Spokane County Commissioners

What they do–and the power they wield–is little understood. Big changes are in the works.

If salary reflects something of the power of the position consider the following annual salaries for selected Spokane County and City elected officials for 2022:

Spokane County Commissioner: $120,370

City of Spokane Councilperson: $47,624

City of Spokane Council President: $63,240

In spite of what those numbers suggest, last week at a non-political gathering of otherwise well-educated residents of Spokane County I asked ten people if they could tell me how many County Commissioners we have representing us in our County government. Not a single person offered the correct answer (three), all acknowledged that they were merely guessing, none could name a County Commissioner, and several asked, “What do County Commissioners do, anyway? Don’t they just represent the rural parts of the county [not long ago that’s what I, too, would have said]?” 

It feels as though the current Spokane County Commissioners, Al French, Josh Kerns, and Mary Kuney, would be happy if their part in Spokane County governance were to remain obscure to most voters. I find it impossible to locate the minutes from the County Commissioner meetings at spokanecounty.org. I can be pointed to them, they’re there, but no one seems motivated to make the website self-explanatory. The Commissioners are only rarely quoted in local media. Coverage of the County Commissioner actions in the Spokesman Review is skimpy compared to the attention paid to City of Spokane’s Mayor Woodward and the six members of the City Council. 

That’s the wrong focus. The three current Spokane County Commissioners (French, Kerns, and Kuney) represent a squeeze-point in local representation and governance while, on a per capita basis, they wield immense power and influence. 

The Founders’ model of American governance laid out in the U.S. Constitution specifies three branches: executive [the President and executive departments and agencies], legislative [i.e. Congress, the House and Senate], and judicial [the federal court system]. In this federal government the legislative branch alone consists of 535 voting members, elected legislators each answerable (at least in theory) to their constituents. Most state government models are similar. Washington State has its Governor (the executive), Jay Inslee, and a bicameral legislature (State House and State Senate) composed of a total of 147 state-elected legislators. The local government of the City of Spokane also runs on that model, but on a smaller scale: a “strong” mayor, Mayor Woodwood, heads up the executive branch while the legislative branch is made up of six city counselors led by a City Council President (Breean Beggs). Note that for each level of government, for those of us living in the City of Spokane, the executive and legislative branches are separate and the least number of elected officials engaged in the legislative branch is seven (Spokane City Council), except:

Not so on county commissions. Currently, just three Spokane County Commissioners serve as both the executive and legislative branches of county governance. This is currently true in each non-charter (“commissioner form”) county—32 of the 39 counties in Washington State. The form that county government takes is specified by the Washington State Constitution (Article XI, Section 5) and by state law, the Revised Code of Washington. The powers of the County Commissioners, which are considerable [and little understood by most of us], are enumerated in RCW 36.32.120. Some hint of their reach can be seen in this “County Organizational Chart” from the Spokane County website:

The County Commissioners exercise legislative and executive power not only over this bureaucracy: their power and influence extends to membership on (and often chairmanship of) a multitude of local boards on which they sit with representatives of municipal governments and other stakeholders. Recently (and infamously) that includes the influence of Commissioner Al French on the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health. There he was instrumental in the firing of Dr. Bob Lutz as District Health Officer and hiring of French’s own hand-picked replacement. 

A little less noted, but just as brash, on June 29, 2021, the Spokane County Board of Commissioners, presumably powered by Commissioner French with the aid and influence of County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, restructured the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council (SRLJC), removing community representatives and several elected officials. The move produced a well-deserved uproar among other local leaders. Little noted was that Commissioner French had been chairman of the SRLJC and set its agenda, bending the Council to his will, prior to the re-structuring. In the lead up to the County Commissioners’ restructuring of the SRLJC, the SRLJC’s Strategic Planning Committee asked that the community members forced out to an outlying position in the restructuring be granted “at least some authority to make the council more than just a recommending body”.

“That’s not going to happen,” French said. “I’m not going to relegate that authority or responsibility to another group that is going to manage county funds.”

For Mr. French, apparently, it’s all about money and power, not community input. Father French knows best…

County Commissioners are not term limited. Al French was first elected County Commissioner in 2008. He is now ending his third four year term in office. (See details in P.S.) Prior to that he was on the City of Spokane City Council for eight years (two terms). His longevity gives him an advantage over, for example, City of Spokane City Councilors, who are limited to two four year terms. By this time Mr. French must know who has strings to pull and where all the bodies are buried. His bio in the Spokesman claims that he “currently sits on 40 boards, commissions, councils from the local to regional and state levels”. His sporadic attendance at the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health, appearing only to help fire Dr. Lutz and immediately put forward for board approval French’s hand-picked new replacement, suggests that he is acutely aware of his power—and how to wield it with the least amount of exposure and investment of time. 

This year there is a chance to significantly improve constituent representation with the simultaneous election of a five (not three) member Board of Spokane County Commissioners from five newly drawn districts. Up until now all a commissioner candidate had to do was win a top two primary election in their district before going on to a county-wide election in the November general election. That consistently yielded three Republican Commissioners. Big change: This fall each new Commissioner will be chosen only by the voters of their District of residence—both in the top two primary and in the general election. The new system is likely to yield at least two Democrats and three Republicans (based on past voting patterns), but Mr. French is running in District 5, a district that could swing. If he makes it through the top two primary (he has three challengers), he may face off in the general election against Maggie Yates, a young, extremely bright and skilled contender with several years experience in county government and with Mr. French. There are two other quality Democrats running in two other districts, Chris Jordan (District 1) and Amber Waldref (District 2)

With an improved understanding of how county government works, it is time to take some interest, study up, talk it up with your friends and neighbors and lend a hand to one of these candidates. 

Uncertain about the new districts? If you are into maps and want to see how the districts are laid out I recommend the interactive map on Amber Waldref’s campaign website or the less interactive one on the county website. If you’re content to know who will be on your ballot, go to myvote.wa.gov, enter your information, and click on “Voters’ Guide” under Current Election. While you’re there check out the rest of the information available—including, under “Voting Registration”, that your residential and mailing address for your ballot are still current.

Ballots will be mailed July 13th. Sadly, many people I’ve talked aren’t even aware there is an election coming up. Talk it up. There’s a chance for meaningful change.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Unlike City Councilors, each of whom is limited to two four year terms, County Commissioners have no term limits. Spokane County Commissioner Al French, for example, is just now at the end of his third term in office, having been first elected in 2010 (and having just finished two four year terms—the limit—as a City of Spokane City Council member). Josh Kerns was first elected in 2016, and Mary Kuney in 2020. Kuney, another Republican intertwined with the building industry (French is a developer) appears to take her cues from Mr. French. Kerns’ background is as state legislative assistant to deeply conservative state representatives John Ahern and, later, Jeff Holy.

Under the Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 RCW, enacted in 1971) it is at least theoretically illegal for two county commissioners on a three person county commission to discuss business that will come before the county commission—unless that discussion is available to the public. The logic? Two of three county commissioners constitute a quorum for conducting county business, therefore such discussions must be public. Until now Commissioner French has only needed one compliant follower on the Board of County Commissioner in order to control the executive and legislative branches of county government all by himself. He is without a doubt the most powerful—and power-conscious—elected official in all of Spokane County. 

Loss of power and control must have been on Commissioner French’s mind when he spent time on a lawsuit against the new 5 commissioner system that will go into effect this fall. In August of 2020 in a unanimous decision the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against French and company and in favor of the constitutionality of the new system. Apparently, Mr. French’s power has limits.

