President Obama’s push for tighter gun control legislation in the wake of the Newtown school shootings has led to an increase in anti-government rhetoric that parallels the rise of militia groups in the early 1990s, according to experts.
“The response to Obama’s talking about gun control has been enormous,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremist groups.
Potok sees parallels between the political discourse today over gun control, and a period in 1993 and 1994 when militia groups began forming after shootouts between federal officers and extremists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas.
“There’s been a huge amount of rage and it’s been at enormous volume. It’s come from state legislators, county sheriffs and even congressmen,” Potok said. “A lot is coming from the militia groups where the rage is white hot.”
Another expert says that while angry rhetoric doesn’t equate to violent activity, it should not be ignored.
“It’s not the fact they are stating their opinions that people should be concerned about -- it's willingness to commit violence -- but you have to take rhetoric seriously,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigations for the Anti-Defamation League. “It could mean that people expressing these sentiments might commit violence or convince others to commit violence. You ignore it at your peril.”
Potok noted that opposition to gun control legislation is now coming from elected law enforcement officers in rural areas. A Colorado sheriffs' organization, for example, signed a policy statements against background checks and curbs on ammunition magazines, while a Utah sheriffs' group said that no federal official would be allowed to take away gun rights and they would “trade our lives” to defend their interpretation of Second Amendment guarantees. Last month, a small town in Pennsylvania passed a local resolution banning any federal gun restrictions, while an Oregon sheriff said he would refuse to enforce any gun control measures passed by the federal government.
Legal experts have noted that local law enforcement authorities have never enforced federal gun laws, that’s the job of the FBI or the ATF, depending on the law.
While it’s clear that many of these angry statements are simple expressions of opinion, Potok says he is concerned that some people may take the these views in the wrong way.
“What people in positions of authority say matters,” Potok said. “When you have sheriffs out there who are respected who are saying I refuse to obey federal law, the sheriff might not fire at federal agents, but others may be encouraged to do that. How can you have any kind of law enforcement system where local and federal authorities won’t work together and perhaps work at cross-purposes?”
Pitcavage said it would take at least a year to determine whether the gun legislation has spawned greater membership in extremist, organized anti-government groups.
"It's still top early to tell," he said.
The Senate is expected to take up gun control legislation this month, with legislative leaders saying they hope to have a final bill passed in Congress by summer.