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Mark Potok
Spokesman and Director of Publications and Information, Southern Poverty Law Center
Monday, April 19, 2010; 2:30 PM

Dozens of Second Amendment rights activists holstered their handguns and slung unloaded rifles over their shoulders Monday at a gun rights rally in northern Virginia, while hundreds of like-minded but unarmed counterparts converged in the nation's capital.

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Signs reading "Which part of 'shall not be infringed' confuses you?" and bright orange stickers saying "Guns save lives" dotted the crowd at the Washington Monument. Across the Potomac River in Alexandria, former Alabama Minutemen leader Mike Vanderboegh told the crowd armed confrontation should be reserved only for instances of the government threatening people's lives.

Mark Potok, spokesman and director of publications and information with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was online Monday, April 19, at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss today's armed rally, politics and gun rights.

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Mark Potok: Hi, Mark Potok here with the Southern Poverty Law Center to discuss the gun rallies around DC today and the rise of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement. I'm looking forward to answering your questions.

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Chicago, Ill.: Lots of people have been stocking up on guns and ammo since Obama was elected. Just to play that out -- what do they plan to do with that stuff? Presumably they think they might have to shoot somebody, but who? Under what circumstances? What do they think might happen? I mean this literally -- I don't stock up on milk and toilet paper when it snows, for example, because there's no causal connection between snowfall and calcium deficiency (or GI problems). What exactly are these people afraid of? Thanks.

Mark Potok: I think they've essentially bought into a conspiracy theory -- that President Obama, because he is a liberal Democrat, is going to introduce gun control. The fact that he's given no such indication and is highly unlikely to do that doesn't seem to matter to the people who are buying all these guns and ammo. There are also many people who truly believe that Obama is going to impose martial law, send those who resist to concentration camps, and force our country into a socialistic "New World Order." This is a core belief of most Patriot and militia groups.

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Plainsboro, N.J.: Do you think the current atmosphere of "gun" rallies and "tea parties" could create an environment conducive to violence against government and its leaders?

Mark Potok: I think the gun rallies, the descriptions of the administration as "fascist" or "socialist," the extremely harsh political talk, the conspiracy theories pushed even by "mainstream" politicians (U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, e.g., suggesting that Obama is setting up political reeducation camps for all American children) -- all of this contributes to an atmosphere of hatred that helps push a few people into criminal violence and even terrorism. It's a scary moment.

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"If I know I'm not going to get a fair trial in federal court ... I at least have the right to an unfair gunfight," Vanderboegh said.: To me, this is oxymoronic. On one hand, they want their Second Amendment rights, but on the other hand, they don't want to abide by the court and trials systems as set forth by the same Constitution.

washingtonpost.com: Gun rights advocates carry handguns, rifles at Va. rally (AP, April 19)

Mark Potok: That's for sure. Mike Vanderboegh is a former militia figure in Alabama and now a leader of another Patriot group called the Three Percenters. He's also the person who called for criminal violence on the eve of the health care reform debate. He told readers to throw bricks through Democratic Party offices and indeed they did, some 5 or 6 of them in the following 48 hours. Vanderboegh is calling out the thugs -- and this says a lot of him and his ilk.

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Bowie, Md.: Mr. Potok, some conservatives have accused the SPLC of abusing its respected position as a monitor of hate organizations by applying the label to individuals merely for their socio-political positions on immigration or affirmative action. Even (African-American) political science professor Carol Swain was named in one of your reports as an enabler of hate groups for her non-condemnatory writings about white nationalists.

What part of gun rights opposes the SPLC's legitimate purposes?

Mark Potok: We list hardly any anti-immigration groups as hate groups -- only those that in our judgment have white supremacist ideology or are plainly racist toward Latinos. And we list no groups on the basis of their position on affirmative action. It's true that we criticized Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt professor, after she gave a full-throated endorsement to a particular film that made the claim that the concept of racism was being maintained to make whites feel guilty and nothing more. We quickly brought out the fact that the filmmaker had called African Americans "evil monkeys" and similar epithets, but Swain continued to defend and endorse his film. At that point, I said publicly that I thought Swain was acting as an "apologist" for white supremacists. And I still think that is true.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it me, or does it seem like the media is hyping the "tea party" to be more influential than it really is?

Mark Potok: You may have a point there. I see that the gun rights rallies in DC and Virginia are getting far fewer people than the tens of thousands that organizers had predicted. These are not strictly tea party rallies, but I do think they include many of the same people and groups.

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K ST NW: I just returned from lunch and walked past the rally at the Monument. I remember thinking that possibly all of those people have guns on them and it scared me. I'm just not used that kind of thing.. anyway, now I read your opening statement ...former Alabama Minutemen leader Mike Vanderboegh told the crowd armed confrontation should be reserved only for "instances" of the government threatening people's lives.

Can you be specific as to what he considers instances of the government threatening people's lives? Thanks.

Mark Potok: He himself isn't too specific. At the time he called for criminal attacks on Democratic offices, he also wrote that if this didn't work, the country would be looking at a civil war. Why that is, precisely, the good Mr. Vanderboegh really doesn't make clear.