Election Integrity and Republicans (national and local)

The False Narrative power play that could tear us apart

Regardless of the safeguards and security of Washington State’s mail-in ballot system, the local Republican Party—to its discredit—has adopted the national Republican narrative on election security in an attempt to sew doubt among local voters. Asked directly if they believe there was election fraud in the State of Washington in the 2020 elections they’ll say “No, but…” they want a “comprehensive election system audit” to “restore confidence in our elections.” Poppycock. After all, it was the National Republican Party that saw fit to popularize Trump’s Big Lie of election fraud. If they believe there was no fraud in the 2020 elections in Washington State, they should state that conviction to their voters—not perpetuate the lie. 

Still, the Spokesman suctioned up the propaganda and published “Republicans call for review of 2020 Spokane County election”in an article dated June 20 by Colin Tiernan. Headline readers who feed at Fox “News” no doubt felt their opinions vindicated by the headline and moved on. Folks with less defined positions on election integrity might well have thought, “Oh, good thing they’re checking that out. People are talking about election irregularities.” The Spokane County Republican Party scored some free newspaper advertising for the National Party’s Big Lie. Of course the “call for review” comes with the support of the unqualified Republican (McCaslin Junior) who seeks to unseat the long-serving, by-the-book, well-respected Spokane County Auditor, Vicky Dalton, in the upcoming election. 

You can bet that local right wing groups won’t be so delicate in talking up the Big Lie. For their news-silo audience they will fan the idea that the election was stolen while the Party presents itself in more mainstream media like the Spokesman as merely wanting to “restore confidence”. 

Dan Rather, one of the most well respected living journalists of our time, writes a Substack email entitled Steady to which I subscribe. On June 23 Rather and Elliot Kirschner published an article, A Party On The Extremes, which places in the national context what the Spokane local Republican Party is trying to accomplish. It is a good read. I’ve pasted it below—and recommend subscribing to Steady.

Keep to the high ground,


A Party On The Extremes

This fall, we will have elections across the United States. There will be Republicans on the ballot and Democrats. The candidates will have earned the right to be there by winning a primary process currently nearing its completion. There will be rallies and television advertisements, polling and punditry, news stories and debates. 

On the surface, the mechanisms of our democratic process will be familiar. And it is likely that much of the populace, and the press, will treat them as such. We will be reminded about the headwinds the party in power historically faces in midterm elections. There will be speculation about which base is more energized. Voters will head to the polls weighing continuity versus change. They may vote on very important issues, like gun safety, abortion access, and the economy. 

But we should not let the familiar distract us from an underlying truth: There is nothing normal about this election, or the political system it reflects. By any reasonable analysis, one of our two main political parties has been consumed by an extremism that threatens the very stability of our nation. 

There is no satisfaction in saying this. And I come to this conclusion based not on any matter of policy. This is not about how we set up our tax system or how we protect the environment. It’s not about how we fund our schools or regulate Wall Street. This is about whether we believe in representative democracy, the rule of law, and the right to vote. This is about the cohesion that holds our nation together and allows for us to shift course via a process of free and fair elections. 

This past week, we have seen more evidence of the danger we confront. Foremost has been the congressional commission investigating the January 6 insurrection. Over the decades I have covered Washington, I have seen enough congressional investigations that I nurtured high hopes, but relatively low expectations, for this one. 

I have been impressed. The approach has been methodical, compelling, and damning. It is clear that one of the committee’s chief objectives is to create an indelible demarcation between those who defend democracy and those who eagerly trade our protections and freedom for their craven path to power. This is an urgent exercise before the next elections. 

We can see that, with a few notable exceptions, Republican officials across the country are embracing a vision of governance that is antithetical to stability, and frankly, sanity. One chilling data point comes from my beloved home state of Texas, where state Republicans recently adopted a platform that should anger — and frighten — any American of conscience, regardless of ideology. 

NPR @NPRPresident Biden is the “acting” president because he didn’t win legally; Texans should vote on seceding; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should be repealed; any gun control is a rights violation: this is the world as seen by the Republican Party of Texas. Texas GOP’s new platform says Biden didn’t really win. It also calls for secession“We reject the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election,” the Republican Party of Texas says, referring to President Biden as the “acting” leader.n.prJune 20th 2022344 Retweets976 Likes

The platform’s specifics are outright nuts on issues from President Biden (“not legitimately elected”) to the very continuation of Texas as a state (“Texas retains the right to secede from the United States, and the Texas Legislature should be called upon to pass a referendum consistent thereto”). You can dive into the murk on topic after topic: race, education, health, LGBTQ rights, even repeal of the Voting Rights Act. 

These details are important, but one should look at the entirety of this dangerous document — marinated in conspiracy theories and bad faith — to understand the broader picture. This is full MAGA in spirit, tone, and substance (or lack thereof). Whether Texas Republicans are leading the charge into the abyss or following the national party’s broader assault on American democracy is difficult to discern — and somewhat beside the point. The process by which the Republican Party writ large has come to represent a Tucker Carlson rant has been swift and overwhelming — its own self-propelling force. 

Another example of the depths to which the Republican Party has descended occurred in the Missouri Senate primary this week. The frontrunner in the polls, Eric Greitens, issued a video ad that blatantly promotes political violence. Carrying a shotgun and positioned alongside heavily armed men storming a house, Greitens claims he’s on a “RINO hunt” (as in, “Republican in name only,” a familiar pejorative against any member of the party who dares to criticize it). Greitens, you might remember, was once governor of Missouri but had to resign due to allegations he had threatened a mistress with blackmail and nude photographs. He was also accused of multiple campaign finance violations. More recently, Greitens’ ex-wife has alleged he was abusive. 

It is not clear that Greitens will win the primary, but that also is beside the point. This kind of divisive, destructive rhetoric is a test of the health of our political system. It is incumbent on all Republican leaders to repudiate this naked appeal to violence. In a positive sign, the Republican leader in the state senate said he had contacted law enforcement about the ad. But we need a lot more: Where are Greitens’ potential future colleagues in the U.S. Senate with their denunciations? Or are they more interested in acquiring another member of their caucus?

Joe Scarborough @JoeNBCFascism’s rise accelerates in the Republican Party as violent imagery continues to litter a greater number of ads. The growing reliance on violence and violent imagery proves the judge right: this wing of the GOP is a clear and present danger to democracy. In Ad, Shotgun-Toting Greitens Asks Voters to Go ‘RINO Hunting’A right-wing Senate candidate accompanies a squad of heavily armed men as they storm a home looking for ‘Republicans in name only.’nytimes.comJune 21st 2022572 Retweets2,268 Likes

The danger of this political climate is directly tied to what happened on January 6, 2021, and the years that preceded it. What we are learning from the commission about the overt and back-channeled threats to undermine our electoral system, including through violent means, is the preface to the upcoming 2022 elections. As we noted recently, the “coup continues,” with Republicans elevating candidates in races across the country who not only shamelessly parrot the Big Lie, but would also be in positions to undermine election integrity in 2024. 

Political parties are not static, although the consistency of their names conveys a false sense of permanence. Democrats and Republicans, Republicans and Democrats. We talk about them as fixed entities, like rocks and trees, permanent features of the landscape. We point to histories that stretch back into our distant past. They are the two pillars that comprise our political system. 

But to think of these groupings and definitions as consistent when the world has changed so dramatically is a foolhardy exercise. When I was growing up, Texas was a solidly Democratic state. As I remembered in What Unites Us, “My father once joked that if I wanted to see a Republican, he would take me to the Hermann Park zoo. He said they had a stuffed one there, and while he had heard there were great herds of Republicans in the North, we hadn’t seen a live one down in Texas for quite some time.” Texas was Democratic because it was part of the Solid South, as in the former Confederacy, which fought the North and the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in the Civil War. 

