Had the District of Columbia’s tough gun laws not been in place on January 6 — had insurrectionists been able to legally amass all the firearms they wanted during their march to the U.S. Capitol — we would have seen a bloody massacre and the end of the republic.
Washington, D.C. (a federal enclave) requires all guns to be registered and a license must be obtained to carry a concealed firearm in public (open carry is prohibited). Anyone bringing a gun into the District for the first time must apply for a registration certificate immediately (or within 48 hours if they notify MPDC ahead of time). The city bans semiautomatic battlefield rifles like the AR-15. Firearms are also well regulated at the U.S. Capitol. Civilians are prohibited from carrying them into the building or anywhere on the grounds.
The January 6 plotters were well aware of these laws. On December 25, 2020, Oath Keepers leader Kelly Meggs logged into Facebook and responded to an organizer’s request for a “list of gear and attire” to bring to Washington. “Dc is no guns,” Meggs answered. “So mace and gas masks . Some batons . If you have armor that’s good.”
Meggs and other Oath Keepers leaders were stockpiling guns for the January 6 attack — they just couldn’t get them to the nation’s capital. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes personally spent more than $15,500 on guns in early January, including AR-style rifles, high-capacity magazines, mounts, sights, and ammunition. Oath Keeper teams from Arizona and North Carolina also brought caches of guns and ammo. But fearing arrest upon entering the District, the fascist group was forced to store their arsenal over six miles away in a Comfort Inn in Arlington, Virginia. “I had not seen that many weapons in one location since I was in the military,” testified Florida Oath Keeper Terry Cummings. The Oath Keepers also stationed a van full of guns and ammo in a parking lot at Arlington Cemetery.
More than 2,000 Trump supporters fought their way into the Capitol Building on January 6. Many more rioted outside. Out of that large group, court documents reveal only a smattering of arrests (by the D.C. Police and federal agents) of individual insurrectionists who made it into the city with guns.* These include:
- Cleveland Grover Meredith of Hayesville, NC: Arrested at a DC hotel one mile from Capitol after threatening to shoot House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Meredith was in possession of a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, a Tavor X95 assault rifle with a telescopic sight, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and approximately 2,500 rounds of ammunition.
- Lonnie Coffman of Falkville, AL: Coffman was arrested for carrying a loaded handgun in D.C. without a permit. Authorities then searched his truck parked a few blocks from the Capitol and found another handgun, an AR-15 rifle, a shotgun, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a crossbow, machetes, a stun gun, and Molotov cocktails. Coffman was affiliated with self-appointed border “militias” in Texas.
- Mark Andrew Mazza of Shelbyville, Indiana: Mazza was arrested for bringing two loaded guns — a Taurus revolver loaded with three shotgun shells and two hollow point bullets, and a .40 semiautomatic pistol — into the District without a permit and assaulting a Capitol Police (USCP) officer. Mazza lost the revolver while fighting to breach the Capitol tunnel with rioters.
But just because the overwhelming majority of the rioters didn’t carry guns on January 6 doesn’t mean they weren’t armed. Approximately 28,000 people went through the magnetometers at Trump’s rally at the Ellipse just before the march to the Capitol. Secret Secret confiscated “242 cannisters of pepper spray, 269 knives or blades, 18 brass knuckles, 18 tasers, 6 pieces of body armor, 3 gas masks, 30 batons or blunt instruments, and 17 miscellaneous items like scissors, needles, or screwdrivers” during the rally.
During the battle at the Capitol, the rioters wielded a number of additional improvised weapons, including “a baseball bat, a fire extinguisher, a wooden club, a spear, crutches, a flagpole, bear spray, mace, chemical irritants, stolen police shields, a wooden beam, a hockey stick, a stun gun, and knives.” A badly outnumbered group of Capitol Police officers — possibly as few as 417 in number and less than a quarter wearing riot gear — fought bravely in “brutal, medieval-style combat” against insurrectionists trying to prevent the Senate from certifying the 2020 presidential election for winner/Democrat Joe Biden. These USCP officers acted with incredible courage and went above and beyond the call of duty on a day when their leadership abandoned them completely.
