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April 13, 2016

Firearms Increasingly Weapon of Choice in Extremist-Related Killings

extremistkillingswithfirearms1970-2015In the popular imagination, the bomb is the weapon typically associated with terrorists or extremists—but in the U.S. extremists seem to be killing more people with firearms than with any other weapon, and that use may be increasing.

It is certainly true that many of the high-profile terrorist attacks in the United States over the past century have been bombings, including the 1919 anarchist bombing campaign, the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, among many others. Extremist serial bombers such as the Weather Underground, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and Eric Rudolph have all gotten their share of headlines.

However, extremists use a wide variety of deadly implements to commit their crimes, terrorist-related or otherwise, from fists and boots to airplanes. The most common tool of violence seems to be the simple firearm, a weapon that extremists can use when committing terrorist acts, hate crimes, assassinations, armed robberies, and all manner of traditional crime. In the United States, firearms are easy to obtain and easy to use. American extremists of all possible types, from the far left to the far right, as well as religious extremists, have used firearms to commit deadly acts.

How common is such firearms use in the United States? The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism examined 890 murders committed by domestic extremists in the United States from 1970 through 2015—both ideological and non-ideological killings by extremist perpetrators—and discovered that around 55% of these killings involved use of a firearm; all other weapons combined made up the other 45%.

This figure signifies both the popularity of firearms among extremist movements in the United States, especially right-wing extremists, as well as the fact that attacks with other types of weapons may be less likely to end in death. Attacks using knives or fists, for example, may possibly result in non-fatal injuries more often than firearms. On the other end of the scale, bombings are more difficult to carry out—with many extremist bombing plots detected and prevented by law enforcement from ever being executed.

When one breaks down the numbers by decade, it appears that, after a dip in the 1980s and 1990s, firearms are becoming more popular than ever as the deadly weapons of choice for American extremists. Not only have the numbers of domestic-extremist related killings in the U.S. increased over the past 20 years, but so too has the frequency of firearms as the weapons in such killings.

In the 1970s, extremists—primarily coming from the far left—used firearms in 61% of domestic extremist-related killings in the United States. Many of these incidents involved members of left-wing extremist groups such as the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army attacking police officers.

The percentage of firearms use in extremist-related killings dipped in the 1980s, to only 46%, then dropped drastically in the 1990s, down to 20%. This latter figure is greatly distorted by the Oklahoma City bombing, which itself resulted in 168 deaths, but even if the bombing were left out of the calculations, the new number would only be 42%. There are several reasons that seem to account for these lower figures, including the rise of white supremacist prison gangs committing murders behind bars and the growth of the racist skinhead subculture in the United States, whose adherents often eschewed firearms for beating and stabbing attacks.

However, in the 2000s, firearms once more were the deadly weapons in the majority of killings, with 62% of the killings between 2001 and 2010 involving one or more firearms. So far in the current decade, the percentages are even higher, with 72% of the domestic-extremist related deaths from 2011 through 2015 involving firearms.

What accounts for this increase? Several factors seem to have played a role. One is the increased use of firearms by several extremist movements. Racist skinheads seem to use firearms with greater frequency in the 2000s than they did in earlier decades, while the growth of white supremacist prison gang activity on the streets—as opposed to behind bars—has allowed their members much greater access to and use of firearms.

Even more concerning is the apparent gravitation of domestic Islamic extremists towards firearms as a weapon of choice. In the early years of this movement, following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, much of the energy of those extremists with violent impulses were directed at elaborate plots involving bombs or even military weapons—plots typically stopped by law enforcement before they could ever be carried out.

Since 2009, however, there have been a number of high-profile incidents in which Islamic extremists have used firearms to conduct shootings (and one instance, the Boston Marathon bombing, where the perpetrators used both bombs and firearms), including shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and San Bernardino, California.

The rise of ISIS in the past several years may have contributed to the increase in attempted small arms attacks; Al Qaeda generally favored high-spectacle and symbolic attacks, whereas ISIS has been more practical, urging adherents to commit any attack they think they can pull off.