Many of you know the history of what came next. The reason the South became solidly Republican for so long was due largely to the actions of President Lyndon Johnson, a son of Texas, who came to be viewed as an apostate for championing civil rights. Richard Nixon and others parlayed that shift into a major political realignment with a strategy that mined votes by leveraging white grievances. 

The roots of the current Republican Party can be found in this identity shift. It was further fostered by the likes of Newt Gingrich and others who hardened our political discourse into a zero-sum game. But what we have witnessed in the last few years is an escalation into an entirely new dimension. Whereas in the past, Republicans and Democrats competed for votes within a system of agreed-upon winners and losers (Bush v. Gore a notable and under-scrutinized exception), we now are in a state where the very system of elections is being threatened with violence and illegitimacy by major forces within one of the two major political parties.

The debate is no longer over policy but over the stability of our republic based on the principles of freedom and democracy. And while there are still some Republicans of principle, the energy of the party is clearly with those who would scuttle our democratic institutions.

Once again, there will be R’s and D’s on the ballot in November. But we should not allow that consistency to lull us into a sense of complacency. The R next to many of those names might technically stand for Republican, but “reactionary” would be more accurate. 

To say all of this infuses me with a deep and profound sadness. Our role as journalists is not to promote one political party or denigrate another. We are supposed to hold all accountable. But at the same time, we must be vigilant against the pull of false equivalence. I hope that the Republican Party can repudiate its descent into authoritarianism. But until it does so, unequivocally and en masse, any consideration of the party that doesn’t recognize the danger it poses to American democracy misses the truth. Sad to say: Extremism is not a facet of today’s Republican Party, but its driving force.

J. Michael Luttig and Government Service

The former appellate judge’s greater calling–and earlier public silence

Last Thursday’s (June 16) January 6 committee hearing (watch recording here) featured the testimony of former lawyer for Michael Pence, Greg Jacob, and that of another Pence advisor, J. Michael Luttig, former Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Mr Luttig’s deliberately worded testimony was scathing and alarming. His written testimony (available here) is a twelve page read, far, far longer beyond the attention span of most of us, but, nonetheless, a document much summarized and analyzed that may go down in history as a stark warning of where we’re headed. 

Unlike Greg Jacob, Pence’s former lawyer, J. Michael Luttig has a full wikipedia entry covering his life and career. Mr. Luttig is now 68 years old. In 1991, at age 37, he was appointed by George H.W. Bush to the Court of Appeals (one step below the U.S. Supreme Court). There he served for fifteen years, until 2006. He resigned his judgeship on the federal bench when he was 52 years old. His career on the Court of Appeals bespeaks impeccable conservatism:

Luttig was mentioned frequently as being near the top of George W. Bush‘s list of potential nominees to the Supreme Court of the United States…Bush interviewed Luttig but ultimately did not choose him to fill either of two Supreme Court vacancies in 2005. Those two seats were filled by John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Luttig was among the leading feeder judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals, with more than 40 of his law clerks going on to clerk with conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Of those, 33 clerked for either Justice Thomas or Justice Scalia.

That Luttig, this giant of conservative credentials, gave scathing testimony against former President Trump and Trump’s version of the Republican Party at the January 6th hearing should be a wake-up call to Americans—if only those who need to hear were listening. 

What prompted Mr. Luttig at age 52, young for a prominent judge, to resign from the Court of Appeals and leave public service? He “resigned to become general counsel and senior vice president for The Boeing Company”. 

At the time of his resignation [2006], federal appellate judges were paid $175,100 annually. According to Boeing’s 2008 Annual Report, Luttig’s total compensation for 2008 was $2,798,962.

Most of us would consider $175,100 a princely annual salary even today, but $2.8 million of “total compensation”? That was, and is, beyond the imagination of 99 percent of Americans. (Watch this 6 minute youtube videoviewed more than 24 million times to see just how far beyond the imagination such compensation actually is.) One can hardly blame Judge Luttig for taking the economic opportunity presented to him. After all, in his resignation letter, he cited the need to pay for his two children’s upcoming college education. (Unaffordable with a salary of $175,100?) Perhaps we should simply marvel at the level of altruism that keeps people in public service at all when corporate America can offer a nearly three million dollar compensation package, sixteen years worth of one’s government salary.

Mr. Luttig’s resignation from the federal bench for a position with the Boeing Corporation sixteen years ago did not remove him from legal influence among prominent Republicans. Mr. Luttig testified at the January 6 hearing last Thursday precisely because he served as an advisor to then Vice President Mike Pence during Pence’s time in office. In that position he advised forcefully against the revolution with which Donald Trump was pressuring Pence to engage, advice we learned about only through the January 6th committee’s investigation. I suppose we are indebted to former Judge Luttig for his testimony, but, as with other voices we’ve lately heard in these hearings, one has to ask why it has taken a year and a half to hear them. And at the same time, Luttig’s story should raise an eyebrow or two about the comfortable legal interconnectedness of money, corporations, and government. 

Keep to the high ground,


Military Weaponry in Civilian Hands

A look at how we got here

As Republicans in the U.S. Congress slow walk minimalistic gun legislation in the hope of appeasing the gun lobby while pretending to do something in hope of retaining their seats, it behooves us to understand how we got here.

As a gun owner, hunter, and competitive shooter who grew up in gun culture, I have long been interested in the history of guns, both military and civilian. The article from the New Yorker that I have pasted below does a great job of placing my experience and attitudes toward American guns and gun culture in that history. 

It is quite long, but worth the time. 

Keep to the high ground,


How Did Guns Get So Powerful?

Decade by decade, firearms have become deadlier—and tightened their grip on our collective imagination.

By Phil Klay, June 11, 2022

Samuel Walker and fifteen other Texas Rangers rode into the countryside to hunt for Comanches in June of 1844. The Lords of the South Plains, as the Comanches were known, had ruled the American Southwest for a century; by displacing other Native American nations, raiding colonial outposts, enslaving people, and extracting tribute, they enacted what the historian Pekka Hämäläinen, in his book “The Comanche Empire,” called a story of role reversal, “in which Indians expand, dictate, and prosper, and European colonists resist, retreat, and struggle to survive.” About a week into Walker’s expedition, dozens of Comanche horsemen appeared behind the Rangers, armed and shouting taunts in Spanish. More were almost certainly hidden nearby.

That day, the Rangers carried rifles—their usual weapons. But each man also wore a pair of Colt Paterson revolvers, new and mostly untested. The guns used rotating cylinders; by drawing back a hammer, a shooter turned the cylinder, putting one of five chambers in position to fire. Intellectually, the Rangers understood the value of these weapons: there’d be no need to reload until all five rounds had been expended. Still, the guns were small and inaccurate, and so the Texans reached for their rifles first. The Comanches rode back and forth, goading them into taking shots. As the Rangers used up their ammunition, more Comanches emerged—sixty or seventy all told.

Eventually, the Rangers ran out of bullets, and the Comanches closed in. As the riders rushed across the prairie, the Rangers drew their pistols. The men fired a volley—and then, without pause, another and another. Comanches tumbled from their saddles. The Rangers “had a shot for every finger on the hand,” a surviving Comanche recalled. The Native Americans fled, and the Rangers followed; by the end of the day, sixteen Rangers had killed twenty Comanches and wounded thirty more, dealing most of the damage with their Colts. “These daring Indians had always supposed themselves superior to us, man to man, on horse,” Walker later wrote. “The result of this engagement was such as to intimidate them and enable us to treat with them.” This seemed to promise the decline of the Comanche empire and the security of Texas as a burgeoning slave state.

