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A Fully Loaded Cultural History of Stockpiling Guns

Stockpiles of weapons tend to represent some sort of resistance — a distinct counter-cultural statement that symbolizes autonomy from the law and the mainstream

When agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the LAPD raided a five-bedroom estate less than a mile from Jay-Z and Beyonce’s Bel Air home last month in search of illegally owned firearms, they expected to find a few weapons, make an arrest and go home early.

Instead, they discovered one of the most perplexingly massive stockpiles of firearms ever recorded in L.A. history. Illuminated by the early morning light creeping in through drawn window shades, they found guns stashed in every conceivable corner of the house. From bookshelves to bathroom sinks, there were AR-15s, .44-caliber handguns, .357 magnum revolvers, World War II-era Thompson submachine guns, long guns with intricately carved stocks, an Uzi 9-millimeter submachine gun — replete with silencer — and a 9-millimeter Luger pistol. Boxes of ammo tumbled out from underneath the beds, and banned gun parts like bump stocks and flash suppressors for rifles occupied what seemed like every drawer, cabinet and closet.

All in all, authorities removed more than 1,000 individual firearms from the home, many of which were illegal, unlicensed or converted into the kind of weapons prohibited by California law. It took them over 30 hours to extract them from the home, a feat that left authorities with a stunned feeling that LAPD spokesperson Chris Ramirez summed up nicely in his statement to reporters at the scene: “It’s beyond comprehension that someone could have this many weapons.”

The burning question, of course, is whhhyyyy. Apart from arming an urban militia with the defense capacities of the Army, why would anyone need a thousand guns?

According to firearms historian Mike Helms, people stockpile weapons for all sorts of reasons they think are perfectly valid, and have been doing so globally for hundreds of years. “People have always stockpiled firearms in preparation for war,” he says. “This is especially true when one side is smaller and less armed. Stockpiling weapons gives them a dog in the fight.”

More recently, Helms says people have started stockpiling guns for more fringe reasons: trafficking, doomsday preparation, arming gangs, the mafia, cults and urban militias, and everyone’s personal favorite, defense against zombies. But whatever the motivation is, Helms says stockpiles tend to represent some sort of resistance; a distinct counter-cultural statement that symbolizes autonomy from the mainstream.

That makes it distinctly different from gun collecting, a much more well-documented and above-ground breed of firearm accumulation. While gun collecting connotes a certain appreciation for the craft of the gun and is approached with a passionate or academic mentality similar to art or cars, stockpilers usually couldn’t care less about the history or rarity of a weapon. “It’s a quantity over quality thing,” explains Ashley Hlebinsky, chief curator of the Cody Firearms Museum in Wyoming and the co-host of the Discovery series Master of Arms. “You don’t stockpile because you’re nerding out on the hand-carved stock or the fact that the gun was used to hunt foxes in Victorian-era Britain. Usually, you stockpile guns for use in an emergency situation. That, or because you’re mounting some sort of resistance.”

Tracing the history of gun stockpilers can be tricky, because it’s not clear when people starting doing this or what their specific reasons were. “There’s a real Fight Club mentality around stockpiling,” says Helms. “Basically, the first rule of stockpiling weapons is that we don’t talk about stockpiling weapons.”

That’s not because it’s illegal to horde thousands of rifles and handguns in your weird Bel Air mansion — stockpiling guns is actually protected by the Second Amendment, and most states have no limit on how many legal firearms you can own. Rather, as Helms explains, it’s because stockpiles are natural targets for thieves, authorities or “other belligerents” who might see stockpiling weapons as a threat. Talking about your stockpile, recording its contents and rationalizing why you need a small military’s worth of assault weapons makes you vulnerable to the same threats you’re probably stockpiling guns for in the first place.

That’s exactly why there was so much secrecy around accumulating guns before and during the Revolutionary War, an era during which one of the most well-known examples of stockpiling took place. As tensions between Americans and the British began to heat up, shadow governments in the form of urban militias like the Sons of Liberty began recruiting members and stockpiling firearms in order to orchestrate a secret resistance to the British. These militias used their cache of weapons to enforce mob rule, using tactics of fear, force and intimidation to effectively undermine the Brits and lay the groundwork for America’s eventual independence. During the same time, the Revolutionary War’s first skirmish — the Battle of Lexington and Concord — broke out over a large stockpile of arms and gunpowder assembled by the Massachusetts Militia that the British wanted control of. According to Helms, the origins of the Second Amendment actually come from the failed British attempt to effect “gun control” on colonists during this time.

A similar thing occurred in the South during the Civil War. Since the vast majority of gun manufacturing in the U.S. took place in the North in the Connecticut Valley, weapons availability dwindled significantly for the Confederate Army down south. So a strategy they used to stay armed was to stockpile weapons that had been lost or abandoned during battle, which explains why U.S. martial-marked weapons sometimes found their way into Confederate hands. “That’s one of the only ways they could get weapons when the major channels of commerce were being obstructed by the North,” says Helms.

