Vigilantism and taking protection into one’s own hands has been a long-standing ideology of the right, as can be seen through their love of the slogan “a good guy with a gun.” This idea that a good samaritan can protect against armed assailants has been a consistent rhetoric in response to mass shootings and other instances of violence. The right’s insistence that a “good guy with a gun” can save the day has been fueled by the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery, the January 6th riot, and other right wing vigilantes.
The case of Kyle Rittenhouse embodies the danger of open carry laws and the impact of this rhetoric. Rittenhouse armed himself with an assault rifle, went to a Black Lives Matter protest in order to protect private property, and shot and killed two protestors. Following his verdict of not guilty on all counts, the right has showered him with tremendous praise for his actions. He has been offered internships by three members of Congress and he is currently on a press tour as if killing two people needs no repercussions.
Rittenhouse’s case brings several concerning dilemmas to light. The first being what are the circumstances in which self-defense can be claimed? One of the men shot and killed by Rittenhouse charged him, attempting to take his gun from him. In response, Rittenhouse fired his gun and later claimed self-defense. What many overlook in this instance is that the mere presence of a gun, especially if being used to “protect” against others, is a threat. Yet, Rittenhouse claimed that he was under attack and defending himself, failing to realize that bringing a gun as a counter-protest implies intent to harm unarmed protestors.
The danger of Rittenhouse’s argument of self-defense being upheld in court is that both he and the man killed can claim that they were acting in self-defense. If the roles had been reversed and Rittenhouse had been killed, the outcome of the trial would have likely been similar. If our legal system continues to uphold this universal self-defense, we as a society edge closer towards lawlessness.
If each person in an altercation can claim acting in self-defense, what stops people from killing each other and escaping all consequences? If survivors are given free passes for creating a threatening environment, where is the line between right and wrong drawn? At what point are Americans responsible for their actions and harming others?
Another harrowing example of right-wing rhetoric encouraging citizens to take matters into their own hands is the man arrested in Iowa who was heading to D.C. to kill high-level government officials, including Anthony Fauci. He was armed with an AR-15, ammunition, and body armor and believed that he was the right person to take down those in charge.
Dr. Fauci referenced this attempt on his life during a Senate hearing on Covid while being questioned by Sen. Rand Paul. Dr. Fauci cited the Senator’s inflammatory language towards him and his role in the pandemic and urged the senator to consider his own role in this act of vigilantism. Sen. Rand Paul previously stated that Dr.Fauci has killed Americans in his handling of the pandemic. As a lawmaker and public figure, the words of Sen. Rand Paul and others have a tremendous weight and influence. Yet, when confronted with his role in this attempt on Dr.Fauci’s life, he showed no sympathy or concern and instead continued to attack Dr.Fauci’s character.
This pervasive violence is seen again through the January 6th Capitol Riots as mobs of people stormed the Capitol, endangering the lives of members of Congress and staff, in order to further their agenda to overturn a democratic election. President Trump and Republicans in Congress fueled this violent attack by constantly undermining the authority of the elections and urging their supporters to not accept the results of the election. During a speech on January 6, President Trump told his supporters that if they didn’t "fight like hell” they would not “have a country anymore." This, and other instances in which Trump and others spurred Republicans to take matters into their own hands, directly contributed to the violence at the Capitol riot. Yet, once again those making these incendiary comments about the elections refused to take any responsibility for their role in encouraging such a dangerous response.
The consistent rhetoric from the right-wing regarding vigilantism and “good guy with a gun” is not only harmful to Americans but incredibly hypocritical as they simultaneously claim to support law enforcement. One cannot simultaneously believe in the efficacy and importance of law enforcement and also believe that citizens should be arming themselves and taking on the responsibility of it. This glaring inconsistency demonstrates the right’s willingness to adopt whichever rhetoric fits their narrative regardless of hypocrisy and consistency.
The “good guy with a gun” argument allows for the right to protect the right to own guns with few limitations on obtaining dangerous weapons. Encouraging Americans to take it upon themselves to respond to those whose ideas differ from theirs with violence allows the right to rally their base in violent opposition to their opponents. The combination of open carry laws, Republican Congress members’ character attacks on Democrats, and the encouragement from the right to pursue vigilantism no matter what the situation, emboldens members of the Republican party to recklessly endanger the lives of Americans and politicians.
In order to address the growing sense of lawlessness, Americans must confront the ways in which we view members of opposing parties and those who disagree with us and at a minimum, civility in Congress must be followed. If those responsible for fueling these violent acts are unable to see their role in spurring this hatred and the platform they hold as politicians, they should not continue to be a voice for the Republican party or Congress.