Trump’s violent mob failed to coerce Vice President Mike Pence into (unconstitutionally) using his largely ceremonial position as president of the Senate to block the certification of the presidential vote. Evidence shows that insurrectionists intended to kidnap and/or kill Pence and Members of Congress trapped inside the Capitol Building with them. An FBI informant inside the white supremacist group The Proud Boys reported that several Proud Boys who were at the Capitol during the siege later told him that “anyone they got their hands on that day, they would have killed, including [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi.”
At one point, insurrectionists got to within just 40 feet of the vice president. By way of comparison, the effective maximum range of a typical handgun is 75–90 feet, depending on the skill of the shooter. The effective maximum range of an AR-15 is approximately 1,200–1,800 feet. It is nigh impossible to see how a badly outnumbered Capitol Police force would have protected Pence and Members of Congress against a violent mob opening fire on them (and the Capitol Building) with such weapons.
Remarkably, only one bullet was fired during the entire siege(!)— by a Capitol Police officer, who killed rioter Ashli Babbitt just before she could breach the final door to the House Chamber (where Members of Congress were sheltering). Because the combat was restricted to hand-to-hand fighting, USCP officers were eventually able to escort Vice President Pence and Members of Congress out of the Capitol complex, shaken but uninjured.
A grotesque number of Capitol Police officers suffered injuries during the attack (140 in all, including brain damage and the loss of an eye). But only a single officer, Brian Sicknick, was murdered by an insurrectionist (there were four other deaths that day.).
The melee weapons used by Trump’s traitors were simply nowhere near as lethal as firearms. The District of Columbia’s gun laws had done exactly what they were enacted to do — saved lives and preserved democracy.
Given Republicans’ long campaign to repeal the District of Columbia’s gun laws, the future survival of these regulations is no certainty. That should be at the top of the minds of Members of Congress, Capitol Police, and other planners hoping to prevent future violence at the seat of government.
Another riot, at the state capitol in Michigan in April 2020, offered a chilling glimpse of what January 6 might have looked like if guns had been present.
Right-wing protesters were angry about Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s shelter-in-place order aimed at preventing the transmission of the Covid-19 virus and saving lives. Michigan’s weak gun laws allowed them to enter the state capitol building in Lansing with their (loaded) handguns and assault rifles. In a near-catastrophe, the extremists came close to breaching the House chamber doors and had to be physically restrained by the Michigan State Police and Sergeants at Arms. Other protesters armed with semiautomatic rifles stood in the gallery above the chamber looking down on officers, legislators, and staffers. Turned into sitting ducks, some legislators wore bulletproof vests.
Miraculously, no shots were fired.
But subsequent investigation proved the threat was real. Since October 2020, 14 men have faced state and federal charges for plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Many of them had ties to the Wolverine Watchmen, a self-styled “militia” group. Additionally, the Michigan attorney general’s office reported that “several” of the men participated in the April 2021 riot at the state capitol.
Two men in the group — Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks — pleaded guilty. Franks “described a plot to use a grenade launcher and machine gun to fight security officers at [Whitmer’s] vacation home.” The group’s leader, Adam Fox, believed Whitmer’s COVID-19 regulations were “tyrannical.” Garbin testified the group hoped Whitmer’s kidnapping would serve as the “ignition” for a civil war involving antigovernment groups (and possibly prevent the election of Joe Biden).
[Disclosure: During my tenure at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, I worked to defend the District of Columbia’s gun laws in Congress. Alongside CSGV executive director Josh Horwitz, I also assisted chair Phil Mendelson and other members of the D.C. Council in rewriting the city’s gun laws following the Supreme Court’s 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision.]
* Meredith, Coffman, and Mazza were later convicted of their crimes and sentenced to prison.