A week before Christmas, a small-town Ohio police chief spotted an SUV going 20 mph below the speed limit and stopped the motorist on suspicion of texting while driving.
The chief glimpsed a loaded 9 mm Smith and Wesson handgun in a bag
between the passenger’s feet — but the routine stop became tense after
he noticed the driver’s name on a national terrorist watch list.
Newtown police later said the driver, a right-wing Internet
broadcaster named Pete Santilli, was not actually listed in terror
database — but the incident sheds some light on conservative reluctance
to ban suspected terrorists and the mentally ill from owning firearms.
Put simply: An awful lot of right-wing conservatives believe their
Second Amendment rights kick in when their First Amendment talents fail —
and they stoke their fears of government overreach with paranoid
conspiracy theories that sometimes resemble mental illness.
The 51-year-old Santilli, who became radicalized by 9/11 “truther”
conspiracy theories and hosted militia members and other right-wing
extremists on his “Off the Hook in the Morning” program, fits those
Santilli, who had recently moved from California to join his
girlfriend in the Cincinnati area, was charged during the traffic stop
with illegally carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, but the
case was quickly and inexplicably dropped.
But just 15 days later, Santilli showed up in Burns, Oregon, where he
filmed a protest that turned into a monthlong occupation of a national
wildlife preserve by many of the same armed anti-government militants
who had engaged federal agents in a 2014 showdown at the Bundy ranch in
The occupation captured and sustained national media attention, which
stories about right-wing extremists infrequently do — mostly because
social media users mocked the militants as “Y’all Qaeda” terrorists or
“Vanilla ISIS,” and answered their pleas for snacks by mailing them
dildos and comically large barrels of personal lubricant.
Joking aside, a serious debate could be had about whether the
militants led by Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, were terrorists.
The federal government apparently doesn’t think so.
None of the militants who were arrested in connection with the armed
occupation, including Santilli, have been hit with any terrorism-related
charges — but rather some combination of charges such as conspiracy to
impede federal officers, firearm possession at a federal facility, carry
of a firearm in relation to a violent crime, and depredation of
But the government had been watching many of the militants since the
Bundy ranch standoff, and some of them had attracted attention from law
enforcement by threatening lawmakers, government authorities and
minority groups before taking over federal land to protest federal
ownership of public lands.
The militants attracted support from several Republican lawmakers, and Ammon Bundy claims backing from unspecified corporate “deep pockets” who share their anti-government aims.
It’s not clear whether any of the militants — except possibly Santilli, who was investigated by the Secret Service in 2013 after saying he wanted to shoot Hillary Clinton “right in the vagina” — were ever placed on the terrorist watch list.
The database, which identifies about 10,000 Americans among an
estimated 700,000 names, is necessarily secret, for both privacy and
national security reasons — and its existence is controversial to both
liberals and conservatives.
Republicans have done the bidding of the National Rifle Association
and blocked legislation that would prohibit anyone named on the
terrorist watch list from buying or owning guns.
Some conservatives have softened their opposition after a 29-year-old
who had been named on the list gunned down 49 people and wounded 53
more at an Orlando gay nightclub.
There are plenty of legitimate concerns about the database and the
process for getting names removed — but there’s an underlying assumption
the terrorist gun ban violates the Second Amendment because
conservatives would be unfairly targeted.
And a lot of conservatives believe the Second Amendment gives them a right to use firearms as political expression.
“I’d much rather have an election where we solve this matter at the ballot box than have to resort to the bullet box,” said gun lobbyist Larry Pratt.
“Failing all other appeals to peaceful means … the founders’ solution
to such tyranny is still available, still potent, and still waiting,
for when democracy turns to tyranny, the armed citizenry still gets to
vote,” said Mike Vanderboegh, the co-founder of the “III Percenters” gun
Even Republican lawmakers have argued that the Second Amendment grants them the right to point guns at law enforcement officers.
“Once you point your firearm at me, I’m sorry, then it becomes
self-defense,” said Michelle Fiore, a Nevada assemblywoman who backed
the Bundy militants in Oregon and at their family’s ranch. “Whether
you’re a stranger, a bad guy, or an officer, and you point your gun at
me and you’re gonna shoot me and I have to decide whether it’s my life
or your life, I choose my life.”
Those statements — which could conceivably attract the interest of
law enforcement or potentially land a person, unfairly or otherwise, on a
terrorist watch list — go a long way toward explaining why some
right-wing conservatives might oppose a gun ban for suspected
Opposition to the ban runs strong among hardcore gun-rights
supporters — who sometimes warn darkly that Americans could be
identified as enemies of the state simply by voting Republican or
They also warn that holding certain conservative views could lead to a
mental illness diagnosis, which might disqualify from owning firearms
they’ll need to fight government tyranny.
The psychiatric profession doesn’t consider fanaticism a mental
disorder — but there’s still some confusion because no clear boundary
separates religious and political extremism from mental illness.
“One man’s cherished belief is another man’s delusion,” explained Dr. Allen Frances, former chair of the DSM-IV Task Force and a professor emeritus at Duke University School of Medicine.
Those conspiracy theories have moved from the political fringes and
the bumper sticker rack at gun shops, where they’ve existed in some form
for decades, to the conservative mainstream during the Obama
Last year’s Jade Helm 15 hysteria, which turned a military training
exercise into wild-eyed tales of foreign troops disarming and rounding
up registered Republicans and herding them into FEMA camps housed in
disused Walmart stores, is just one example.
Those fears are stoked by talk radio hosts such as Alex Jones, who
has hosted the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump — who
himself floats conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama that
feed back into the paranoid mindset that causes right-wing conservatives
to cling even more tightly to their guns.
Trump’s presidential campaign was linked to both the Bundy ranch and
the Oregon occupation through Jerry DeLemus, who served as the New
Hampshire co-chair of the Veterans for Trump organization but is now
jailed for his role in both armed anti-government protests.
Which brings us back to Santilli, who remains jailed for his role in the Bundy ranch standoff and the Malheur occupation.
“I have political opponents that some of whom actually have access to the terror watch list,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer
in December. “I believe that what he saw was my name and my vehicle
associated with someone on the terror watch list. Somebody who had
access to that terror watch list wanted to use it as political
For all his overheated rhetoric about jackboot thugs seizing guns on
flimsy pretenses, he was free to travel to Oregon to participate in an
armed uprising against the federal government just two weeks after his
arrest on gun charges.
The arresting officer pointed a gun at him after mistaking him for a terrorist — but Santilli said he was nice about it.
“He was extremely professional, constitutional — he was very, very courteous when he pulled me over,” Santilli said.
Right-wing conservatives like to imagine their trusty gun will
protect them from a tyrannical threat that doesn’t really exist — and
the firearms industry happily indulges them with grim fantasies.
But the reality is, too many Americans are killed by someone who never should have owned a gun in the first place.