Desert Companion

I Was a Teenage Extremist

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Illustration of a pile of guns
Brent Holmes

As an awkward teen, I was indoctrinated into far-right ideology. It took years — and devastating personal loss — to free myself

In the eighth grade, my homeroom teacher had our class do a project exploring our idea of a “perfect world.” My fellow students put forward a variety of utopian visions: One kid based his project on the Buddhist idea that people can’t know pleasure if they don’t also experience pain; another classmate lifted his project straight from Creed’s rock anthem “With Arms Wide Open.” But the project I remember most came from one of the girls in class, who, responding to the horrific school massacre in Columbine just one year earlier, envisioned a world in which all the guns had been collected and melted down.

I remember trembling with rage as I struggled to keep quiet, knowing full well that I couldn’t take the bait I imagined she was offering me.

To my younger self, the idea that you could reduce violence by getting rid of firearms was anathema. But more importantly, I saw the prospect of disarming the American public as an existential threat.

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I was a chubby kid. Bookish and awkward, I never played sports or felt like I was really growing up to fit the stereotypical mold of what a man should be. I was obsessed with toughness because it seemed so far out of reach. But when I thought about what I could do with a gun, I felt powerful, like I could do anything. Guns — and the philosophy I attached to them — offered me a chance to feel strong and heroic.

My relationship with firearms wasn’t always so radical. When I was growing up in the Bay Area, my dad and I loved shooting. It was really our thing — something other members of our family had little interest in — and we spent hours at shooting ranges and gun stores. Sometimes, as a special treat, we’d make the four-hour drive up to Reno to attend the gun shows that still come through town every few months. In fact, I still have the .22 bolt action rifle he bought when I turned 12 — a common rite of passage in the U.S. It’s been years since I took it to the range, but I’ve never been able to get rid of it, either.

Starting around eighth grade, however, my relationship with guns shifted from recreational to ideological. For example, I started to believe that owning and learning to use guns was not just a hobby, but a duty. When I turned 21, I told myself, I would get my concealed carry permit so that I would always be ready to stop an attempted assault.

That’s pretty standard fare. If you browse the pages of Guns & Ammo magazine — or the Instagram accounts of gun-toting influencers — you’ll see intense debates over the relative merits of revolvers versus semiautos, or which concealed carry holster is best to pair with your Dockers. But as my dad and I got more involved in the self-described “gun culture,” we started to collect literature with an increasingly fringe perspective on the role of firearms in civil society.

One book in particular was critical to my radicalization: Unintended Consequences, by John Ross. Essentially, it’s an 800-page anti-government manifesto that details the strategy behind a decentralized guerrilla campaign seeking to completely deregulate the civilian arms market. The main characters use targeted assassinations of politicians, law enforcement officials, and bureaucrats to force the federal government to abandon all forms of gun control, right back to the 1934 National Firearms Act — one of the earliest federal statutes directly related to firearms. That law imposed taxes and regulations on the possession and sale of fully automatic machine guns. It was passed in response to the escalating violence among organized crime syndicates during Prohibition. But to Ross, it signifies the first step down a “slippery slope” of government overreach seeking to disarm sovereign citizens and thereby force them into a kind of modern slavery.

I devoured the book, reading it cover-to-cover at least twice. Since I had already been primed to believe the Second Amendment gave the Constitution its teeth, it was a relatively short step to accept that killing government officials was justifiable in the defense of a “strict constructionist” interpretation of our founding document. Thanks to the book’s insurrectionist bent, I believed it could be not only reasonable, but perhaps necessary, to kill public officials if they worked against my interests.

My head was filled with dark fantasies about fighting off “jackbooted thugs” arriving in black helicopters to seize the weapons my dad owned, although I was fortunately never in a position to act on any of them. I imagined myself picking off federal agents from behind cover, a lone sniper standing against the forces of tyranny.

I would be so deadly accurate, I thought, that they would be forced to fall back like they had at Ruby Ridge — except in my version of the story, their retreat would be so disorganized I’d have the chance to escape.

After a day at the range, while my dad and I painstakingly cleaned the guns we’d used, I would weigh the relative merits of each one in my mind: the semiautomatic .308 would be ideal if federal agents were more than 75 yards away, for example, and it stood the best chance of overcoming their Kevlar vests. If they surprised me at closer range, a .40 caliber Glock would put lead downrange quickly enough to buy some time. But the AR-15 always seemed to jam, so that wasn’t on the list. I just thought it looked cool.

