ABOVE: A sampling of the likely automatic weapons fire recorded by ShotSpotter, one of more than 400 instances across the country in the first part of 2020.
Fully automatic weapons, which shoot hundreds of rounds per minute, are getting discharged with greater frequency in cities across the country this year, another sign of a growing paramilitary presence in the United States that could erupt into violence if political processes disintegrate.
I interviewed two people on the front lines of conflict this week as we were waiting for election results: Ralph Clark, the CEO of ShotSpotter, and John Paul Lederach, one of the world’s great peacemakers (you can see his thoughts about avoiding the poison of politics in your organization here). On one hand, the incredible voter turnout – estimates are that the United States will reach levels not seen since 1900 – was evidence that Americans believe in the political process.
On the other, small business owners on Main Streets across the country boarded up windows, signaling a new fear: in America, political transitions may no longer be peaceful. It’s particularly troubling against the backdrop of the rise in ownership of and ease with which automatic weapons are manufactured.
“This is more proximate to what happened in Northern Ireland, where the capacity for political discourse degenerated into paramilitarism. It took them 32 years to get out of that,” said Lederach.
Monitors at ShotSpotter picked up the increase of automatic weapons fire in the course of the company’s surveillance of 761 square miles in 105 cites from Birmingham to Milwaukee. The public company, one of the rare innovation success stories in the market to combat gun violence, contracts with police departments and cities to give officers insights into hotspots of violence and rapid notifications of violence under way.
For the first five months of 2020, there were 415 incidents of automatic gun fire, with 4,060 shots fired. That could be from semi-automatic weapons modified with bump stocks, military weapons like machine guns, or modified handguns. In all of 2019 there were 316 incidents with 2911 shots fired.
“(The sound of automatic weapons) makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” said Clark. “It’s so fast.” He said his supposition was that more people are standing at the edges of bodies of water, such as lakes or parks, to play with or train with automatic weapons.
The increase comes in the context of a rise overall in shots fired nationwide, which are up 44% in 2020 compared with 2019, with a sharp spike in shots fired after riots in the wake of George Floyd’s killing on May 25.
The Question Is: What Are We Afraid Of?
There was an importance difference between the boards that went up in business’ windows this week and those hammered into place earlier this year. The week preceding the election, Clark pointed out that riots are generally triggered by visceral reactions to an event like the assassination of Martin Luther King, the beating of Rodney King or George Floyd’s killing. Elections, he pointed out, typically don’t – at least, they haven’t, in the United States.
Then, photographs began emerging of boarded up storefronts, signaling a new fear: that politics may no longer peaceful. Lederach meanwhile, has noted significant new patterns that trouble him: The increase in militia training and presence and the willingness by a political leader (President Donald Trump) to threaten paramilitary response to a loss.
Right-wing militias have steadily ramped up their activities, and taken on an increasingly outsized profile within the national political environment, said a recent report by MilitiaWatch and The Armed Conflict And Event Data Project. The report identified the election as a possible flashpoint for reactionary political violence and said capitals and peripheral towns, as well as medium-population cities and suburban areas with centralized zones, in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Oregon are at highest risk of increased militia activity, while North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, California, and New Mexico have a moderate risk.
The fractured politics, increase in the presence and training of militia, combine with innovations that have made it easier for people to create military-style weapons. “My sense is that with the prevalence of ghost guns individuals are more easily manufacturing their own firearms than in years past,” said David Chipman, senior policy advisor at Giffords: Courage To Fight Gun Violence, by email. He pointed out that Gabby Giffords was shot with a handgun that held 30 rounds.
“The skill required to convert a semi-automatic weapon into a machine gun has likely become easier as well particularly for those already adept at building their own guns. Bottom line is that with advances in technology guns can be made by any individual absent specialized tools. Two decades ago you needed to be a gunsmith.”
However the election falls and whatever the context for the rise of the paramilitaries, the larger question is how to pull back from the brink of the extremism affecting both parties.
A recent survey by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found that about one in five self-described Democrats and Republicans says that violence would be at least “a little” justified if the other party won the 2020 presidential election. About one in 10 of each group says there would be “a lot” or a “great deal” of justification for violence if their party lost the 2020 presidential election.
The survey was of 5,900 people; it’s a multi-year survey that is following the same group over time.
What’s Behind The Rise In Gun Violence Overall?
Gun violence is complicated; so is the question of separating the signs of political violence from an overall surge. Gun violence, in general, as measured by shots fired per square mile, has also spiked by about 44% overall in 2020 versus the same period in 2019, based on ShotSpotter’s analysis of more than 140,000 gun fire alerts.
You might expect that the increase is tied to the increase in gun sales, which rose about 70% this year. But Clark doubts it. Most of those guns won’t make it into incidents on the streets for months, if not years, he said. At a recent all hands meeting, the employees of ShotSpotter, who range from former law enforcement officials to social scientists, put forward three different explanations for the increase in shots fired that the company has been seeing.
• Law enforcement, under pressure, is pulling back. As they do fewer traffic stops and police less effectively, more criminals are slipping through the cracks.
• In current environment, police officers represent less legitimacy, so the relatively few violent offenders are emboldened.
• Emboldened by the end of the lockdown, gangs have been engaged in more “warfare” over territories. Young people home all day in online schools are adding to the problem.
A New Category Of Trigger Pullers
Clark has been able to carve a niche in the polarized gun violence space by focusing relentlessly on two ideas. First, he says, “we know by inference that it’s very few individuals that drive most of the gun crime.” And second, “every neighborhood deserves high-quality policing that deters and catches those few criminals.”
Once you understand those things, he says, you can shift your focus from the accumulation of weapons – which is correlated with violence but not causal — to figuring out how to stop or help the potential trigger pullers. They fall into a bunch of different categories, among them: the criminals, that he’s focused on; terrorists; domestic abusers; the people at risk of suicide; and those at risk of an accident, many of them children.
The question the Unites States faces now is whether we now have another big category of trigger pullers on our hands: Paramilitary members in service of political ends.
The bigger question is how to pull ourselves back from the brink, if that is the case.
Lederach and a co-author, Melanie Greenberg, wrote about that question last week. “Now is the time for us to embody the first three words of our constitution, we the people.”