What’s Behind All the Right-Wing Cop Shootings?

In the days since Jerad and Amanda Miller shot and killed two cops in Las Vegas, a portrait has emerged of a young couple that had fallen deep into the rabbit hole of right-wing conspiracy theories.

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Jun 11 2014, 6:23am

On Sunday morning, Jerad and Amanda Miller left their two cats with their next-door neighbor and exited their Las Vegas apartment complex on foot, armed with a handgun, a shotgun, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Less than five hours later, the couple burst into a CiCi's Pizza restaurant just northeast of the Strip, yelled, "This is the start of the revolution," and opened fire on two police officers, in what the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department called a "politically motivated ambush." They then stripped the slain officers of their weapons and ammo, covered them with swastikas and a "Don't Tread on Me" flag, and headed to a nearby Walmart, where they fatally shot a bystander before Amanda turned the gun on herself and her husband was downed by a police officer. Their plan, according to police, was to take over a courthouse, execute public officials, and ultimately overthrow the government.

In the days since the shooting, the portrait of the Millers that has emerged in media reports and police statements, as well as from their social media accounts, reveals a young couple that had fallen deeply down the rabbit hole of right-wing conspiracy theories. Neighbors told the Las Vegas Sun that the Millers had a reputation for espousing racist, anti-government worldviews, and for bragging about their gun collection. On Facebook and in YouTube videos, under the username USATruePatriot, Jerad Miller identifies himself as a supporter of the Patriot Movement—an umbrella term that encompasses right-wing militias, white supremacists, and sovereign citizens—and talks regularly about chemtrails, tyranny, and overthrowing the federal government. This was his last Facebook post, published the day before the attack:

On Monday, one of Cliven Bundy's sons confirmed that the couple had been present for the showdown between anti-government protesters and the BLM this spring, but that other militia members had asked the couple to leave because they were "very radical." NBC Reno happened to interview Jerad Miller during the protests:

The Las Vegas shooting comes just days after Dennis Marx, a known sovereign citizen, attempted to gun down police officers at a Georgia courthouse, opening fire with an AR-15 and throwing homemade grenades and spike sticks. Like the Millers, his plan was to occupy the courthouse and attack law enforcement officials there, according to the Forsyth County sheriff's department. (In the end, Marx was the only one who died in the attack.)

Taken together, the two incidents reveal the dark, tragic side of right-wing extremist movements. According to numbers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of Patriot groups in the US has skyrocketed in recent years, jumping from 149 in 2008 to a peak of 1,360 in 2012, a time period that corresponds to both the economic downturn and the election of the nation's first black president. (For more on the correlation between racism and resource scarcity, check out this new face-morphing study from social-psychology researchers at NYU.)

"Unfortunately, I think these shootings are just the tip of the iceberg," said Jack Kay, a professor of communications at Eastern Michigan University who has studied right-wing militia groups for 30 years. "I think we are going to see violence like this continue.

"The background for all three of these shooters involved heavy rhetoric in the Patriot Movement," Kay explained. "The ideology is a hatred of the federal government, a belief that the federal government is not legitimate and is there to oppress, and that they will eventually be taken over by a New World Order."

Kay conceded that not everyone who hates Big Government and fears one-world government is going to start shooting random police officers or try to violently occupy their local courthouse. But, he said, the rhetoric of the anti-government movement—and, perhaps, of the right wing in general—can "plant the seeds" of violence among more radicalized individuals. According to data from the New America Foundation, right-wing extremists killed 34 people between September 11, 2001, and March 2014—a number that jumps to 40 if you include the incidents that have taken place since then.

The attackers, Kay said, "are typically lone wolves. They believe that they are going to start the next revolution," he explained. "It's not a sane view—but these folks are so into the rhetoric, they start creating this fictional future where they see themselves as the starters of the next revolution."

The isolated nature of these threats, Kay added, makes it difficult for law enforcement to stop attacks before they happen. On top of that, he said, the federal government's intense focus on jihadist terrorist threats overseas since the September 11 attacks has meant that homegrown extremism goes largely unnoticed.

"I don't think the feds have really taken this very seriously, or really tried to understand why there is so much hatred toward the federal government," Kay said. "And now, it's gone beyond the few lunatics that have always been in the movement, and it's starting to impact every day citizens."

Now, though, looks like the government is starting to take notice. Last Tuesday, days before Marx's attempted attack, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will revive its domestic-terrorism task force, citing "escalating danger from individuals within our own borders." While the impetus for the move was apparently the FBI's failure to share information about Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and about the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Holder indicated that right-wing groups are also on the agency's radar.

"We must also concern ourselves with the continued danger we face from individuals within our own borders who may be motivated by a variety of other causes from anti-government animus to racial prejudice," Holder said in a statement last week.

On Tuesday, speaking just hours after another shooting incident killed a student and wounded a teacher at an Oregon high school, President Obama criticized the country's failure to pass tighter gun laws. "We're the only developed country on Earth where this happens," he said during a White House Q&A with Tumblr CEO David Karp. "And it happens now once a week. And it's a one-day story. There's no place else like this."

Of course, blaming the Las Vegas shootings on right-wing groups, no matter how extreme, is a lot like blaming the Wisconsin stabbings on Slender Man or chalking the Columbine massacre up to the shooters' addiction to violent video games. Aside from InfoWars fearmonger Alex Jones, who claims the whole thing was a government hoax, Patriot activists have been generally horrified by the Millers' violence. "This whole thing has had my stomach in knots all day," Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who led some of the militia groups at Bundy Ranch, wrote in an email.

"Any time there is senseless killing, that's wrong—I know that they're people that think that's a solution, but I think they're nuts, quite frankly," said Alex Coffey, a spokesperson for Operation American Spring, a movement to overthrow President Obama and Congress that was among the groups Jerad Miller liked on Facebook. "I'm terribly sorry for the people who were lost in Las Vegas," he added. "I'm even sorry for the shooters—they were lost souls."

Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.

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