Most of the Islamic-related shootings were mass shootings, which may be the final piece of the puzzle. Though most extremist killings continue to take one victim at a time, the number of multiple victims in deadly extremist-related incidents (both ideological and non-ideological) has certainly grown. Since 2001, there have been 24 domestic extremist incidents in which at least three people were killed—and firearms were the weapons used in the vast majority of these cases, including such deadly shooting sprees as the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting and the 2015 Charleston church shooting.

The increased number of multiple victim incidents by extremists is also one of the reasons why the death toll has been rising. From extremists on the right such as white supremacists and anti-government extremists to religious extremists such as domestic Islamic extremists, gun violence seems more likely to increase than decrease in the coming months and years

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March 8, 2016

Shooting Investigation Vindicates Troopers, Raises Questions About FBI Actions

lavoyfinicumshootingOregon authorities revealed today the results of their investigation into the fatal shooting of anti-government extremist Robert “LaVoy” Finicum by Oregon state troopers during an attempt by state and federal authorities to arrest many of the ringleaders of the January 2 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

The investigation vindicated the actions of the state troopers who shot Finicum, but revealed that there is a separate misconduct investigation ongoing into some of the FBI agents’ actions at the scene.

On January 26, several weeks into the refuge standoff, Oregon state troopers and agents from the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team attempted to conduct a planned traffic stop of two vehicles filled with occupiers on their way to a meeting, so that they could arrest several of the extremists.  Both vehicles initially stopped but the one driven by Finicum subsequently sped off down the road until it crashed into a snowbank after narrowly avoiding running into a law enforcement roadblock.

As captured on video taken by a police helicopter circulating overhead, Finicum almost immediately jumped out of the vehicle.  As Oregon state troopers approached from two directions, Finicum twice reached towards his jacket, as if to pull out a weapon (he did have a weapon there, it was determined). At the second reach, the troopers opened fire on Finicum, fatally wounding him.

After any officer-involved shooting, there is an investigation. In this case, the investigation took on added importance because of the sensitive nature of the situation: anti-government extremists believe that Finicum was deliberately murdered and since his death have energetically tried to turn him into a martyr for the “Patriot” movement cause, creating a risk of future violence.  Indeed, on the weekend before the investigation results were released, anti-government activists staged nearly 50 rallies across the country to protest his death.

The Oregon investigation concluded that the two troopers who had fired shots at Finicum were justified in so doing, because the troopers believed Finicum was about to injure or kill someone.  Another trooper, who had fired three shots at Finicum’s truck as it was about to hit the roadblock, was also vindicated.

However, in a surprising revelation, authorities announced that the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the actions of five FBI agents present at the scene of the shooting.  The state investigation uncovered that one FBI agent allegedly fired two shots during the incident, then allegedly subsequently denied to investigators that he had fired his weapon.  Neither shot hit Finicum. The other agents under investigation reportedly may have helped cover for the first agent. It is not clear when this second investigation will be complete.

The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team was heavily criticized in the 1990s for actions and decisions its agents had taken at armed standoffs in Idaho and Texas involving extremists or fringe groups, but it has not had any controversies in recent years.

The admission of possible FBI misconduct will unfortunately provide more ammunition for anti-government extremists attempting to use Finicum’s death to stoke anti-government anger.  This in turn may increase the risk that right-wing extremists may engage in acts of violence out of some sort of desire for retribution. Thus the news of possible FBI misconduct—never welcome under any circumstances—was particularly disturbing in this context.

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February 2, 2016

Robert “LaVoy” Finicum: The Making of a Martyr

On January 26, 2016, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, one of the anti-government extremists involved in the January 2 armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters near Burns, Oregon, was fatally wounded by Oregon State Police (OSP) troopers during an attempt by the OSP and the FBI to arrest Finicum and a number of key occupiers.