After the battle, Walker wrote to Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver, to inquire about buying more guns. But he discovered that Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company had gone out of business. Colt had been making money by supplying his “repeating rifles” to soldiers during the so-called second Seminole War, but “by exterminating the Indians, and bringing the war rapidly to an end, the market for the arms was destroyed,” he later wrote. (“The thing was so good it ruined itself,” his lawyer complained.) As the historian Pamela Haag writes, in “The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture,” there was no mass market for firearms in nineteenth-century America. In fact, since before the country was founded, its appetite for guns had been so low as to be considered a security liability. A report from 1756 on the military preparedness of the colonies found that no more than half of militia members were armed, often with broken, ungainly, outdated, badly designed, or poorly maintained weapons; in 1776, the governor of Rhode Island told George Washington that the colonists had almost entirely “disposed of their arms,” because they believed themselves to be in “a perfect state of security.” When the Revolutionary War began, the scarcity of gunsmiths and guns forced the colonies to purchase tens of thousands of muskets from France.

Colt’s fast-firing revolvers were a significant innovation in gun design. But the generals who awarded firearms contracts weren’t impressed—they tended to focus on the accuracy of guns while undervaluing their speed. General James Wolfe Ripley, the Union Army’s chief of ordnance during the Civil War, saw repeating weapons as a “great evil” that wasted ammunition, and preferred rifles that a shooter could carefully and accurately aim. Walker and Colt lived in what now looks to us like a prehistoric ballistic world. Guns were slow and inaccurate. Innovation was possible but stymied by dogma. And the market for guns was too small to sustain large gun manufacturers.

Before starting his weapons company, Colt had travelled America as “Dr. Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta,” administering nitrous oxide to spectators, promising that the gas would help them laugh, dance, sing, and perform startling feats of “muscular exertion.” He decided to use his flair for advertising to restart his company on a new basis, removed from the boom and bust of wartime gun sales. He began selling abroad, attempting to smuggle guns into Russia in bales of cotton, supplying guns to soldiers of fortune in Cuba, and equipping the British in South Africa and “men of brains” in Mexico. At the same time, he worked at building up the U.S. civilian market. (“The Government may go to the Devil and I will go my own way,” Colt said.) He pioneered the use of celebrity endorsements, commissioning the well-known painter George Catlin to create absurd portraits in which Colt appeared shooting buffalo and jaguar with Colt revolvers. A native of Hartford, he persuaded the governor of Connecticut to make him a lieutenant colonel in that state’s militia; using that honorific, he introduced himself at foreign courts, presenting European royalty with lavishly engraved Colts. When a Hartford clergyman’s home was burglarized, Colt sent over a revolver along with a message declaring the gun “my latest work on ‘Moral Reform.’ ”

Colt used the phrase “new and improved” to entice buyers, and published advertorials about his guns in magazines. To stoke sales, he suggested dangers around every corner; he wrote to the Mormon leader Brigham Young, advising him to buy Colt revolvers as a defense against “raids of savages” and “white marauders.” Later, he named several streets in Coltsville, his factory town, after prominent Native Americans—Sequassen, Wawarme, Masseek, Curcombe, and Weehassat—the names conjuring the images of Indian-fighting that had burnished his weapons’ reputation.

“What Colt invented was a system of myths, symbols, stagecraft, and distribution,” the historian William Hosley writes, in “Colt: The Making of an American Legend.” His guns were sold not just as tools but as a way to access “the celebrity, glamour and dreams of its namesake.” As Haag shows, other gun manufacturers soon picked up on the strategy. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which was also trying to grow its civilian market by adopting a policy of “scattering” its guns—rejecting higher-volume orders in favor of smaller buyers who might disperse its weaponry more broadly—began advertising its products as ideal for “single individuals, traveling through a wild country.” Gun manufacturers, Haag writes, began to employ “predicament” advertising, in which lone travellers were portrayed facing bears or outlaws. The only way out was through violence.

Last year, versions of these nineteenth-century messages persuaded Americans to buy nearly twenty million guns. In 2020, gun violence took the lives of twenty thousand Americans; add in suicides, and more than forty-five thousand lives were ended by firearms. Yet, if the messages were familiar, the guns themselves were transformed. In 1620, John Billington, the man who would become America’s first convicted murderer, arrived on the Mayflower; in 1630, he killed John Newcomen, a fellow-member of the Plymouth Colony, after they got into an argument in the woods. According to one story, as Billington took aim, Newcomen fled toward the shelter of nearby trees—an evasive maneuver that had every chance of success, given firearms technology at that time. Back then, reloading a gun was an arduous process, requiring the shooter to drop the weapon from the shoulder, point its muzzle upward, pour in gunpowder, shove in a bullet alongside a small piece of cloth, push both down the barrel with a ramrod until the bullet was seated against the powder charge, and then prime the firing mechanism. If the weapon had a cutting-edge flintlock ignition system, the shooter would additionally need to half-cock the hammer of his weapon, open a little pan sitting on top of the rifle, pour in gunpowder, close the pan, and set the hammer to full cock before taking aim. (Billington aimed true, and his rudimentary bullet crushed through Newcomen’s shoulder, killing him soon after.)

Compared with Billington’s gun—or Walker’s—a modern firearm is like a monster truck alongside a horse and cart. The anthropologist Thomas McDade has observed that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the axe was “no less lethal a weapon” than the gun, but today otherwise ordinary Americans can unleash devastating firepower—as happened on May 14th, when a white supremacist killed ten people in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, and again on May 24th, when an eighteen-year-old gunman killed twenty-one people in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, nineteen of them children.

We wonder how we got here. How did guns grow so powerful—both technically and culturally? Like automobiles, firearms have grown increasingly advanced while becoming more than machines; they are both devices and symbols, possessing a cultural magnetism that makes them, for many people, the cornerstone of a way of life. They’re tools that kill efficiently while also promising power, respect, and equality—liberation from tyranny, from crime, from weakness. They’re a heritage from an imagined past, and a fantasy about protecting our future. It’s taken nearly two hundred years for guns to become the problem they are today. The story of how they acquired their power explains why, now, they are so hard to stop.

On July 3, 1863, line after line of Confederate soldiers, dressed in gray, marched forward as soldiers had done in decades past, charging toward a weak point in the Union line at Gettysburg. But weaponry had changed. Men fell “like wheat before the garner,” as one veteran would later describe it. Two years earlier, when the Civil War had begun, both armies primarily carried muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets. They’d rapidly switched, however, to .58-calibre rifles that fired a groundbreaking conical bullet called the minié ball. The bullet was easier to load and more aerodynamic than previous designs. It allowed soldiers to fire farther and more accurately upon rushing enemy troops, making massed charges deadly and Napoleonic infantry tactics obsolete.

In white Southerners’ popular memory, Pickett’s Charge, as the attack became known, would be seen as a gallant act of doomed bravery—the high-water mark of the Confederacy, marking the northernmost point that the rebels reached. But, in fact, it was a technologically aided slaughter, in which accurate, long-flying bullets insured a casualty rate of more than fifty per cent for the charging men. During the course of the war, the minié ball would kill tens of thousands; relatively few Civil War soldiers died of bayonet wounds, in part because they rarely got close enough to their enemies to receive them. As a result, tactics changed. Soldiers stopped firing at one another from close ranks; instead, they began arranging themselves into dispersed lines and firing from behind covered positions, such as walls, trees, rocks, fences, or elaborate fortifications. Slowly, this defensive style turned into an offensive one. One group of attacking soldiers could provide “covering fire” by shooting at an enemy position, forcing its soldiers to keep their heads down while another attacking unit moved forward safely.

