Kathryn Olmsted Probes Pro-Gun Conspiracy Theories in Campus Community Book Project Talk

Black and white photo of Ruby Ridge protesters. One holds a sign reading "YOUR HOME IS NEXT"
(Jeff T. Green, Associated Press.) Olmsted projected this photo of Ruby Ridge demonstrators during her talk.

Here is a familiar anti-gun control argument: citizens need guns to protect themselves from crime. And here’s another one: gun control laws are the work of secret forces plotting to overthrow the United States as we know it and institute a new tyrannical government. According to Kathryn Olmsted, Professor of History at UC Davis who gave the recent Campus Community Book Project talk “Guns and Conspiracy Theories,” it’s this second argument, mostly perpetuated by far-right extremists, that lends emotional weight to arguments against gun control.

Olmsted’s October 9 lecture was part of this year’s Campus Community Book Project (CCBP), a signature initiative of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This year’s CCBP centers on Gary Younge’s book Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives. Weekly events will bring members of the UC Davis community together around the topic of violence, including but not limited to gun violence. The CCBP culminates in a visit from Younge on Monday, March 2, 2020.

In her talk, Olmsted argued that white supremacist conspiracy theories about gun control have shadowed mainstream debates about the issue since the 1960s. Conspiracy theorists believe in an internal plot within the US government to put people of color, women, and LGBTQ people in power. The group supposedly behind this effort has been called the Zionist Occupational Government and the New World Order. Olmsted showed that since the 2016 election, conspiracy theorists online have increasingly adopted the term that President Trump favors: the Deep State.

Olmsted drew a thread from the 1960s through the 1990s to the present, focusing in particular on three key 1990s events that, she argued, galvanized anti-gun control conspiracy theorists. The first, the 1991-92 event known as Ruby Ridge, was a confrontation between Randy Weaver and the US Marshals and FBI. When Weaver, a heavily armed white separatist and survivalist living with his family in an isolated Idaho cabin, failed to appear in court on gun charges, US Marshals entered his property. A shootout and 11-day standoff ensued, leading to the deaths of Weaver’s wife and 14-year-old son, as well as a US Marshal.

Next Olmsted described the 1993 siege of the Waco compound where leaders of the Branch Davidians religious cult were suspected of sexual abuse and stockpiling illegal weapons. After a 51-day standoff, then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the FBI to use tear gas to force the Branch Davidians out. Instead, a fire engulfed the compound and killed nearly everyone inside. Olmsted showed footage of live TV coverage of the fire, explaining that many viewers sympathized with the Branch Davidians, who they perceived were murdered by the government for practicing their religion. Although the US Government claimed that the Branch Davidians had started the fire, controversy surrounding the event fueled conspiracy theories that the government was lying and had deliberately murdered the Branch Davidians.

Olmsted explained that extremists believed these two events were part of the same secret tyrannical plot. This conspiracy theory expanded in 1993 to include the Brady Bill, which requires gun buyers to submit to background checks before purchasing a weapon. The theory went that the bill was not designed to protect citizens but to surveil them by creating a government record of gun owners. These 1990s theories, Olmsted argued, are directly tied to those about acts of mass violence from the Oklahoma City Bombing to Sandy Hook, which claim that all those events were false flag operations designed to disarm and surveil US citizens. 

During the post-talk Q&A, audience members wondered whether there are more conspiracy theorists today than in the recent past. Olmsted showed that the actual number of people who believe in conspiracy theories has not risen since the 1960s. But, she speculated, conspiracy theories might appear more popular because of the anonymous platforms provided by social media and the fact that such theories are increasingly espoused by those with the most power, such as the United States President.

Olmsted’s talk brought community members together to discuss one of the most pressing issues of the current political moment, an outcome that aligns with the goals of the CCBP. In an article for the Davis Enterprise, Megan Macklin, Program Manager at the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, wrote, “Violence and gun violence have become an all-too-familiar part of the collective consciousness, and they are issues that are centered in current debates and divides across the nation. Recognizing the challenges, history, and trauma associated with the theme, this year’s book project intends to serve as one of the many campus and community conversations that will need to continue locally as well as nationally.”