Helicopter footage of shooting of "LaVoy" Finicum (middle) as he seems to reach for a weapon.

Helicopter footage of shooting of “LaVoy” Finicum (middle) as he seems to reach for a weapon.

Finicum, along with occupation leader Ammon Bundy and others, were traveling in two vehicles to attend a community meeting in John Day, Oregon, where they hoped to find support for their armed seizure. Seeing an opportunity to apprehend most of the takeover leaders away from the refuge and its many armed extremists, the FBI and the OSP organized a traffic stop with roadblocks along the rural road to John Day. One of the two vehicles stopped and its occupants were removed peacefully.

The other vehicle, driven by Finicum, fled the traffic stop, only to encounter a roadblock a short distance away. Perhaps attempting to evade the roadblock, Finicum drove his vehicle into a snowbank, narrowly missing the police vehicles and an officer.

While other occupants stayed in the vehicle—possibly trapped by the snowbank—Finicum rushed out into the snow. Video footage shot from a helicopter shows a trooper approaching Finicum with the trooper’s weapon drawn. Though Finicum had emerged from the vehicle with his hands partially raised, upon seeing the trooper he appears to have reached for something under his jacket (authorities later confirmed he had a firearm). A second trooper emerged from the woods behind Finicum, which Finicum seems to have heard, because he turned around and once more reached into his jacket. Upon seeing this motion, the second trooper fired shots at Finicum, killing him. Ryan Bundy, another vehicle occupant, suffered a minor gunshot wound, apparently from a stray bullet.


Manufacturing a Folk Hero

The decision by federal and state authorities to make the arrest attempt was in some respects a risky one, not only because officers could be wounded or killed by extremists, but also because the wounding or death of any of the occupiers could have negative consequences in terms of enraging the extreme right and possibly prompting acts of violence.

The arrests did disrupt and demoralize the Malheur occupiers, most of whom soon left the refuge, while a few others were arrested. As of this writing, only four holdouts at the refuge remain, primarily because there is a federal charge against one of them that they want dropped before they will surrender.

However, the death of Finicum unfortunately provided adherents of the so-called “Patriot” movement (which includes militia groups, sovereign citizens, and other anti-government extremists) with something that authorities had hoped to avoid: a potential martyr around whom anti-government extremists could rally. Moreover, anger over Finicum’s death could possibly spawn acts of violent retribution. Rage over deadly standoffs between fringe groups and individuals at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993 played a major role in sparking the resurgence of right-wing extremism in the mid-1990s that led to the Oklahoma City bombing and many other acts of violence or attempted violence.

Upon learning of Finicum’s death, “Patriot” movement adherents immediately claimed that he was murdered, though initial accounts from other occupants of the vehicles were confused and contradictory. The FBI publicly released the helicopter video rather quickly—in a clear attempt to quell rumors about the shooting—and, to most viewers, the shooting is likely to appear to have been justified. However, anti-government extremists watching the video have perceived largely what they wanted to see on it and have interpreted the video as still more evidence that Finicum was murdered. Extremists have widely shared the video, which is typically described as proof of Finicum’s “ambush and murder.”

Even before the video was released, the process of turning Finicum into a martyr had already begun. As news of his death spread, extremists on social media created a wide array of graphic memes proclaiming Finicum a martyred hero. One self-declared “liberty speaker” from Washington state, Gavin Seim, uploaded a short video about Finicum titled “The Edge of Revolution.” In the video, Seim describes Finicum as “one of the finest patriots that America could hope to have,” who showed people “what it was like to be a founding father.” Seim urged viewers to “rise for liberty,” claiming that “we can no longer allow the government to murder and abuse and terrorize…These criminals spilled blood yesterday.” Within two days, Seim’s video had received over 110,000 views.

