Lopez: Survey on political violence is beyond scary

When the violence researcher Dr. When UC Davis’ Garen Wintemute surveyed Americans about political violence, race and threats to democracy, he wasn’t sure how frightening the results would be.

“We expected the results to be concerning, but these are beyond our worst expectations,” said Wintemute, one of my longtime gun violence focal points, who he witnessed firsthand as an emergency room physician in Sacramento.

The report by Wintemute and his team at the Violence Prevention Research Program was released by UC Davis on Wednesday, on the eve of the final round of congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol takeover. The findings were published by medRXiv.org, a health sciences website that lists ongoing work ahead of peer review.

Wintemute told me that with midterm elections approaching in a politically divided and hectic nation that has more guns than people, he wanted to go public with his findings now rather than wait for peer review, which may not come until after the election .

Most gun-related violence in the United States involves daily attacks that don’t make headlines, but where guns and politics intersect, here are some of the highlights — or maybe the better word is lowlights — of what Wintemute and his research team found to have:

— Just over two-thirds of the more than 8,600 respondents see “a serious threat to our democracy” and 51.1% believe that “civil war will break out in the United States in the next few years”.

— 42.4% said having a “strong leader” is more important than “having a democracy”.

– 41.2% said they believe “native-born whites will be replaced by immigrants.”

– 18.7% said they strongly or very strongly agree with the idea that force or coercion is needed to protect democracy “when elected leaders don’t do it”.

Unfortunately, none of this is surprising. Thanks to political polarization, the culture of distortion, social media saber-rattling, and right-wing fanning the flames of replacement theory, millions of delusional Americans believe Donald Trump is no longer president simply because Joe Biden stole the election.

And the fear is that many of them, armed to the teeth, are ready to storm the gates.

“About a year ago, we started tracking an increase in gun purchases,” Wintemute told me. “It was unprecedented, beginning at the onset of the pandemic … and the spike … appeared to be related to an increase in the level of violence that followed.”

At the same time, he said, there is ample evidence of an erosion of trust in democratic institutions and elections, and he wants to examine how serious this threat is. (Respondents were roughly evenly split between males and females. White was 62%, Hispanic 17%, Black 12%, Asian 5.4%, and the median age was 48 years).

Nearly 43% of survey respondents somewhat, strongly, or very strongly agreed with this statement: “Our American way of life is disappearing so fast we may have to use force to save it.”

Almost 25% agreed that the use of force is sometimes, usually or always justified “to prevent an election from being stolen”. And just over 25% somewhat, strongly, or very strongly agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.”

Almost 32% disagreed with this statement: “White people enjoy advantages in society that black people do not have.”

Nearly 23% somewhat, strongly, or very strongly agreed with this statement: “The US government, media and financial community are controlled by a group of satanic pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”

I think the only way to look at this without buying a one-way ticket to Canada is to remember that three quarters of the population is at least a little bit more grounded.

“These results deserve Americans’ attention and should be taken at face value. They are consistent with the other data political violence experts are seeing regarding the strong support for political violence from a small but still far too large — and growing — segment of the American public,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for international peace.

Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions agreed with Kleinfeld, saying:

“The far right has sown the ground to take and hold political power through ‘justified’ violence – allegations of stolen elections, pedophilia, promoting militias and people who arm themselves to the teeth and then tell them their Enemies come to try to disarm them of their ‘God-given rights’. Few would take up arms themselves, but many would facilitate and welcome political violence.”

Webster’s colleague at the Hopkins Center, co-director Joshua Horwitz, saw cracks in the foundations of US democracy many years ago. He co-wrote a book with attorney Casey Anderson that was published in 2009, Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea.

“I started writing it in 2005 because something was going on that was very unhealthy for our democracy and I was trying to warn people,” said Horwitz, a professor of health advocacy at Johns Hopkins University, who recalls, that friends doubted his conclusions.

What concerned him was the rise of the National Rifle Assn. and the rest of the gun lobby as a political force that hoisted the 2nd Amendment flag and argued that men with guns make the rules. Republican lawmakers were amplifying that rhetoric, Horwitz said, along with some Democrats.

Since that time, Horwitz said, millions of firearms had been produced, and homes were now arsenals of sophisticated and powerful weapons. That’s thanks to the legislature’s unforgivable failure to make sensible, life-saving gun control reforms, despite one horrific massacre of innocent people after another.

“Just think about it, an AR-15 held off 400 cops in Uvalde,” Horwitz said of the recent Texas school shooting, warning that 10 people working together with such firepower could wreak havoc that we are yet to imagine have not introduced.

In his report, Wintemute said that despite the “persistent alienation from and distrust of American democratic society … based in part on false beliefs,” there is hope.

“A large majority of respondents opposed political violence overall,” he said, and the challenge for this majority is recognizing and responding to the threat.

Easier said than done, but worth the effort.

Wintemute said he hopes the Jan. 6 hearings and the findings of his team’s report will be a wake-up call. He said we should recognize that some who feel alienated have legitimate grievances about government failures and address them. We need a better mental health care system, he said, and a better way to provide counterpoints to those drawn to extremist views.

And then there’s the obvious need for sane gun control and the endless work of convincing enough people that the guns they buy for self-defense are in fact putting them and their loved ones at greater risk.

“We’re right in the middle of a huge national experiment,” Wintemute said. We find out “what happens when you take an angry, polarized society and make guns much more readily available in a hurry. What is happening in this society? We are living through the answer right now.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-21/lopez-column-political-violence-survey-results-are-beyond-scary Lopez: Survey on political violence is beyond scary

Alley Einstein

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