Soldiers providing covering fire didn’t depend on accuracy. They often shot blindly, not even bothering to put the gunsights to their eyes. In theory, the units maneuvering into position would use precision fire to kill. But in practice this was rarely the case. Eventually, studies conducted during the Second World War would confirm that most battlefield bullet wounds occur randomly, and at close range. War movies often depict heroic point-target aiming and killing, and yet soldiers are often terrified; as their hearts surge with adrenaline, blood flows away from their extremities, impairing their fine-motor control as they spray gunfire toward their foes.

During the First World War, the use of machine guns epitomized this approach. The area fire created by such weapons removed the human element in aiming altogether. A machine gunner, whom the military historian John Keegan has characterized less as a soldier than a “machine-minder,” traversed his target area by applying a “two-inch tap” to the breeches of his weapon, sending it two inches to the right or left on a set of tracks; he tapped repeatedly until the gun reached a stop at one end, then tapped in the opposite direction. In this way, the area in front of the gun could be blanketed with bullets without the gunner having eyes on any particular target. Since each round had a slightly different trajectory, the target zone would be saturated with fire, creating a deadly area known as “the beaten zone.” As one Japanese officer put it, during the Russo-Japanese War, the machine gun could “be made to sprinkle its shot as roads are watered with a hose.” Kenneth Koch, the poet and Second World War veteran, would later recall how, “As machines make ice, / we made dead enemy soldiers”; writing in the Times, Brian Van Reet, a combat veteran of the Iraq War, has described how he and the men he served with often “fired nearly blindly, under the influence of a strange and numbing feeling of terror, rage and exhilaration. . . . Few of us really knew whom, if anyone, we had hit.”

The unromantic reality of increasingly industrialized war wasn’t likely to capture the public imagination, and so, in ads, dime-store novels, and movies, gun companies proposed a self-serving alternative history. Though Southern Plains tribes like the Comanches had been decimated less by firearms than by disease, Winchester described its Model 73 repeating rifle—a specially promoted gun that had been used by Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill—as “the gun that won the West”; this legend helped the company to sell almost thirty times as many guns in 1914 as it had in 1875. Blending the military and civilian domains, Winchester advertised its weapons as “For Military and Sporting Purposes”; Colt marketed its Single Action Army model as “the Peacemaker,” a weapon “for all who travel among dangerous communities.” The Thompson machine gun, developed as a trench-clearing tool during the First World War, was advertised through images showing cowboys defending their ranches against marauders; ads proclaimed the machine gun “the ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.” A deadly but inaccurate weapon of industrialized war was recast as a precision instrument for taming the supposedly savage frontier.

On a deeper level, the ads were political, recasting the American ideals of freedom and equality in martial terms. In gun marketing, self-reliance, respect, and freedom of movement were tied to the capacity to kill: “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal,” one advertisement read. The mythology of the hyper-violent West became so embedded in American consciousness that Teddy Roosevelt could construct a notion of American identity around it. In “The Winning of the West,” he painted a portrait of hard life on the frontier marked by continual violence; the effect of this continual hardship was to “weld together into one people the representatives of these numerous and widely different races.” According to this view of history, American identity was in large part a product of violence.

During the Second World War, Solomon Zuckerman, a scientist advising the Allies, made a surprising discovery. While examining an X-ray of a wounded soldier evacuated from Dunkirk, Zuckerman noticed that there was something odd about the way in which he’d been hurt: a grievous injury had resulted from a small metal fragment, barely larger than a pinhead, lodged in the man’s kidney. Other soldiers Zuckerman examined had similar injuries. At the time, experts usually considered fragments from exploding shells and grenades dangerous only if they weighed more than a twenty-fifth of an ounce—and yet one soldier had been severely hurt by a far lighter shard, one weighing less than ten milligrams. Another’s forearm had been shattered by a minute metal splinter. According to the science of ballistics, such injuries made no sense.

Zuckerman, who was born in South Africa, had trained as an anatomist and a zoologist. During the war, he’d learned to see horrific violence scientifically. He had studied the accuracy of bombing raids and the lethal effects of bomb blasts; his goal was to learn how much force living bodies could take, and where they were most vulnerable. His work had helped the Royal Air Force maximize the casualties caused by its bombs. At the same time, his steel “Zuckerman helmet,” worn by civilians and civil-defense organizations, protected British heads from falling debris during enemy raids.

Now, working alongside Paul Libessart, a French engineer who had fled to England after the fall of France, Zuckerman turned to the science of wound ballistics—the study of the manner in which projectiles damage human bodies. In the mid-nineteenth century, the deadliness of a firearm had often been judged by how deeply its bullets penetrated into wood; in the eighteen-eighties, the metric had shifted to whether a bullet could kill a cavalry horse. It was obvious that some bullets and weapons had more “stopping power” than others, but it wasn’t clear exactly how that power worked. Zuckerman wanted to solve the mystery.

Soldiers tended to assume that stopping a rush required heavier, more powerful bullets. In the first half of the twentieth century, American researchers conducted experiments of dubious value designed to prove this point. They hung cadavers in the air and shot them while onlookers estimated how far the corpses swung; they shot cows and observed the effects. Eventually, the U.S. Army concluded that kinetic energy—a combination of bullet weight and speed—was the crucial factor in bullet lethality.

The Dunkirk injuries convinced Zuckerman that something was missing from this story. He began to think that the over-all kinetic energy of a bullet might be less important than how much of that energy was transferred to a body during impact. He and his team tried firing a steel ball into a phone book, then repeating the shot with the book placed behind a block of gelatin, which could serve as a proxy for a human body. By measuring how much the gelatin slowed the bullet, they could guess at how much energy it transferred. They found that some varieties of bullets slowed down more than others, transferring more energy. Later, the team shot small metal balls through the bodies of unfortunate rabbits. By means of a technique called shadowgraphy—the analysis of shadows cast by bodies in rapid motion—they captured the moment of energy transfer. In the split second after impact, Zuckerman wrote, the limbs “ballooned due to the formation of an internal cavity.”

Wounds caused by firearms had long been identified with a “permanent cavity” created when the bullet itself physically crushed the body’s tissues. But Zuckerman’s images captured a different kind of injury: a “temporary cavity,” formed when the slowing bullet transferred energy to the surrounding soft tissue. Just as a diver creates ripples as she enters the water, so a bullet transfers momentum to whatever blood, spleen, brain, or muscle happens to surround its entry point. These ripples produce blunt trauma, pulping tissue and breaking bones. This was how tiny slivers of metal could shatter a man’s arm.

Zuckerman’s discoveries came too late to change the way soldiers were armed during the Second World War. But subsequent military studies, including a groundbreaking report written by the U.S. military’s Operations Research Office during the Korean War, measured a gun’s lethality by looking at the maximum size of the temporary cavity. The report concluded that “smaller bullets can be used to produce battlefield physiological effects at least equivalent to those of the present standard .30 cal.” Although the Army remained committed to powerful, accurate, larger-calibre weapons, a small insurgency within it began advocating a novel idea known as S.C.H.V.: small-calibre, high-velocity. Adherents to S.C.H.V. proposed that lighter rifles loaded with smaller bullets could allow soldiers to carry more rounds and fire with less recoil, while still causing horrible wounds.

These arguments dovetailed with work being done by an engineer named Eugene Stoner, who was tinkering in his garage in Hollywood, California, during the nineteen-fifties. Shy, reserved, and opinionated, Stoner was a Marine Corps veteran who’d fought in the Pacific theatre; he lacked a formal engineering education, but had worked his way up through the machine shop at the Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation. By the middle of the decade, Stoner had begun to apply his experience with aircraft ordnance to firearms. Using advanced alloys and lightweight parts that were common in aeronautics, he started developing a firing mechanism for a new kind of lightweight rifle. Success was slow in coming; the barrel of Stoner’s first prototype burst in Army tests. The weight of U.S. military opinion was in favor of a heavier, more powerful weapon, the M14. His fortunes began to change when one of S.C.H.V.’s boosters, General Willard G. Wyman, asked Stoner to modify his rifle so that it could shoot a redesigned .223-calibre round weighing roughly a tenth of an ounce.

