When UC Davis violence researcher Dr. Garen Wintemute queried Americans on political violence, race and threats to democracy, he didn't know exactly how scary the results would be.
"We expected the findings to be concerning, but these exceed our worst expectations," said Wintemute, a go-to source of mine for many years on gun violence, which he witnesses 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 last round of congressional hearings into the Jan. 6 takeover of the Capitol. The findings were posted by medRXiv.org, a health sciences website that lists works in progress prior to peer review.
Wintemute told me that with midterm elections coming up in a politically divided and frenzied nation that has more firearms than people, he wanted to go public with his findings now rather than wait for peer review, which might not come until after the election.
Most gun-related violence in the United States involves daily assaults that don't make headlines, but where weaponry and politics intersect, here are some of the highlights — or maybe lowlights is the better word — of what Wintemute and his research team found:
— Slightly more than two-thirds of more than 8,600 survey respondents perceive "a serious threat to our democracy," and 51.1% believe that "in the next several years, there will be a civil war in the United States."
— 42.4% said having a "strong leader" is more important than "having a democracy."
— 41.2% said they believe "native-born white people are being replaced by immigrants."
— 18.7% said they agree strongly or very strongly with the idea that violence or force are needed to protect democracy "when elected leaders will not."
Sadly, none of this is surprising. Thanks to political polarization, the culture of distortion, social media saber-rattling and right-wing fanning of replacement-theory flames, millions of delusional Americans believe that Donald Trump is no longer president only because Joe Biden stole the election.
And the fear is that many of them, armed to the teeth, are prepared to storm the gates.
"About a year ago we began following a surge in gun purchasing," Wintemute told me. "It was unprecedented and started at the beginning of the pandemic … and the surge ... appeared to be related to an increase in the size of the violence that followed."
At the same time, he said, there was ample evidence of an erosion of faith in democratic institutions and elections, and he wanted to study how serious a threat that constituted. (The survey respondents were about evenly split between male and female. Whites made up 62%, Hispanics 17%, Blacks 12%, Asians 5.4%, and the median age was 48).
Just under 43% of survey respondents agreed somewhat, strongly or very strongly with this statement: "Our American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it."
Nearly 25% agreed that use of force is sometimes, usually or always justified "to stop an election from being stolen." And just over 25% agreed somewhat, strongly or very strongly that "true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country."
Nearly 32% disagreed with this statement: "White people benefit from advantages in society that Black people do not have."
Almost 23% agreed somewhat, strongly or very strongly with this statement: "The government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation."
I guess the only way to look at that without buying a one-way ticket to Canada is to remind yourself that three-fourths of the population is at least a bit more grounded.
"These findings deserve Americans' attention, and they should be taken at face value. They are in keeping with the other data political violence experts are seeing regarding strong support for political violence from a small but still far, far too large — and increasing — portion of the American public," said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions agreed with Kleinfeld and said this:
"The Far Right has been seeding the soil to take and keep political power through 'justified' violence — claims of stolen elections, pedophilia, promoting militias and folks arming themselves to the teeth and then telling them that their enemies are coming to try to disarm them from their 'God-given rights.' Few would take up arms themselves, but many would enable and applaud political violence."
Webster's colleague at the Hopkins center, co-director Joshua Horwitz, saw the cracks in the foundation of U.S. democracy many years ago. He co-wrote a book with attorney Casey Anderson, published in 2009 under the title "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 tried to warn people," said Horwitz, a health advocacy professor at Johns Hopkins, who recalls friends doubting 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 was flying the flag of the 2nd Amendment, making the argument that men with guns make the rules. Republican lawmakers amplified that rhetoric, Horwitz said, along with some Democrats.
Since that time, Horwitz said, millions of firearms have been produced and private homes are now arsenals of sophisticated and powerful weapons. That's thanks to unforgivable legislative failure on sensible, lifesaving gun control reforms despite one horrific massacre of innocent people after another.
"Just remember that one AR-15 held back 400 police officers in Uvalde," Horwitz said of the recent Texas school massacre, warning that 10 people working together with such firepower could wreak devastation we haven't yet imagined.
In his report, Wintemute said that despite the "continuing alienation from and mistrust of American democratic society … founded in part on false beliefs," there's hope.
"A large majority of respondents rejected political violence altogether," he said, and the challenge is for that majority to recognize the threat and respond to it.
Easier said than done, but worth the effort.
Wintemute said he hopes the Jan. 6 hearings and the findings of his team's report are 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 make counterpoints available to those attracted to extremist views.
And then there's the obvious need for sensible gun control, and the endless work of trying to convince enough people that the weapons they buy for self-protection actually put them and their loved ones in greater danger.
"We are right now in the middle of a huge national experiment," Wintemute said. We're finding out "what happens when you take an angry, polarized society and make guns much more easily available in a real hurry. What happens in that society? We're living through the answer right now."