Extremist groups in the United States have exploded in number since President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and are likely to continue to grow as the federal government sets its sights on gun control reform, a report released Tuesday by civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center finds.
During a news conference the same day, group representatives alleged the federal government is largely ignoring the threat these groups pose.
The SPLC, of Montgomery, Ala., tracks organizations it identifies as both hate groups and anti-government “patriot” groups. While its annual intelligence report finds the number of hate groups remained relatively steady since 2008 and declined slightly from 1,018 in 2011 to 1,007 in 2012, the number of patriot groups grew by a factor of 4.5 in the same period.
The SPLC lists 35 hate groups and 37 patriot groups active in Pennsylvania, about the same number as in neighboring states Ohio and New York. The only group in Luzerne County SPLC identifies as a hate group, Pittston-based European American Action Coalition, on its website describes itself as “an organization that advocates on behalf of White Americans.”
The group gained attention from the SPLC and local and national media in November after one of its members, Steve Smith of Pittston, was elected with two votes to the state Republican Committee. The state Republican Party distanced itself from Smith’s viewpoints but said it needed to investigate whether it could legally remove him from an office he had won in an election. It has not yet made that determination.
Mark Potok, senior fellow with the SPLC and author of the report, said the rise in patriot groups has been accompanied by a mainstream acceptance of some of their ideas, including by elected politicians.
“I’ve seen I think a definite increase in the amount of extremists running for political office at the local level,” said Daryl Johnson, a former analyst for the Department of Homeland Security who now works for SPLC.
According to the report, patriot group numbers formerly peaked at 858 in 1996, after an upward trend begun in 1993 with President Bill Clinton signing the Brady Bill handgun restrictions into law and the deaths of church members at the Branch Dividian compound in Waco, Texas, but fell in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995. Patriot groups numbered below 200 from 2000 until 2008, then rose to 512 in 2009, 824 in 2010, 1,274 in 2011 and 1,360 in 2012.
According to Potok, the groups SPLC defines as patriot organizations oppose or distrust the federal government and typically ascribe to a conspiracy theory in which the federal government plans to impose marshal law to pave the way for the imposition of a socialist world government. Some have armed militias that stockpile weapons and prepare for war with government forces.
Their recent growth owes to several factors, Potok said, among them, the election of Barack Obama as president, the economic collapse of 2008 and the “mainstreaming of extremist ideas.”
Potok said it is not merely America’s first black president that troubles these groups but the demographic shift his election represents. Census predictions forecast that non-Hispanic whites will no longer represent the majority of Americans by the end of 2044.