The resulting rifle, the AR-15, could fire its .223 round at more than thirty-two hundred feet per second—nearly three times the speed of sound. Stoner later explained the advantages of its smaller bullets to Congress. All bullets are “stabilized to fly through the air,” he said, but “when they hit something, they immediately go unstable.” Tiny bullets, having a smaller mass, grow unstable faster, and tumble through the body, causing disproportionate damage. As a smaller bullet tumbles, it transfers its energy to your organs and creates shock waves strong enough to sever muscle; if such a bullet strikes your head, the pressure it creates can shatter your skull or squeeze brain tissue through your sinuses. It might also fragment inside the body, scattering small pieces of itself and increasing the damage.

As the Vietnam War began to ramp up, it was clear that U.S. soldiers faced a small-arms imbalance. American troops were armed with big, heavy, and extremely accurate M14 rifles; the North Vietnamese had AK-47s—sturdy, reliable weapons that children could, and often did, use. AK-47s were terribly inaccurate; expert shooters could struggle to put ten consecutive rounds on target from three hundred metres. Still, the U.S. military concluded that the M14 was an imperfect combat weapon. It had too much recoil to be fired effectively on automatic. Its heavy rounds imposed logistical limits on how much ammo could be carried. The journalist C. J. Chivers wrote in his book “The Gun” that, in fielding the M14, American soldiers fell victim to the “romance” of “old-fashioned rifles and the sharpshooting riflemen who carried them.” What they needed was an easy-to-handle assault rifle that could give them so-called fire superiority in close, frightening encounters.

Colt’s firearms division took a gamble on the AR-15, buying the manufacturing rights for the rifle from Stoner in 1959 and embarking on a unique marketing campaign. The firm invited the Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay to a party at a gentleman’s farm, where he fired the gun into a series of watermelons, creating bright-red explosions with each successful shot. The rifle was also tested on human heads imported from India, which were encased in ballistic gelatin and shot at from various distances. By 1964, the AR-15 had been adapted into the M16—an automatic, magazine-fed, gas-operated assault rifle with smaller rounds, which could be carried in greater numbers and caused less recoil. The rifle was adopted quickly, without the usual process of debugging and refinement, and soldiers found that it often broke down in the field, jamming or failing to fire in combat. Soldiers died with jammed rifles in their hands while the design was revised. Meanwhile, Colt posted twelve million dollars in profits in 1967; Stoner became a wealthy celebrity.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, firearms manufacturers kept updating their stories. Crime rates spiked, and so the image of the frontier hero fending off nonwhite marauders was revised for the era of vigilante-vengeance films such as “Death Wish” and “The Exterminator.” The National Rifle Association ran ads asking “Why can’t a policeman be there when you need him?” and “Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?” In 1993, the shootout between members of the Branch Davidian cult and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sparked an anti-government wave. The N.R.A. added a new twist to the story, with ads that asked, “What’s the first step to a police state?” Guns had once been tools for the frontier spaces that the government couldn’t reach. Now, according to the gun lobby, they were a necessity for all spaces, at all times. When crime and authoritarianism run rampant, the Wild West is everywhere.

Crime fell in the late nineties. So did gun production, with just over five million units manufactured in 1994, and under three million in 2001. The 9/11 attacks provoked a modest recovery. But 2008 brought a seismic transformation—the so-called Barack Boom. The election of America’s first Black President coincided with what one gun-industry newsletter called an “incessant consumer demand for high-capacity pistols and military style rifles.” During the 2008 election, the N.R.A. warned that never in its history had it “faced a presidential candidate—and hundreds of candidates running for other offices—with such a deep-rooted hatred of firearm freedoms.” In 2013, despite crime rates that were lower than they’d been in decades, the head of the N.R.A., Wayne LaPierre, claimed that, under President Barack Obama, “Latin American drug gangs” had “invaded every city of significant size in the United States.” Gun marketing and political messaging merged more deeply, and in the last year of Obama’s second term gun manufacturers produced a record 11,497,441 guns for domestic consumption.

When John Billington came upon John Newcomen, his weapon did not promise him his manhood, or protection from his fellow-colonists, or escape from the coercive state under which he suffered. His gun did not claim to be the bedrock of his freedom or the means by which all men would be made to treat him as an equal. When Billington pulled his gun’s trigger, the bullet he sent forth was a simple metal sphere travelling at less than half the speed of the bullets fired by today’s mass shooters. It moved awkwardly through the air, and, in the body, it damaged only what was directly in its path. And it was a lone projectile. Billington’s gun, which took many minutes to reload, was incapable of creating a beaten zone. He had a tool suitable for murder—but not mass murder.

The guns that today’s Americans buy and sell by the millions are perfectly suited for that purpose. Civilian AR-15s differ from military versions because, in 1986, the Firearm Owners Protection Act banned the transfer or possession of machine guns; as a result, a mechanical block on civilian ARs requires the shooter to pull the trigger to release another bullet. But clever gun enthusiasts have figured out an easy way to bypass this mechanism: a device known as a bump stock uses the energy of the rifle’s recoil to assist in bumping the trigger against the shooter’s finger. The original military version of the AR-15 can fire eight hundred rounds per minute; an unmodified civilian AR-15 might fire forty-five to sixty. A version with a bump stock can fire somewhere between four hundred and eight hundred. In the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, a sixty-four-year-old man without advanced marksmanship skills or military training used a bump stock to achieve something like fully automated rifle fire, sending more than eleven hundred rounds into a crowd in the course of ten minutes, killing fifty-eight people and wounding more than five hundred. It would have taken Billington six hours to fire that many bullets.

Because a bump stock causes the rifle to slide forward and backward as it fires, it diminishes accuracy. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, this spurred some, like the Georgia state senator Michael Williams, to argue that the use of a bump stock “actually prevented more casualties,” because of the resulting “inconsistency, inaccuracy, and lack of control.” But statements such as this betray a basic ignorance about the history of guns and the reality of how they are used in battle. The bump stock effectively turns the AR-15 into a machine gun capable of area fire. This is how the Las Vegas shooter was using his weapon. As the retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Arthur B. Alphin explained, to the Los Angeles Times, the gunman “was not aiming at any individual person. He was just throwing bullets in a huge ‘beaten zone’ ” filled with civilians bunched together in ways that soldiers had long ago learned to avoid. Williams’s view is typical of a contemporary gun culture that sees the real-world damage caused by guns only through the foggy lens of a fictitious history; it puts a false emphasis on the accuracy of the shooter. The gunman’s lethality—dozens dead, hundreds wounded—wasn’t the result of skill but of the sheer number of rounds that his weapons could fire. He was not the expert long-range rifleman of Western lore but the machine-minder of the First World War, initiating a mechanical process designed to inflict death on an industrial scale.

In 1962, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, Lieutenant General Leonard D. Heaton, released a landmark study of wound ballistics. “The message which this volume contains for the physician who will be treating the wounds of war is clear,” he wrote, in the report. “War wounds, in many respects, are different from those found in peacetime civilian practice.” Heaton couldn’t have foreseen a world in which more than twenty million AR-15s were in circulation within the United States. In Las Vegas, the gunman’s high rate of fire made him more lethal, but so did the design of his bullets, which flew from his hotel room at supersonic speeds and then, upon striking their victims, began to slow and yaw, imparting their energy to bones, tissue, and organs. That night, of the hundred and four shooting victims seen at the U.M.C. Trauma Center, more than thirty had critical injuries; more than a dozen needed operations from orthopedists and cardiovascular surgeons. Chest tubes had to be inserted to drain internal bleeding; bowels had to be carefully resected by doctors working with needle and thread.