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Toledo, Ohio: Mr. Potok,

Thank you for your work and the work of the SPLC.

I have no objection to possessing firearms. After all, I was taught to shoot at a young age by my uncle, and I have participated with pleasure in target shooting over the years (indeed, I medaled with the M14 when I was in the Navy). What puzzles me is gun rights advocates' seemingly unreasoning opposition to regulation of any kind.

It seems to me that if we are going to generally allow possession of firearms we would be much better off ensuring that those who possess them at least know how to use them correctly. I see the absolute opposition to any regulation of firearms as an entirely emotional argument springing from the same roots as fear of federal government, taxes, New World Order, etc.

Do you have any thoughts on this.

Mark Potok: I agree with you. What's strange about some of the real gun enthusiasts is the high interest in weapons that are far more powerful than they would ever use, except in a situation of war. In any case, I also agree that firearms training is a very good thing (having gone through it myself).

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McLean, Va.: Mark, do we have any numbers on what percentage of these tea party people receive government assistance of some sort? It seems like so many of them receive disability, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc...

I read an article in the Boston Globe the other day where one woman at a tea party rally had 10 children and needed Medicaid to pay for their health insurance. She seemed to have no problems protesting the latest health care reform though.

It was fascinating. What's the thought process for someone who protests "entitlements" while receiving them?

Mark Potok: I don't think anyone knows the answer to that interesting question. But that there is hypocrisy out there, at least among some groups, is clearly true. I'll never forget how James Nichols -- brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and a man who endlessly and furiously ranted about the evil federal government -- turned out to have taken more than half a million dollars in agricultural subsidies from the very government he hated so much. These people are not always brilliant in terms of intellectual consistency.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: This political moment scares me quite a bit. All of the hatred and anger and advocacy of violence -- it really concerns me that these people who are so extreme and so fringe are getting so much exposure that what they are doing appears to reflect the feelings of the mainstream.

What can we normal folks do to help show that these people are the outsiders? How do we get exposure to the normal folks -- the ones who do support things like health reform and financial reform, and who think that the rule of law is good and that investing in guns and ammo (and carrying them in public and threatening to use them against the government) is radical extremism?

Mark Potok: I think one of the most important things citizens can do is to call out those people in the ostensible mainstream -- politicians, pundits and preachers -- who push false demonizing propaganda and conspiracy theories into the mainstream, not to mention vicious name-calling. I can criticize Michelle Bachmann all I want, and I suspect it bothers her not at all. Same for Glenn Beck on Fox. But if Bachmann's constituents and Beck's viewers start to call or write to demand that they tell the truth, that's far more likely to have a good impact.

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Bristow, Va.: Hello Mark, I have a question, Do you and the people posting comments here think that Mr. Vanderboegh (whom I have never heard of before this topic) speaks for the majority of lawful gun owners?

Mark Potok: No, not at all. Vanderboegh is probably fairly representative of the militia/Patriot movement, but I do think it's quite unfair to paint him as a typical gun owner. It's an unusual person that calls on the public to commit crimes by smashing other people's windows in with bricks.

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Plainsboro, N.J.: What do you think the government or anyone else can do to defuse the situation? Where do you see the current trend heading? How can we reverse that?

Mark Potok: It's a bad moment. So many politicians and others are using incredibly violent and demonizing language that it's a little hard to get the genie of incivility back into the bottle. I feel very critical of GOP leaders as a result. Where were they when Palin started telling fairy tales about "death panels"? When then-Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo suggested that Mexico has secret plans to reconquer the Southwest? At this point, I think the best the Administration can do is to try to calmly defuse the conspiracy theories and false propaganda without appearing to be trying to squelch fee speech. President Clinton gave a terrific speech on the matter on Friday (it's on the Internet), which I was lucky enough to attend as a follow-up panelist.

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Washington, D.C.: The protesters state that they chose today because it is the date the Revolutionary War began.

It is also Hitler's birthday and the date a lot of other criminal acts, such as the Oklahoma City bombing of the Federal Building, Columbine, etc.

Are any of these protestors members of the supremacist groups? Do any of the leaders have a rap sheet?

Mark Potok: It's true about Lexington and OKC -- but not about Hitler's birthday, which is tomorrow, April 20. I think there are surely some real white supremacists in today's crowd, but I do not think they're anywhere near the majority. On the leaders, I just don't know. I do know that one of those speaking, Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America, is a real radical who attended a key 1992 meeting that was called by a white supremacist pastor and helped shape the militia movement of the 1990s.

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Skillman, N.J.: Hi Mark, what do you think will appease these "patriot" groups? Change in the administration? Change in control of Congress? Anything else? What exactly are they fighting for?

Mark Potok: It seems to me that much of what bothers them is not really changeable. To the extent that it's the changing racial demographics of the country, it's too late -- whites will lose their majority here, one way or the other, fairly soon (the Census Bureau says about 2050). Maybe a better economy will help. But they seem to quite clearly despite the GOP almost as much as the Democratic Party. I think they're so caught up in conspiracy theories that they can't really think straight about what they want. They keep saying they want a return to the Constitution, but most of them don't appear to read, or at least understood, it.