Gun stockpiles also were involved in many instrumental abolitionist and slave revolts that contributed to the changing tide of slavery in the mid- to late-1800s. As Hlebinsky points out, armories were almost exclusively staffed by slaves before and during the Civil War, which she says gave them access to weapons that were occasionally used in insurgencies. One of the more famous of these was abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, an event that’s often called the “dress rehearsal to the Civil War.” And while it didn’t involve an armory staffed by slaves, it did involve Brown and 22 freed slaves successfully capturing a gigantic weapons stockpile in the local armory they were planning to use during a revolt they hoped would destroy the institution of slavery. Unfortunately, they were captured and killed by the U.S. Marines before they were able to do so.

As the dust settled after the Civil War and the focus shifted from war to the more capitalistic practices of industrialization, expansion and accumulation, people started stockpiling weapons for stranger and more nefarious reasons. The collective stress surrounding Prohibition and the Great Depression exacerbated these impulses, leading to the nation’s first-ever gun control legislation that attempted to curb the growing problem of gun violence among gangs and mafias.

It was during this time — which lasted all throughout the 1930s — that the rise of colorful “public enemies” like bank robbers John Dillinger and John “Machine Gun” Kelly took the country by storm. However, no public enemy created more of a zeitgeist than Bonnie and Clyde, the pair of star-crossed robbers who killed nine police officers and a few civilians on their storied cross-country crime spree. When they were finally captured by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his posse in 1934, authorities found a large stockpile of guns and ammo in their getaway car, most of which Hamer was allowed to keep (a portion of his stock of the stockpile was actually recently sold off, some items going for hundreds of thousands of dollars).

According to Helms, the romanticization of Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship — which was nothing like Jay-Z would have you believe — also contributed to the idea that having multiple weapons was a little romantic. “It conveys that ‘willing to die’ mentality that makes for glamorous Hollywood films,” he says. “It ups the stakes of a story.” Today more than ever, we’re inundated with stockpile imagery in movies that make us stop and go, “Wow, that dude is really serious about killing.” Depending on whether you’re on that dude’s (or lady’s) side, the stockpile might prepare you mentally to go to battle with whatever character has charmed you so. (Both of the following videos have Keanu Reeves in them. You’re welcome.)

The Great Depression also spawned the modern survivalist movement amongst groups of people who, having already lost so much, were prepared to defend to the death what little they had left. Assuming that total anarchy would break out any moment in response to the crumbling economy, survivalists started stockpiling weapons and suggested others do the same. They also started practicing paramilitary drills and developing tactical weapons training in preparation for what they believed to be impending societal collapse, a hobby that caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who allegedly still categorizes survivalists as domestic terrorists today (the list of characteristics the DHS are given to identify potential domestic terrorists supposedly includes “survivalist literature” and items of “self-sufficiency” such as “stockpiling food, ammo, hand tools, medical supplies”).

Most of the time, the characterization of survivalists as terrorist is way off, and more than a little ironic — stockpiling guns is legal yet also a sign of domestic terrorism — but there are some tragic instances in which stockpiled weapons have been used for that exact purpose. In 2012, Adam Lanza used his mother Nancy Lanza’s stockpiled weapons to carry out the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in which he killed 26 people, most of whom were children. The Belfast Telegraph cited Nancy’s sister-in-law Marsha Lanza as telling reporters that Nancy was part of the “prepper” movement and had been stockpiling weapons because she feared that an economic collapse would lead to a breakdown in society. Because of this, she was blamed for turning her son into a “killing machine.” Not long afterward, an “unstable survivalist” in Alabama stormed a school bus and killed the driver before holding a five-year-old boy hostage for a week in his well-stocked, DIY underground bunker.

And while you could hardly say all survivalists have mass murder and kidnapping on the brain, it’s also interesting how increases in stockpiling or changes in the way it’s done can be reflective of the country’s fears and anxieties around things like race, politics and the economy. As Vox reports, many preppers started stockpiling extra hard after the election of President Barack Obama out of a not-so-subtly racist fear over what would happen to the country at the hands of its first black president. Similarly, many studies and scholars have found that white folks have increased their stockpiling activities during periods in history when they feel that immigrants, people of color or other historically marginalized groups threaten the existing social order. “It’s not always about accumulating guns,” says Helms. “Sometimes there’s a larger, more insidious reason at hand.”

At certain points in history, though, people have also stockpiled weapons in the name of civil rights. In 1967, the Black Panthers “invaded” the California Legislature over the right to bear arms and exercise their Second Amendment right to form urban militias, an event that resulted in a phalanx of gun-control measures that seemed to galvanize lawmakers in a way that no mass shooting — no matter how deadly or innocent the victims — has since.

