(This is guest commentary from Goad Gatsby, a citizen journalist that has been documenting fringe political movements in recent years.)

By Kristopher Goad (Gatsby)

Gun ownership is on the rise with over 7.5 million new gun owners in the United States over since 2019.  During that period of time, there has been a pandemic, wildfires, hurricane flooding, nationwide protests, and mass mobilizations of militias. The incentive to own a gun has been stoked by fears of impending disasters and distrust of other people within the country. The ability to own a firearm is something I support but my greatest reason for supporting gun ownership is because paramilitary militias also have the ability to own firearms.

The Second Amendment Institute held the Defending Freedom Action Summit at a Marriott hotel in Richmond, Virginia on September 25th and 26th. It was advertised as a “grassroots activism conference” but I disagree on the grassroots. Not that it’s wrong to have an event sponsored by companies and focus on top-down political organizing, it’s just not grassroots activism. Key speakers include former Interior Secretary under Trump Ryan Zinke, President of the gun rights advocate group Virginia Citizen Defensive League Philip Van Cleave, and New York City Republican City Councilor Joe Borelli. Initially, I was granted a press pass and the privilege to meet with speakers but when I arrived, I found that my press pass would not be issued and the lead organizer of the event told me to wait as he tried to figure things out.

For those not familiar with me, I have built a reputation following Black Lives Matter protests and being critical of far-right groups like the Proud Boys. Upon my arrival, rumors spread that I was a member of Antifa and that I was coming to cause trouble at the conference. It’s hard to disprove being a member of an organization, and even harder if that does not exist. As I began to doubt that I would be granted entrance as I sat around in the lobby. Nearly ready to call it a loss and move on to something else, one person came up to speak to me.

My first conversation was with a South Dakotan congressional candidate Bruce Whalen. Whalen told me about growing up on a reservation, his opposition to mandatory vaccines, and how he supported treatments like HydroxyChloroquine and Ivermectin. He even told me how he felt confident using Ivermectin horse paste on himself because of his knowledge of animal husbandry. Certainly, these medical practices are something I would never encourage, but there is an online niche of making fun of someone who believes in these inadvisable medical practices — however,t I see it as a result of inaccessibility to healthcare. Whalen is currently planning to run against Senator John Thune in a primary race because he does not believe that Senator Thune did enough to keep Trump in office.

After talking to Whalen, another person started asking me about my political positions. After hearing his stories about the times he met right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and how he found Jones to be unbearable and I shared my similar stories, he told me that he was one of the event organizers and that he was going to make the call to let me in.

This conference may have some noteworthy speakers but it was poorly attended. A likely reason is a combination of being poorly publicized and COVID cases still on the rise. About half of those in attendance were also speakers. This gave me many opportunities to try and probe the various personalities, preferably 6 feet away.

I categorize the types of speakers into two personality types; gun rights advocates and cultural warriors. Gun rights advocates are people I find to be correct even if their reasoning to their positions are wrong — Like the answer to solving domestic violence isn’t as simple as giving out guns. Issues like domestic violence require complex solutions that cannot be easily solved, which brings me to the cultural warriors. These are the types of speakers that boil topics down to sound bites and craft social issues to create two separate groups — one moral, the other immoral. 

Issues like transgender students in schools and teaching the 1619 Project are popular topics for cultural warriors. When having a chance to personally connect with conservative speakers, I kept drilling the point that people listen to politicians and pundits that they have never met to get them to distrust the neighbors that they have met. Likewise, those same neighbors being distrusted won’t extend their hand when they feel excluded and targeted for being different.

One of the biggest names in gun rights got to speak first on Sunday morning — the leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Philip Van Cleave. He spoke highly of the Second Amendment and had well-researched views on the Constitutional law of gun ownership, but he also demonized protesters that wanted to hold police accountable for violence toward citizens. Sadly, Philip Van Cleave uses these speaking engagements to uphold his right-wing views and strays away from his views of defending freedom and standing up against government overreach when it has to deal with law enforcement.

Some of the younger culture warriors seem to orbit around a 55-year-old former candidate for Congress named John Paul Moran. Moran gave the impression of being a mentor of cultural warriors and taking to social media calling the Democratic Party “Biden’s Taliban Party.” Moran and his company, Grand Opportunity USA, seem to be desperately seeking to get attention among the Trump MAGA movement, but seem to be gaining little attention.

Saturday’s live stream of the event on Youtube received a  little more than 100 views. 

The final speaker on Saturday was a young man associated with Moran named Charles Down whose claim to fame was being shoved and had water thrown on him by counter-protesters after a Stop the Steal rally in Washington DC last year. The video of this was shared by Donald Trump and got millions of views but resulted in no arrests. Moran seemed focused on creating conservative influencers for social media.

The next morning I heard stories from other attendees about the debauchery during the party. Then, conservative influencers Blake Kresses and Lance Johnston used their time on stage to denounce social media companies like TikTok for banning them but also speaking on their fellow Zoomers who are degerenates that engage in satanism, pornography, and astrology.

Virginia State Senator Amanda Chase had a speaking slot. Last year her focus was centered around gun rights with the highlight of speaking at the 2020 VCDL gun rally with tens of thousands of attendees,  but the state senator from Chesterfield has  since shifted to election fraud conspiracies. While Chase champions herself as a defender of freedom, she often advocates for more barriers in order to vote. Chase has failed to prove her case of election fraud after almost a year since the 2020 election

The alternative reality was limited to election conspiracies. Joe Borelli, The Republican minority leader of the New York City Council came down to Virginia. His claim was that defunding the police has taken effect in the city and caused crime to rise when in reality the New York Police Department has more money than ever before.

Suzanne Monk was an unscheduled speaker during this weekend’s activities. She gained media attention last year as the founder of Reopen America and organizer for anti-lockdown events at the beginning of the pandemic. The weekend before, she was part of a rally to support Trump supporters who were arrested for their activities during the January 6th Capitol riot. Her low-turnout event was focused on what she believes is the misconception around Trump supporters. 

The Defending Freedom Action Summit seemed like a routine event in this circle of conservatives attempting to stay relevant. While some speakers took their time seriously, others saw it as an attempt to preach right-wing talking points. I came to seek answers on why gun rights advocates continue to hitch their wagon to far-right speakers instead of seeking to expand their message away from conservative influencers and conspiracy theorists. At this point, I have to believe that they use gun rights as a gateway into right-wing politics. Gun ownership should not be an exclusive space to those on the far right, as the saying goes, “when you go far enough left, you get your guns back.”


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