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Skillman, N.J.: Do you think any of this groups will try to do a pre-emptive strike against government, officials or property?

Mark Potok: That was basically what the members of Hutaree Militia arrested last week are accused of trying to do. They are charged with conspiring to kill one police officer so that they could then attack and kill hundreds more at the resulting funeral. It's worth noting that one of the militiamen had neo-Nazi materials when he was arrested.

It's hard to say where it will go from here. But the militia movement of the 1990s produced an immense amount of criminal violence and attempted domestic terrorism. We've already seen a new uptick in domestic terrorism, almost all of it related to racist hatred of the president.

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McLean, Va.: The thing that concerns me the most is that "mainstream" conservative commentators, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, etc., are openly calling the Obama administration illegitimate. This enables people to consider and then take violent measures to reassert legitimacy. Heck, if I thought that our Constitution was usurped and that someone claimed authority illegitimately, I'd rise up in armed rebellion. I seriously think we will seen instances of armed rebellion before the next presidential election. How have we gotten so far from the rule of reason?

Mark Potok: An excellent question. Again, I thought President Clinton addressed very intelligently last week. It's not just that Limbaugh has opinions, even harsh ones, about certain policies and trends. It's that he and many of the others absolutely demonize their opponents. As Clinton pointed out, it was that kind of demonization of "government bureaucrats" that ultimately ended in 168 bodies in Oklahoma.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: My worry is that there really is no reasoning with them. They are not rational, and therefore giving them the facts that contradict their assertions doesn't help. I for one will re-think vacations in the national parks!

Mark Potok: It's always hard to reason with conspiracy theorists. If you disagree, you're obviously part of the plot! Believe me, if you saw the emails I regularly get you would not be very reassured about the state of reason in 21st century America.

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Anonymous: I know there have always been a few "crazies" that even those devoted to a movement would condemn. Yet, perhaps with the popularity of the movie "2012," I am detecting a movement towards "crazies" believing they can bring down the government by halting their operations by faxing hundreds of pages of jibberish and tying up e-mails and faxes. I work in a government office and have been getting phone calls about chip implants with government mind control. A problem I see is these activists may reach a partial goal in that they will start disrupting government offices, especially since we are under threat of layoffs, and we won't have time to filter through all their nonsense. The other part is what makes me paranoid: that there are some of these crazies with guns who believe Obama is the anti-Christ and that Armageddon is coming, and I fear what these people are going to do when they go off their meds, or whatever it is that drives them further beyond rationality.

Mark Potok: The microchip implant business is a popular Patriot theory. Even McVeigh talked about that at one point. And, as you may have heard, a particular Patriot leader last week called for followers to shoot off guns around the country at midnight last night in the hope of shutting down 911 services. It didn't happen, luckily.

While most people in this world will never act violently, the scary thing is that a few will. Timothy McVeigh showed us that it only takes on to get through.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think the timing of these gun rallies to coincide with the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing was done to send a message to the federal government?

Mark Potok: All I can tell you is the organizers hotly deny that. They probably really did intend to market the events as the New Lexington, but it's hard to avoid the irony that they talk in such very militant terms -- and then they hold their big event on the anniversary of a major mass murder caused by militant opposition to the government.

Mark Potok: All I can tell you is the organizers hotly deny that. They probably really did intend to market the events as the New Lexington, but it's hard to avoid the irony that they talk in such very militant terms -- and then they hold their big event on the anniversary of a major mass murder caused by militant opposition to the government.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Mr. Potok, most Patriot groups do not believe in what you think they believe in . The ones you are discussing are the fringe type just like the Democrat party has its more radical elements. I just wanted others out there to know the truth, which I think in their hearts of hearts they already know.

Thank you for taking my comment. Glad for this discussion today I had no idea these gun rallies were going on. Thank you for keeping us informed.

Mark Potok: It's true that there is some variety on what the groups believe. But the New World Order idea is central. It's not merely that the government is too big, or heading in a bad policy direction. It's that it is EVIL, and very much has the worst intentions for patriotic Americans.

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St. Augustine, Fla.: Just how big a movement is this? For example, how many people are gathering right now in Virginia right across from the Mall? I'm wondering whether the attention given to groups like this is out of proportion to their ability to make any difference. I understand that the loudest voices often get answered the quickest, but loud doesn't necessarily mean numerous. Or does it?

Mark Potok: It's incredibly difficult to measure, which is why we generally try to count groups, not people.

In terms of groups, by SPLC's count, we've got nearly 1,000 hate groups out there, a record number; a growth of 80% in the last year of hard-line anti-immigration groups; and an astounding 244% growth (to 512 groups) of the Patriot groups (of which the militias are the paramilitary wing.

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Mark Potok: Thanks to all, and, with apologies, I have to sign off without answering all your questions. Thanks so much for your interest. Please visit us at www.splcenter.org.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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