Maddeningly, says Helms, it took a bunch of armed black people to speed up the passage of something called the Mulford Act, which banned the carrying of loaded weapons in public in California. “What’s scarier than a group of black men with guns?” Helms says with a hefty tone of irony in his voice. Well, not Adam Lanza, apparently. Not Dylann Roof, the white man who killed 12 black people as they prayed at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or Steven Paddock, the man who committed the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history using a stockpile of weapons he’d been accumulating for decades. And while the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida, led to a new federal law requiring background checks for all gun purchasers, it was the first major gun legislation passed in the House of Representatives in decades (though it hasn’t passed the Senate yet, so it’s not currently on the books).

Meanwhile, in less institutionally racist history, Y2K and the stockpiling craze that surrounded it also provided a salient example of how firearm hoarding habits reflected popular social currents in the build up to the year 2000. Y2K was a stockpiler’s fantasy, with people all around the world stashing guns and ammo in their “blackout retreats” in case looters came for their batteries and canned goods. In 1998, Wired ran a feature on Y2K stockpilers that profiled a man named “Steve” who promised he’d be ready for battle at the stroke of midnight “with a small arsenal of guns” when all the computers exploded and time stood still.

Helms finds people like Steve endlessly amusing. “I have this theory that preppers are really overgrown Boy Scouts who kind of want to run around with guns and eat military rations while yelling about how the end of the world is coming or the government is going to turn against them,” he explains. “But hey, who am I to deny a good conspiracy?”

Speaking of conspiracies, the history of stockpiling guns is inexorably tied to conspiracy theories propagated by ring-wing alarmists and the National Rifle Association that spread false claims about how various entities like President Obama were coming for people’s private weapon supplies. Most entertaining were the alleged “mass confiscation“ of privately held firearms after Hurricane Katrina and the Alex Jones-propagated rumor that the Department of Homeland Security was stockpiling millions of rounds of ammunition to go to war with the American people. As HuffPo points out, nothing inspires stockpiling more than a good conspiracy theory.

But perhaps no one loves stockpiling weapons more than cults, whose rich history with stockpiling weapons flies in the face of the stereotype of gun owners as fat, white dudes in the South. Throughout the early- to mid-1980s, the infamous Rajneeshee cult featured in Wild, Wild Country built up an impressive stockpile of weapons that they used to conduct tactical paramilitary training for their members in preparation for a possible showdown with the townspeople of Antelope, Oregon, and the FBI. In the summer of 1985, it was discovered that their proprietary police and security forces had accumulated an armory of .357 Magnum revolvers, semi-automatic Uzi carbines and Galil assault rifles, the kind originally designed as a fully automatic version for the Israel Defense Forces. They’d also amassed some more exotic items like tear-gas grenades and barricade-penetrating shells for police riot guns.

A few years later in 1993, the infamous Waco siege began when the ATF obtained a search warrant to investigate the Branch Davidian cult and its leader David Koresh, who they suspected were stockpiling illegal weapons. But when more than 70 ATF agents raided the cult’s compound, gunfire erupted and four federal agents were killed, kicking off a 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians and both local and federal authorities that ended when a fire destroyed the building they were holed up in, killing nearly 80 people.

Many people viewed the Waco siege as a prime example of governmental abuse of authority, which spurred a new growth in urban militias who armed themselves and carried out tactical training in preparation to retaliate. In 1995, on the second anniversary of the raid, militia members Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people.

Today, stockpiling has become more common than ever. After Obama was elected in 2008, the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. tripled, but that didn’t mean more people were buying guns. Rather, the same people who already owned most of the guns just started buying more. Now, three percent of the adult population now owns half of the country’s guns. Gun ownership — particularly the stockpile-y kind — isn’t an evenly distributed trend, however. Research shows that there’s a specific type of person who stockpiles more firearms than anyone else today, and that person is, you guessed it: white men.

As Scientific American explains, “These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious — and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisis in meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that’s struggling to find a new story — one in which they are once again the heroes.”

As this trend grows, so does the amount of guns people are hoarding. In 2015, sheriffs found a stockpile of 5,000 guns in a South Carolina home, many of which spilled out onto their feet as they opened door after door. “This has completely changed our definition of an ass-load of guns,” said Chesterfield County Sheriff Jay Brooks. “I don’t know if there’s ever been (a seizure) this big anywhere before.” Neither do authorities — ATF doesn’t rank gun seizures by size, so it’s unclear if a bigger cache has ever been uncovered.

It’s also unclear how it’s possible that one guy could amass that many guys during a time when mass shootings have prompted increased scrutiny over how guns are sold, licensed and tracked. Helms doesn’t think that question will be answered anytime soon, though. “Limiting the amount of firearms someone can own or prosecuting them for stockpiling a certain amount doesn’t square with anything we have in the Bill of Rights,” he explains. “You can’t say someone can only have so much free speech, x amount of due process or only a limited right to vote. Because of that, I don’t think there will ever be a limit to how many firearms a person can own.” And at the end of the day, that’s probably okay — Helms says most gun violence isn’t carried out with stockpiled weapons; it’s with one or two irresponsibly used gun.

Although, I’m not sure if this man’s 36-gun stockpile to survive a zombie apocalypse is irresponsible or not. Seems like a pretty okay idea to me…