Investigative reporting has illuminated connections between pro-gun activists and the fringe protests demanding that various states prematurely end stay-at-home orders and allow nonessential businesses to reopen. Local gun activists in Wisconsin and Virginia, some well-known national gun rights extremists, and pro-gun message boards are cheering on the protests too.
The nationwide anti-quarantine protests started with what was dubbed “Operation Gridlock” on April 15 in Lansing, Michigan, one of states that has been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of cars drove up to the capitol to demonstrate against the state’s stay-at-home order, and protesters led chants to “recall” Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had recently extended the order and added more restrictions. Similar protests quickly cropped up across the country and featured signs that expressed anti-government sentiments -- resisting vaccines, comparing the stay-at-home orders to tyranny, and emphasizing freedom over safety.
But in reality, the majority of Americans want to continue the stay-at home orders. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also warned against reopening the country too early, saying, “It’s going to backfire.”
On April 19, The Washington Post reported, “A trio of far-right, pro-gun provocateurs is behind some of the largest Facebook groups calling for anti-quarantine protests around the country.” That trio is Ben Dorr and his two brothers Christopher and Aaron, who are best known for managing a “slew of pro-gun groups across a wide range of states, from Iowa to Minnesota to New York, and seek primarily to discredit organizations like the National Rifle Association as being too compromising on gun safety.”
On April 15, Ben Dorr created the Facebook group “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine,” while Christopher and Aaron have created variations of the group for Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. The pages are rife with conspiracy theories claiming the government will force people to get vaccinations and that health experts have been inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths.
Armed far-right militia groups were among the protesters who turned up to support these allegedly grassroots events. Members of the alt-right, self-described “Western chauvinist” group Proud Boys and the Michigan Liberty Militia appeared at a Michigan rally, according to an April 17 article by The Guardian. The article also mentioned that members of a Washington state chapter of the paramilitary, anti-government group The Three Percenters indicated in a Facebook post that they would show up at protests in the state.
In a live-streamed video on Facebook, pro-gun figure and rancher Ammon Bundy pledged to provide, as a KREM 2 News report noted, “legal, political and physical defense to Idaho residents” who wanted to defy the stay-at-home orders. He has reportedly held several meetings in Emmett, Idaho -- where he lives -- to discuss ways to defy orders meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. Bundy is best known for leading a 41-day armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016. He is also the son of Cliven Bundy, who engaged in an armed standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights for his cattle on public land in 2014.
Beyond these prominent figures, two local gun activists appear to have been involved in planning protests in Wisconsin and Virginia.
Thomas Leager in Wisconsin
Thomas Leager is listed as a moderator on the “#REOPEN WISCONSIN Liberty, Community, Rally & Action Page” on Facebook. According to the page’s description, it is an “action page for protests and rallies and ideas to help reopen Wisconsin.”
Leager, who is the co-founder of the far-right “Free Men Report,” previously organized a number of pro-gun protests in Wisconsin. As part of the state chapter of the National Constitutional Coalition of Patriotic Americans, he organized a Second Amendment rally in April 2018 as a response to the student-led March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. Leager was also a co-organizer of the Wisconsin Patriots Alliance’s “We The People” rally to protest against Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) -- laws that would allow a firearm to be temporarily removed from someone who is determined to pose a credible threat to themselves or others. On November 2, 2019, The Free Men Report hosted a “We Will Not Comply” rally in Wisconsin to oppose universal background check legislation, ERPOs, and gun registries.
Curt Diemer in Virginia
Curt Diemer is listed as a moderator on the public Virginians Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook page, which is hosting an anti-quarantine rally in Richmond, Virginia, on May 1. He created a petition to “make LYNCHBURG Virginia a 2nd Amendment Sanctuary!” and presented it to the Lynchburg City Council on January 14. The motion ultimately failed, though Diemer pledged to take the petition to Richmond on January 20 for the state’s annual “Lobby Day,” organized by the pro-gun extremist group Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Support from pro-gun communities
Information about the state anti-quarantine rallies was also shared on the far-right, pro-gun forum AR15.com, where a notice for the “Operation Gridlock” protest in Lansing, Michigan, was posted the morning of, on that state’s “Hometown” subforum. The site also featured posts about upcoming protests in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in those specific state forums. Most posts were met with a positive response, whether general enthusiasm about the effort or tentative commitments to attend.
The National Rifle Association agreed with President Donald Trump’s April 17 endorsement of the protests in Virginia, while NRA board member and gun extremist Ted Nugent enthusiastically exclaimed the Michigan protesters “are my people” and encouraged them to “never backdown never giveup never givein!”
These protests are dangerous in every way: defying social distancing orders, potentially spreading a virus that has caused a global pandemic, and amping up tensions even further. Gun rights activists and communities are capitalizing on existing anxieties to gin up support for a dangerous and ill-advised movement bringing together a wide variety of anti-government communities.