Ammon Bundy is holding court in a chilly warehouse by the railroad tracks in rural Emmett, Idaho. Yes, that Ammon Bundy.
Four years after the standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Bundy remains a leading anti-government activist. On this March day he’s rallying people against the stay-at-home order Idaho issued to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Among other things, Bundy is threatening to lead a march on the homes of Idaho Governor Brad Little and the director of the state’s Department of Health and Welfare. He also says he’d like to form a human cordon around businesses staying open in defiance of the order.
“A guideline would be great, but an order is inappropriate, and it's absolutely unconstitutional and unauthorized,” he said about Idaho’s rules restricting travel and shutting down many businesses.
To battle the coronavirus pandemic, many state governments are ordering residents to shelter in place. That’s creating a rift in anti-government circles. In places like Idaho, some militia leaders are vowing to openly fight these orders. Others say obey for now, but watch for overreach.
Many do agree on one thing, though: don’t touch our guns.
The scene at the warehouse in Emmett is like something from a pandemic safety nightmare. Dozens of people sit elbow to elbow, greeting each other with hugs, even posing for pictures with an arm around Bundy’s waist.
The small rally is also illegal, according to the emergency order issued by Idaho’s governor.
Bundy’s involvement raises eyebrows in part because he has led two armed standoffs with federal agents, including one at an Oregon wildlife refuge that ended with state troopers killing one of his followers. And Bundy wouldn’t rule out a similar scenario in response to coronavirus-related restrictions.
“I think we have to do whatever it takes,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to go to that extent.”
But some in what is also known as The Patriot Movement see it differently.
One of the men who took up arms to defend Bundy and his father against the federal government has broken with Bundy on the pandemic response. Eric Parker is the president of the militia group The Real 3%ers of Idaho. They are part of the national movement the Three Percent, with loosely-affiliated statewide groups that focus on weapons training, disaster preparation and survival tactics.
Unlike Bundy and many of his followers, Parker is taking the pandemic threat seriously.
“We understand this is a health crisis,” Parker said. “We would expect everyone to act accordingly.”
He’s encouraging his fellow Three Percenters to follow the stay-at-home order.
But he also said his members are monitoring enforcement and documenting abuses by any authorities.
“We believe that that's the possible flashpoint,” he said.
What does unite anti-government movements during the pandemic is the importance of firearms. On a recent online broadcast of the prepper-focused Radio Free Redoubt, host John Jacob Schmidt said he’s relieved to be surrounded by heavily-armed preppers during a crisis.
“It feels so good to be living in the American Redoubt,” he said.
The American Redoubt is generally thought of by survivalists and militia groups as a region encompassing parts of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. It is seen by them as a kind of last refuge from societal collapse.
Todd Savage lives in North Idaho and runs Black Rifle Real Estate, which caters to preppers and followers of the Redoubt movement. He says his business is booming over the past month as concerns about COVID-19 have jumped to the fore.
Given that his company name is a nod to the AR-15 rifle, it’s unsurprising that he thinks guns are essential during a pandemic.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said. “When somebody is breaking down your door because they’re desperate for food, water, medicine for their family, what are you going to do?”
Studies suggest that gun use for self-defense is exceedingly rare. A 2015 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that self-defense gun use occurs in less than 1% of all crimes when the victim and perpetrator encounter each other. But many preppers and and anti-government groups urge their neighbors to stock up on guns and point to extraordinary crises, such as a deadly pandemic, as times when self-defense is most important.
Followers of the Redoubt movement were galvanized by the controversial memo issued by the Department of Homeland Security suggesting that gun stores be deemed essential services. It was the latest in a series of overtures to the far right from the Trump Administration.
Alexander Barron, who runs the Charles Carroll Society, a website focused on the American Redoubt, said he was encouraged by DHS’ move.
“I support President Trump wholly when he recommended to governors nationwide that things like firearms, gun stores and shooting ranges remain as essential services for the American people during these times of need,” he said.
David Gletty spent years infiltrating anti-government groups as a paid operative for the FBI. He said some anti-government groups may see the fear of COVID-19 as an opportunity.
“It’s a true crisis, but it’s a great recruitment tool for these militias,” he said.
Gletty said many who adhere to an anti-government mindset don’t recognize the authority of any government officials past their county sheriff. That could mean the potential for violence.
“They are prepared if the government does come with law enforcement and try to shut them down,” Gletty said. “That's where the red line will be.”
For now, at least, no one has crossed that line.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.