My imaginary violence didn’t extend to people who supported gun control, however. For the most part, I thought they were just rubes who had been taken in by cynical politicians. The gullibility I saw in them only made it seem more urgent that I continue to stand up for gun-owning, earnest Americans everywhere.

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Crucially, I never saw these ideas as being outside the mainstream. In other words, it was an invisible ideology.

Eventually, however, I learned that many of the people I met at gun shows took things even further. They were convinced that gun control was really part of a much larger program to subdue red-blooded Americans under an autocratic globalist regime dominated by a secretive cabal, sounding much like the outrageous conspiracies peddled by QAnon and Alex Jones. Some of them called it the “New World Order.” Others used a more direct epithet: the Zionist Occupied Government, or ZOG. It would be decades before I learned that conspiracy theory had its roots in the neo-Nazi skinhead movement, but I still knew it was dangerous. I also understood that the Jewish community, mistreated and scapegoated by Western governments for centuries, would have been in no position to orchestrate a global power grab.

One evening at a gun show in the summer of 2002, after a long day of browsing folding tables covered with every kind of handgun, rifle, and shotgun imaginable, my dad and I struck up a conversation with another attendee. We talked about the war in Afghanistan (which was still in its early stages and apparently going well) and that perennial bête noire of American gun enthusiasts: liberal politics.

“The B-52s should save some of the bombs they’re dropping in Afghanistan,” our new friend told us. “On the way back, they should drop them on Berkeley.”

I felt a sudden jolt of revulsion at the idea, but I swallowed it down as quickly as I could. I hoped it didn’t show on my face.

I’d become interested in libertarian ideals through my early interest in punk rock and anarchism; the two ideologies share a superficial similarity that, to my 13-year-old mind, offered proof that I could embrace conservative values while still exploring youthful rebellion. I wanted to rock the boat without really rocking the boat.

But the ardent anti-fascism I cultivated as a punk clashed with the antisemitism on display at gun shows. At every gun show I’ve ever been to, I’ve seen booths offering Hitler Youth daggers, Waffen SS caps and Confederate uniforms. This hateful memorabilia — often displayed unironically alongside T-shirts extolling the ideal of “personal liberty” — are typically excused as being offered for history buffs.

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I’d like to say that I outgrew my corrosive ideas about gun ownership quickly, but that would be a lie. It took years to undo the programming I’d received, which told me it was my right as a white American man to respond to political trends I disagreed with by using armed violence.

The first shock came when I was 18. One day my dad drove to the beach in Bandon, Oregon, looked out at the horizon, and shot himself to death.

While it was a devastating blow, at the time I didn’t connect his suicide with his ready access to firearms. I now realize that owning guns puts people at heightened risk of self-harm, because it makes suicidal ideations — which are impulsive by nature — much easier to act on.

Instead, my deradicalization really began thanks to the harsh economic reality of working part-time to put myself through junior college. Being a gun guy started to lose its shine as soon as it was my money I was spending on ammo, range fees, gun locks, and all the other paraphernalia. As a teen, I got a thrill from watching my dad drop hundreds of dollars in cash on an unregistered handgun in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. But as a young adult, I couldn’t bear the thought of walking past long rows of folding tables loaded with weapons I couldn’t afford.

The experience of going to school was also critical to dismantling my insurrectionist ideology. My classes in history and government challenged those beliefs by offering a more nuanced perspective on the world. Learning how to think critically helped, too.

Perhaps more than the curriculum itself, my classmates forced me to confront the cognitive dissonance I’d tried to ignore as a younger person. Junior college attracts students from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like me, didn’t have the grades to get into a four-year university and were trying to find direction. Others were parents, who attended classes in between jobs and took care of their children as they worked towards a better future for their families. Some came from working-class neighborhoods, while others came from other countries. By the time I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley as a history major, I’d gotten to know more about the world as it is instead of what I thought it should be. I knew and respected people whom I assumed I would have hated just a few years before. Increasingly, the extremist rhetoric I’d internalized began to look more like a fever dream than moral instruction.

We’re living in a time of galloping radicalization. The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was the most visible expression of that, but it’s been happening — and continues to happen — in more subtle ways. It’s frightening to watch our society pull itself apart, because a democratic system like ours is a fragile, precious thing, and it depends on shared values. But I also know from my own experience that there’s still hope for the young people caught up in the culture war — a war we’ll never win with guns. 

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