringing on the war. The militia system in the South, which had been a joke before this, before them, becomes a viable instrument, as the Southern militias begin to take a true form and the South begins to worry about Northerners agitating the blacks to murder them in their beds. It was the beginning of the Confederate Army."
Alexander Stephens, future Vice President of the Confederacy, wrote, "Dissolution of the Union is becoming more general. Men are now beginning to talk of it seriously, who twelve months ago hardly permitted themselves to think of it."
The Newtown Shooting was the modern "John Brown moment." It created an atmosphere of hated and bitterness unlike any previous tragedy since 9/11, except now, that hatred was being spewed from Americans against their neighbors. Prejudices that had been thinly-veiled were bared in full. Unlike Heath High School, Columbine, or Virginia Tech, the guns themselves did not bear the full brunt of the anger. Gun owners did. Charley James of LA Progressive wrote, "[The] NRA is nothing less than a terrorist organization...whose soul is awash with blood." A caller to the Rush Limbaugh radio show said, "...if you are not for banning assault weapons, you are responsible for the deaths." Film director Michael Moore stated on "The Ed Show" that the majority of guns in America were owned by racist white people. The message was clear: there is no justifiable reason to own guns. It was painted as the new slavery.
As arguments raged over the Internet, the states of Colorado, New York, Maryland, and Connecticut passed new laws restricting gun access. The self-described "conservative" movement counterattacked with bold gestures of defiance, from the public and the gun industry. Magpul gave hundreds of free PMAGs to Colorado residents, where magazines holding more than fifteen rounds became illegal on July 1, 2013. Beretta moved its production out of Maryland. Khar Arms relocated from New York to Pennsylvania. Colt, famous for producing M1911 pistols and M16 rifles for the U.S. military, shifted its AR-15 plant to Texas. By now, there was a general awareness that a "domestic arms race" was underway. It continued well into the year. Brownell's, the world's largest sporting goods supplier, sold 3.5 years worth of AR-15 magazines in just three days. Some companies went even farther, refusing to sell weapons to police organizations if they operated in states where citizens could no longer own said weapons.
At gun shows I overheard conversations about "getting ready." Online forums debated the best course of action when "they" came for the guns. Like Alexander Stephens, they seemed resigned to the likelihood of a shooting war. As the deadline in Connecticut neared and people vowed that they would never register their rifles and magazines, Bob Owens wrote a stern warning to the State Police:
"Any SWAT raids on gun owners will not occur in a walled-off religious compound, nor in an isolated mountain cabin far away from prying eyes [references to the standoffs in Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, frequently cited as examples of excessive force]. Any raids will be in full view of the public, and if citizens are murdered as a result of law enforcement officers attempting to enforce this law, then somewhere between 80,000-100,000 will know that they are next on the list. Does anyone honestly think for a moment that these citizens will react to such a provocation by waiting for their loved ones to die in the next blaze of gunfire?"
The line was drawn. Two opposing sides watched and waited with millions of guns in play. Rumors floated in cyberspace. Would the offending state governments try to collect unregistered weapons by force? Would they kill people to do it? Did the Department of Homeland Security buy billions of rounds of ammunition for such a purpose? It seemed as if the "second Ft. Sumpter" could happen at any time. It almost did, at a place most Americans had never heard of: Bunkerville, Nevada.
Let It Be Here
Cliven Bundy's decades-long fight with the Bureau of Land Management would not have gained national attention under different circumstances. In March 2014, federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Park Service arrived at the ranch and began rounding up trespass cattle. Many Americans did not learn about the twenty-year court battle over grazing rights and range fees until after the armed confrontation was underway. There are no exact figures on how many protesters were at the ranch or what percentage of them were carrying weapons. Unarmed citizens decried the use of First Amendment zones, blocked roads, and screamed at federal agents. The image of a man laying in the prone position with his AKM rifle trained on the officers below went viral. Assistant Sheriff Joe Lombardo later recalled, "We were outgunned, outmanned, and there would not have been a good result from it."
And then, on April 12, it was over. The BLM announced an end to the round up. The federals withdrew. I'll never forget that day. I was outside working on a boat motor with my father when I got a text message from a friend. I said a prayer of thanks. That cooler heads prevailed was nothing short of an act of Providence. There were scuffles. An individual was tazed by a federal agent. A woman was thrown to the ground. Yet, there was no shooting, no tear gas, no armored cars in the streets of Bunkerville. It was a satisfactory conclusion.