After such killings, there’s always a frantic parsing of the killer’s motives. Was the murderer driven by hatred of women, by white supremacy, by “replacement theory,” by Black nationalism, by isis, by anti-Asian hatred, by dreams of a race war, by bullying, by America’s mental-health crisis, by a spiritual darkness at the heart of our society? Why the shooter chose to open fire is always, fundamentally, a mystery. But with mass shootings the why is ultimately less important than the how. The guns have no motive. They have only a purpose: to rend flesh as efficiently as possible.

And yet it’s not quite right to see a gun as merely an efficient machine. When Americans call for regulation of guns, it isn’t the physical object in all its terrifying utility that blocks them but the deep attachment that their fellow-citizens have to their weapons and what they think they represent. Many of us walk around with an image of our country in our heads that we believe comes from history, when in fact it comes from marketing and mythology. It’s that marketing and mythology which keep us saturated with weaponry, and which need to be rejected before we can make any enduring change.

In 1968, an N.R.A. spokesman told Congress that American gun culture was the result of a “very special relationship between a man and his gun—atavistic, with its roots deep in history.” But in truth those roots are shallow, and the fantasies underlying the “very special relationship” are often threadbare. As the horror in Uvalde unfolded, there were plenty of armed police officers, but there was little willingness to charge in against a barricaded shooter. The police have been called cowards for their hesitancy, but their reaction is unsurprising: despite the often militaristic rhetoric of police unions, the average cop is not going to be ready for a situation most United States marines have never faced. When we arm our citizens with such lethal weapons, we can’t always expect uncommon valor.

Increasing gun sales have failed to counter increasing levels of gun violence: the Gun Violence Archive counts more than eight thousand gun deaths in the first half of 2022 alone. Perhaps the steady stream of death will eventually cause us to begin to reassess that “very special relationship” and open up new understandings of our own history. Until then, many Americans will keep living out a hundred-and-fifty-year-old dream—that, no matter what it is that frightens or enrages us in our complex, chaotic, and often unsettling world, guns are the answer. ♦

Matt Shea: Lying in Jesus’ Name

Tactical, intentional, regional misinformation

First a correction: Wednesday’s post was titled “Patriotic” Front. That was a typo. It should have been “Patriot Front”. My error. These folks are anything but patriotic—they are the very opposite. 

“Christian” Republican lies cloaked in piety

Luke Baumgarten made this abundantly clear in his Range Media post “Patriot Front, On Fire”: there are many links between two men arrested in Coeur d’Alene last weekend, the brothers Josiah and Mishael (aka “Shael”) Buster and Matt Shea’s On Fire Ministries in Spokane. 

Yet, on Saturday, moments after the arrest of the Patriot Front group that included the Buster boys, Matt Shea went on Facebook live to announce from McEuen Park (site of the Pride Festival) that an “antifa ambush” had been narrowly averted. He drew a parallel to the “antifa that were seen” on January 6th in Washington, D.C., a favorite ridiculous conspiracy theory that still resonates on right wing media. “Pastor” Shea ends his broadcast “in Jesus’ name”. May he be struck by lightning.

It is hard to imagine that Matt Shea and company were unaware of the carefully laid plans of Patriot Front to stir up a riot at the Pride Festival in Coeur d’Alene last Saturday—and use body cams to video the chaos they provoked. It seems far more likely that Shea, fearing he would be caught with his pants down in the setting of the Patriot Front arrests, sought to steal the narrative. More likely, he was in on the false flag operation from the beginning and intended to use Coeur d’Alene riot videos to stir up fear of “antifa” among any who would listen—and the arrests momentarily set him off balance.

For an education in how to lie with a straight, pious face here’s the link to watch Shea’s broadcast:


And the local online media echo chamber immediately resonated:

The one woman (Shari Dovale) misinformation website, Redoubt News, based in Priest Lake ID, promptly followed up on the arrests with a misleading article by Ms. Dovale “No Locals Arrested With Patriot Front in Coeur d’Alene”. The tone? “Circle up the wagons, we’re being viciously attacked from evil forces from outside our Redoubt”.

Church and State, a pseudo-religious, hyper-”patriotic”, “news and media” site run on Facebook by Caleb Collier and Gabe Blomgren, also Matt Shea allies, quickly posted a dramatic video with pounding music asserting a disavowal of Patriot Front labelled “Patriot Front is a Front”. 

Surely all the folks who rely on Redoubt News and other Matt Shea related outlets, like Church and State, will not be offered even a hint of the clearly documented links between the brothers Buster and Matt Shea’s “On Fire Ministries” on Pacific Avenue in Spokane. This won’t happen any more than watchers of Fox News will be exposed to the truth about the January 6th insurrection. Both sets of “true believers”, trusting, as they do, in the supposed Christians who feed them their news, will buy into the bogus narrative that “antifa” is out to tar them and their good name. It is no wonder that the propagandized cult followers of these “news” sources look at anyone outside their cult as though such naysayers were sporting two heads when they offer contrary proof. It is all about who sets the narrative first.

The Republican Party’s continued grip on power increasingly depends on votes from the brainwashed followers of the like of Matt Shea and the growing local wing-nut “patriot” media silos. When will we hear local Republican leaders call out this crap? Don’t hold your breath. They know which side their voting base is buttered on. They are no different than William Barr, in whose testimony under oath he called Trump’s election claims “bullshit”, while, in public, he refuses to call Trump out and says he would vote for the man.

For any who have doubts about the narrative these folk are pushing you can see Matt Shea and company live in action in our very own Spokane Riverfront Park this Saturday at 10AM. The Patriot Front “antifa” conspiracy will surely come up.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. On Wednesday several mainstream news outlets reported that public records available on the internet showed that Joshua Plotner, of Craigmont, paid more than $2,200 to bail out seven of the Patriot Front boys facing a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to riot. Joshua Plotner’s identity and relationship to the boys is still a mystery. Twelve more coughed up the $315 bail amount themselves. Four had bail paid by people who were apparently relatives, and four posted a “surety bond.” The Buster brothers were two of the four using the “surety bond” method, which avoids public advertisement of the name of the person putting up the money. One might speculate that certain people in Spokane would rather not advertise their links to the Buster boys for fear of further undercutting their blaming “antifa”.

Patriotic Front has Links in Spokane

The Plot Thickens

A white supremacist riot planned by the Patriot Front to disrupt the Pride Celebration in Coeur d’Alene last Saturday, June 11, was nipped in the bud.

The rioters were intercepted by local law enforcement acting on a tip from a concerned citizen who saw 31 men (looking suspiciously prepared for a fight) loading into a moving van.

The potential rioters included two men with strong family and ideological ties to Matt Shea’s “On Fire Ministries” on Pacific Ave in Spokane, Pastor Ken Peters’ “Patriot Church” (formerly “Covenant”) on Princeton in near-north Spokane, and Peters’ TCAPP (The Church at Planned Parenthood). 

We are indebted to the work of reporters and writers, Luke Baumgarten of Range Media, whose brilliant investigative report is copied below, and Daniel Walters of The Inlander whose article appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, June 12th. 

Note that as soon as the 31 Patriot Fronters were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, attempts were made on Twitter and on the internet (see below) to foster the idea that “antifa” was responsible and that all of this was essentially a false flag operation—the same whack-o, convoluted conspiracy theory right wingers floated about the January 6th insurrection. It’s a great tactic: stir up trouble over which the instigators can gloat while offering to soft-headed followers that the bad stuff is really the work of the evil, underhanded, conspiring “other side”. 