Similarly, musician Jordan Page posted his own video, widely shared on social media, singing a song of his own composition, “The Ballad of LaVoy Finicum,” intended to make a folk hero out of the anti-government occupier:

He left his home to go and take a stand
His voice rang out across a deafened land
And in the end it was a bullet that exposed the lies
A truth remembered is a battle won
And though his murder cannot be undone,
It rings out like an echo, thundering across the night

Page’s song was the most popular of several songs related to Finicum’s shooting that have appeared on YouTube or elsewhere.

One ostensible Finicum supporter is using a t-shirt website to sell “LaVoy Finicum Memorial” t-shirts for $21.99, with proceeds promised to go to the Finicum family—just one of the websites now selling Finicum t-shirts and sweatshirts. Another supporter announced the auction of a framed print of a painting—starting bid, $2,500—with the proceeds allegedly going “to the Bundy Ranch and/or a fund for Levon [sic] Finicum memorial.”


Channelling Anger: Rallies, Protests, Memorials and Vigils

As quickly as news of Finicum’s death spread, supporters of the Malheur takeover began to organize events—rallies, protests, vigils, and memorials—centered on the dead occupier and designed to raise sorrow and anger over his death. As early as the day after the shooting, occupier supporters (and, allegedly, some former occupiers) held a small “candlelight vigil” in Burns, Oregon.

In southwestern Utah, Finicum’s home, supporters organized a memorial for him in front of the Iron County courthouse. The event seems to have included at least one former occupier in attendance, but its centerpiece was Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller, who called the death of Finicum a “travesty” and hoped “the truth” would come out. Other regional events, including one for the Paiute County courthouse, were allegedly also held.

In Phoenix, Finicum supporters Israel Torres and Blanka Nieves, who had previously held support rallies for the Oregon occupiers, organized a “We Are LaVoy” rally on January 29 at Wesley Bolin Plaza, with around 30 or so attendees. Another protest was allegedly organized in Portland, Oregon.

Las Vegas, Nevada, saw a handful of Tea Party activists and anti-government extremists led by Karen Steelmon and Greg Whalen (the latter of whom was in telephone contact with the remaining occupiers in Oregon) organize their own impromptu demonstration in front of the federal courthouse soon after the shooting. They declared that Finicum, who had “been defending American soil from a tyrannical government,” was ambushed and murdered by the FBI. The pair also organized a second Las Vegas courthouse rally on the weekend following the shooting; 12-15 people seem to have participated in that event.

Other events also occurred on the weekend of January 30-31. The one most covered by the media occurred in the long-suffering town of Burns itself, where the anti-government Pacific Patriots Network organized a “rolling” protest of vehicles through the town; estimates of the number of protesters ranged from 50 to over 100. With another rally organized by Idaho Three Percenters at the Harney County Courthouse in Burns for February 1, it is clear that Burns’ ordeal is not likely to end soon. Both of these groups declined to support the Malheur occupiers’ earlier actions but have jumped into the conflict with the death of Finicum. Others traveled out to the location where Finicum was shot and erected a makeshift memorial.

Protests and rallies occurred outside Oregon as well. Heather Lucas and Mike Kay organized a Finicum protest at the FBI office in Columbus, Ohio, with around 45-50 attending from right-wing groups and Anonymous. “Revolution starts here,” said one speaker, “Make no mistake.”

Elsewhere in Ohio, a handful of activists in Lima, Ohio, hung signs and protested on a freeway overpass on I-75. One protester posted on Facebook after the event that the federal government let “rioters burn, loot and assault in Ferguson and Baltimore but when a patriot stands up peaceful [sic] for his constitutional rights he is gunned down by the federal government.”

A similar overpass protest occurred on January 30 across the country in Salem, Oregon, with about 10 protesters. Both were apparently organized by activists with right-wing group “Overpasses for America.” More such overpass protests are scheduled for the first weekend in February in Oregon and elsewhere.