The Road Ahead
Newtown and Bunkerville changed everything. It brought the idea of resisting government tyranny with force of arms back into the mainstream. In the wake of the largest panic run in history, .22 LR is still hard to find in some places.
The emotional firestorm that followed the tragedy created an atmosphere of hatred and bitterness. Americans looked at each other as enemies instead of fellow citizens. President Obama, already under fire for calling conservatives "bitter clingers," did not help the situation when he threatened to institute gun control "under the radar," which to many was a veiled threat to bypass Congress and enact new laws by executive order. However unlikely (or legally dubious) this claim may have been, people believed it was possible. Two New Jersey politicians were caught on a hot mike talking banning guns wasn't good enough, and confiscation was the ultimate goal. Many police chiefs said they would enforce such laws if passed, many said they would not. National media syndicates drove the anti-gun message while the gun industry purged itself of "traitors." In National City, California, a gun shop owner refused the city's order to remove a sign advertising AR-15 rifles, saying, "I will be in jail or dead before that sign comes down." Alexander Stephens words are true today as they were then.
Whether or not there was a legitimate threat of total gun confiscation, SWAT raids, or the likelihood of a shooting war at that particular time, there was a perceived threat. History shows that in many cases it is not the event itself that matters as much as people's reaction to said event. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand sparked a world war. The Powder Alarm galvanized Colonial militia. The Popish Plot led to a round of hysteria that forced Charles II to execute a number of Catholic officials, despite their innocence. To the Southerners, John Brown was proof of a radical abolitionist conspiracy operating with the full backing of Northern interests. He was their excuse for arming. In their minds, if the North was willing to arm slaves, what would prevent a politician from lying about his moderate stance only to abolish slavery once in office? They saw Lincoln, a man who won office without carrying a single Southern state, as such a threat. He was their excuse for leaving.
The hysteria died down after a time. The dreaded executive orders never came. Gun control efforts in multiple states were defeated. Eventually, like always, we moved on, however grudgingly.
The deaths of children and the grazing rights of cows were completely unrelated incidents. Today, Newtown and the so-called “Battle of Bunkerville” have faded from popular memory. It was replaced in the headlines by news of ISIS rampaging through the Middle East and Russian activity in Ukraine. Yet, the factionalism and mutual distrust remain. When Trump was elected and crowds of people stormed the streets screaming “Not my President,” when Johnny Depp publicly (and in my opinion, stupidly) queried whether or not an actor had ever assassinated a United States President, when ANTIFA and similar organizations emerged, I found myself reflecting on these things once again.
It was five years ago this month that two large groups of Americans, diametrically opposed in beliefs, pointed guns at each other but no one pulled the trigger.
We have the tools we need for fratricide. Thankfully, for the moment, it seems we lack the will.
1 "Something Funny Happened on the Way to Tyranny."
2 Johnson, Steve. "Magpul Statement on Magazine Prices." The Firearms Blog. December 19, 2012
3 Jeffrey M. Jones, "Record-Low 26% of U.S. Favor Handgun Ban," Gallup. 26 October 2013
4 Hoft, Jim. "Americans Buy Enough Guns in Last Two Months to Equip Chinese and Indian Armies." Gateway Pundit. January 14, 2013.
5 Ken Burns. The Civil War. Kenneth Lauren Burns Productions. 1990
6 James, Charley. "A Simple Truth." January 17, 2013.
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12 "Colt Moves Its AR-15 Plant to Texas Over Gun Control." Mr. Conservative. April 9, 2013.
13 "Brownell's Sells 3.5 Years Worth of AR-15 Magazines." Huffington Post.
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15 Owens, Bob. "When They Come." Bearing Arms. March 3, 2014.
16 Knapp, George. "I-Team: Police Faced Possible 'Bloodbath'". KLAS-TV 8 News Now. April 30, 2014.
17 "Obama Under Fire for Eyeing Gun Control 'Under the Radar." Daily Mail.
18 Newby, Joe. "New Jersey Politicians Caught Calling for Confiscation." The Blaze. May 12, 2013.
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