In the United States, white people are the dominant group that produces homegrown domestic terrorists. The most recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which a white gunman named Stephen Paddock opened fire on a concert of 22,000 people, killing at least 59 and injuring 527, is a case in point. Despite the proliferation of these individuals and the extent of the massacres they create, there is a concerted effort by many not to label them as terrorists.
What is terrorism? Government agencies use different definitions. The FBI says there is no universally accepted definition, but according to the Code of Federal Regulations, terrorism is “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” As a technical term, terrorism depends on the motive and intent of the perpetrator.
In addition, the FBI defines domestic terrorism as “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
The state of Nevada, where the Las Vegas massacre took place, defines a terrorist act as “any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to … cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.”
Given these varying definitions of terrorism, exactly what is terrorism is open to debate, subject to interpretation and is highly racialized in the United States. People who are Muslim and dark skinned typically are called terrorists, while white American men who engage in acts of carnage are dismissed as lone wolves. Thus, terrorism is rendered a racialized affair, a matter of white skin privilege. Stephen Paddock is responsible for the deadliest mass shooting in modern history, and with 23 weapons recovered from the Mandalay Bay hotel rooms where he staged the attack, and 19 recovered from his home, some would reasonably believe he was a terrorist. Yet, there is no consensus as to whether this is the case. This, as white domestic terrorism is going unchecked as white supremacists, rightwing extremists, militias and others commit a majority of the acts of terror in America—115 out of 201 incidents between 2008 and 2016, as opposed to 63 committed by Islamic extremists and 19 committed by leftwing extremists and militias. The problem is so considerable among law enforcement, if not the policymakers, that the FBI is investigating 1,000white supremacists for suspected domestic terrorism activity, and has been investigating the infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists, who are more likely to kill police officers.
There are certain forces in society who have an interest in not having white mass shooters labeled as terrorists. While guns are framed as a matter of constitutional rights, arms manufacturing is also a lucrative business. The gun lobby has an interest in producing more and more firearms with minimal regulation and stopping even the most moderate gun control legislation. Further, many politicians depend on millions of dollars in donations from the gun lobby have a tangible financial interest in normalizing white terrorism. In addition, policymakers who would wage war with Muslim nations also have a vested interest in making terrorism a color-coded endeavor relegated only to Islamic groups.
Once a mainstream organization for hunters, marksmen and conservationists, the National Rifle Association has become a hardline Second Amendment absolutist, and perhaps the most successful lobbying group in Washington. The NRA has enjoyed an income boom over the last few years, in 2016 the organization listed its revenue as being over $400 million —all tax-free for the nonprofit organization with millions in assets and offshore accounts, and whose chief executive Wayne LaPierre earns over $5 million in annual salary.
As Politico reported, the NRA rewrote the Second Amendment, making millions of people believe the amendment is about an individual’s unregulated right to a gun for recreation or self-defense. They have accomplished this through strident antigovernment rhetoric, racism and advocating extremist positions such as legalizing the carrying of weapons anywhere, including streets, bars and churches, the use of cop-killer bullets and military-grade weapons.
Immediately before the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, LaPierre said the then-new assault weapons ban “gives jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” This stance caused its former president Richard Riley to tell The Washington Post, “We were akin to the Boy Scouts of America . . . and now we’re cast with the Nazis, the skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan.” President George H.W. Bush resigned from the group as a result.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, even called the NRA terrorists. When asked in 2015 if he would come to the table and negotiate with the pro-gun lobby, he said: “This is not a negotiation with the NRA. We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” The Brady Campaign has argued NRA policies are killing cops by protecting gun manufacturers and dealers from accountability and allowing violent criminals to obtain guns without a background check.
The NRA has normalized the amassing of weapons by its white male base by arguing that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” as LaPierre once said. After each gun massacre, the group and its surrogates claim the issue of guns should not be politicized. Yet, the gun lobby is very political, as the primary force behind the Stand Your Ground Laws used to justify the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin and other young Black men. The organization also donated $30 million to the Trump campaign after enjoying years of painting Obama as a boogeyman–a Kenyan-born secret Muslim who was leading a plot to confiscate all of the guns– in order to boost gun sales to historic levels.
The NRA uses fear and race baiting to make Americans believe that minorities, rather than bad policies and easy access to firearms, are the cause of gun violence. Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said the NRA understands the racial dynamics at play. “As long as we can blame something other than guns, America will not have to come to terms with the truth that violence is a complicated phenomenon that is made far more lethal by the easy availability and killing power of firearms,” he said. “And for an organization with an overwhelmingly conservative, white base, that ‘something other’ is minorities.”
Following last year’s Orlando massacre, Chris W. Cox, executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said gun control would not prevent attacks, but fighting terrorism would. “It’s time for us to admit that radical Islam is a hate crime waiting to happen. The only way to defeat them is to destroy them — not destroy the right of law-abiding Americans to defend ourselves” he said. At its 2012 annual conference, the NRA selected radical Islamophobe Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, who said there should be “no mosques in America” as keynote speaker of a prayer breakfast, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Boykin argued that “Islam is evil” and “a totalitarian way of life” that “should not be protected under the First Amendment.”
Black activists have accused the NRA of using race as a scare tactic to their legions of white members. Following the police shooting death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, the NRA blamed the Black man for his own death. Bill Whittle, a new NRA commentator who promotes the academic racism of white nationalists, believes Black people are intellectually inferior, that there is a link between IQ, race and crime, and that races could be divided between “civilized man” and “barbarian.” Ted Nugent, an NRA board member, commented in 2104 following the events in Ferguson, Missouri: “The overwhelming majority of violent crime across America is conducted by young, black males who, sadly, are on the self-inflicted expressway to prison or an early grave-or more often than not, both.”
Two NRA ads were criticized for their political extremism and racism. The first, narrated by Dana Loesch, vilify protesters and all but calls for civil war, was likened to the white equivalent of an ISIS recruiting video:
The second ad was narrated by NRA TV host Grant Stinchfield. Stinchfield—who recently called for the bombing of California by North Korea—defends the first video by attacking “the violent left” and going after Black activists.
In the wake of Las Vegas, Republicans in Congress are so far moving forward this week with the Hearing Protection Act, which would make it easier to purchase silencers by removing them from the list of items regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934. Part of a larger package called the Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, the silencer provision is designed to protect hunters and hunting dog from hearing loss, according to the sponsors of the bill. Gun control advocates argue such legislation would enable mass shooters by making it harder to hear gunfire and locate gunmen. The original hearing for the legislation had been postponed when Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) was critically wounded in a shootout during baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia.
Gun control groups are opposed to other NRA sponsored legislation such as the proposed concealed carry reciprocity, which would force each state to recognize the concealed carry standards of every other state, allowing violent offenders to carry hidden handguns.
In the wake of the deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, with white supremacists and Nazis intimidating people with their military-style weapons, the SPLC called for states to change their open carry laws.
Meanwhile, thanks to the NRA, Congress has now defunded the two decades old Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s gun violence research program, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which seeks to treat gun violence as public health issue so as to determine its causes and ultimately prevent it.
In America, where mass shootings and gun proliferation reveal a uniquely American problem, white men are a terrorist threat. But if the NRA has anything to do with it, white men will never be called terrorists.