That weekend, the weekend of February 5-7, is when a number of additional events will be held. Of these, the most significant is the memorial service for Finicum in Kanab, Utah, organized by his family, who turned it into a political event by reaching out and announcing it to “Patriot” and right-wing groups to get their attendance. Karen Steelmon, the Las Vegas Tea Party figure mentioned above, announced she was organizing a “procession” of people from the Las Vegas area to “pay respects” at the memorial service. Utahn and former Malheur occupier Wes Kjar has declared he will organize a “memorial horse ride” to the service.

For those too far from Kanab, Finicum supporters have organized the “National Memorial & Prayer Vigil for LaVoy Finicum,” for which they urge people to gather in front of “your local courthouse” on February 5 or the following day.

Other events known to be planned for the weekend include:

  • The Liberty for All III% have announced a “Cowboy’s Last Ride” protest in Olympia, Washington, for the weekend of February 5-7, declaring that they “will never allow one more innocent person to die at the hands of the Government.”
  • In Boise, Idaho, someone calling himself “1776Revolutionist” is organizing the “RIP Lavoy Rally” at the Boise capitol building; attendees are requested to bring “Hands up, don’t shoot” signs.
  • In John Day, Oregon, the town to which Finicum was driving when his vehicle was stopped, Raelene Hunt-Reed and Tyson Baker are organizing a candlelight service for Finicum.
  • Hunt-Reed and Brian Winters have also scheduled a “candlelight memorial” for Finicum at the Crook County courthouse in Prineville, Oregon. This would be the second rally for Prineville; others organized a February 1 “Memory of LaVoy Finicum and All Our Patriots” rally at the courthouse.
  • Arizona activists are organizing a Finicum candlelight vigil at Mesa RiverView Park on February 6, allegedly with “guest speaker Alexander Melusky.” Melusky is running for Senate in Arizona; it is not known if he is actually appearing at this event.
  • Kentucky Three Percenter George Al Collins has announced a “rally and memorial service in remembrance of LaVoy Finicum” at the capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky, on February 6.
  • John Adams is organizing a candlelight vigil for Finicum at the West Virginia capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia, on February 6.
  • Krista Etter of West Palm Beach, Florida, is arranging a rally at the federal courthouse on February 6.
  • Northeast Ohio Three Percenters are allegedly planning an event on February 7 in front of the FBI building in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
  • In Ruckersville, Virginia, Michael Madden, the owner of The Confederate Keepers Store, has scheduled a “Rally/Protest of the MURDER of LaVoy Finicum” for February 7, with the location oddly being a convenience store.
  • Colorado anti-government extremists are organizing a February 7 protest dubbed “#WAKETHEDEAD” in front of the FBI office.
  • Steve Baldassari and Scott Henry have announced a rally at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on February 6 “to fight for our rights, defend the Oregon ranchers, but also to honor LaVoy Jeanette Finicum, a true patriot.”
  • South Carolina Three Percenters are allegedly organizing a “VIGIL AND A SHOT FOR FREEDOM MEET” on February 6 somewhere in South Carolina. It is not clear if this is related to a “LaVoy Finicum Tribute and Prayer Meeting” being organized by Bob Hargrove for the Huger Recreation Area at the Francis Marion National Forest on February 6.

Rallies and protests even further in the future are also scheduled—likely to be merely the first of many. These include:

  • Arkansan Madonna Carter is organizing a rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the state capitol, for February 13.
  • A “We the People” rally was organized for February 13 in Columbus, Ohio, at the Ohio State House, even before Finicum’s death. Now attendance is likely to be even higher.
  • A “Lavoy Finicum Free the Bundys and Hammons March” in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on March 5 to “honor one of our fellow freedom fighters who lost his life standing up for what was right.”

It remains to be seen how successful the extreme right will be in elevating Finicum to the pantheon of extremists considered martyrs by the movement, or whether their attempts to use Finicum to rally support will be successful past the short term. The still-unresolved standoff in Malheur, with its four holdouts refusing to leave, also makes the future more uncertain. However, what is clear is that anti-government extremists are right now energetically trying to use Finicum’s death to rally support for their cause and this in itself is troubling.






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