The cancer that we hoped was cured when the Aryan Nations compound outside of Hayden Lake was torn down twenty years ago is recurring. Called out by far right elements of today’s Republican Party, its local and distant metastases are growing again. Pay attention.

Keep to the high ground,


Patriot Front, On FireBY LUKE BAUMGARTEN – 13 JUN 2022 – VIEW ONLINE →

Mishael and Josiah Buster have lived in a home owned by Matt Buster, a leader in Matt Shea’s church, and appear to be family members. Mishael appears to be or have been a member of the church’s “online team.” 

Two of the Patriot Front members arrested in Cd’A over the weekend have ties to Matt Shea and his church.

Of the 31 Patriot Front members arrested in Coeur d’Alene Saturday, two have ties to Matt Shea and one appears to be part of the team at Shea’s On Fire Ministries. For a rundown on the arrest, check out Daniel Walters’ piece in the New York Times.

Patriot Front is a Texas-based White Nationalist hate group that broke away from another similar group, Vanguard USA, after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer. Patriot Front has had an active presence in the Inland Northwest since at least March 2021 when people began noticing stickers and posters popping up at busy intersections throughout the region, along the Centennial Trail in Riverfront Park, and on the campus of the embattled North Idaho College. A mural of George Floyd on the side of Shacktown Community Cycle in downtown Spokane was defaced twice, the second time with a stencil of the Patriot Front logo. In the leadup to Saturday’s event in Coeur d’Alene, at least one far-right Twitter personality was referring to it as Charlottesville II.

Among those arrested Saturday, only one suspect was initially identified as being from Spokane: Mishael Buster.

It now appears that Josiah, the other Buster arrested, used to live in the same Hillyard house as Mishael and appears to still be registered to vote there. He has since moved to Watauga, Texas, which is the address he gave police in Coeur d’Alene. Watauga is a suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Thomas Rousseau, the founder of Patriot Front who was also arrested Saturday, lives in nearby Grapevine, TX.

According to the Spokane County Assessor, that Yale Street home in Spokane is owned by Matt and Diane Buster.

Matt Buster is a well-known associate of Matt Shea, the preacher and former Washington state legislator who was expelled from the State Republican Caucus after an investigation found he had committed acts of domestic terrorism. Buster has helped Shea for years with various rallies and protests, such as The Church at Planned Parenthood (TCAPP) and several of the Reopen protests Shea organized in 2020 and 2021. Activists have asserted that Matt is Josiah and Mishael’s father, but RANGE was unable to independently confirm that.

Matt Buster has been filmed with Shea at numerous rallies in Spokane.(Photos courtesy of @queer_will)

As has become common both nationally and locally, when arrests like these are made, journalists and activists immediately went to work to make connections and offer context on those arrested. Many of the Patriot Front members were well known, and documentation came relatively quickly.

The Busters took a little longer to run down, but local journalists including RANGE, and activists started making connections midday Sunday. Stronger Together Spokane, a far-right watchdog Twitter account, first pointed out the connection publicly Sunday evening around 6 pm.

Shea and his wife Viktoriya are founders and Senior Pastors of On Fire Ministries. The On Fire staff page lists Matt Buster as leading “Real Men’s Ministry” at the church.

In a Facebook post celebrating On Fire Ministries moving to a new location, Worship Pastor Gabe Blomgren thanked the Church’s “online team” members, including “Shael Buster” — presumably short for Mishael.

Shea and Blomgren were also in Coeur d’Alene on Saturday, leading a small protest march with bullhorns that did not appear to be directly connected to the Patriot Front action.

At roughly the same time as the arrest was taking place, Shea and Blomgren were seen leading a group of protestors in Coeur d’Alene. At one point, the group stopped in front of the Coeur d’Alene Press building and Blomgren led them in a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” An unknown man said a prayer that “one day the Coeur d’Alene Press would one day be a bastion of righteousness.”

The group moved to the county courthouse and eventually to the Human Rights Education Institute, where Shea prayed aloud that God was the author of all rights, and “government can never take it away, and they can never say under the euphemism of human rights, that the rights of Christians do not matter.”

In addition to his role at On Fire Ministries, Gabe Blomgren is the cohost with Caleb Collier of a podcast called “Church and State,” which has dedicated several segments recently to antagonizing the LGBTQIA2S+ community, including a May 31 podcast entitled “Pride month is an indicator that the doomsday clock is ticking.”

On Saturday, a story posted to the official Church and State Facebook page shared a video of law enforcement opening the U-Haul with the caption “This is HUGE Antifa stopped.”

The post echoed several conspiracy theories that began flying soon after video of the arrest hit social media. Some claimed that the men in the U-Haul are either Antifa or paid by the Biden administration. Others went as far as to say Patriot Front itself is not a real white nationalist organization, but a psyop — a psychological operation — of the government.

It’s unclear whether the person who posted that story knew that one of Blomgren’s colleagues was on board the U-Haul at that time.


According to Tarrant County property records, Josiah Buster owns the Watauga, Texas, home he listed as his address. It also serves as the registered office of a Roofing Company that Buster helps run, and which is owned by a man, Cameron Schronk, Buster claims to have met while serving in the Army Rangers. Josiah Buster appeared on the company website as Operations Manager as of Sunday evening. By Monday morning, his bio had been taken down.

A second man arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Connor Patrick Moran, listed the same Spring Creek address, but his connection to Josiah Buster is unclear.

By midday Sunday, all 31 men arrested had been released on bail.

This is a developing story. We will update it with new information as it becomes known.

Former WA Rep. Matt Shea at the center of controversy surrounding Ukrainian orphanage evacuation

The far-right former WA Representative has been quiet lately until he turned up last week at a hotel in Poland, surrounded by Ukrainian orphans.

RANGE Media•Luke Baumgarten

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Orient Yourself in the Election Landscape

You Owe this Civics Exercise to Yourself and Your Country

All politics start locally, but our patchwork system makes it far too easy to lose track of the local politics and governance. There is an important primary election coming up this August 2nd in Washington State. Ballots will be mailed out in just over a month (July 13th). The candidates were finalized three weeks ago, on May 20th. We need to pay attention.

While we are pre-occupied by media coverage of all things national and international, the war in Ukraine, the January 6th Hearings, inflation, etc., etc., local and state governance grinds on in relative obscurity. The workings of local governments and the actions of local politicians are much less well covered by the media—and, yet, what happens in local governance often affects us more than national events. 

Local electoral orientation is made even harder for this year’s election due the boundary changes following our just completed national and local every-ten-year re-districting process. Here are some of the basics:

Secretary of State:

There is just one statewide office that is on the ballot this year: Washington State Secretary of State. Our former Secretary of State, Kim Wyman, stepped down to take a job with the federal administration in Washington, D.C. That requires that her appointed replacement stand for election at the next primary and general, that is, this year’s elections. Whoever wins will have to run again in 2024 at the end of what would have been Ms. Wyman’s 4 year term (along with other statewide office holders). That puts an unusual spotlight on this one state office in this year’s election.

Ms. Wyman was temporarily replaced by a WA State Senator (LD-44), a Mr. Hobbs. Mr. Hobbs was appointed to the position of Secretary State by Governor Inslee just seven months ago, in November, 2021. Perhaps Mr. Hobbs was a great legislator, but his managerial skills are not impressive. We are coming up on an important election. The essential voter information website, VoteWA.gov, administered by Mr. Hobbs and his staff, is not up-to-date. I want to know what precinct my address is in. That information is unavailable at the site. My school board members are inaccurately represented—in spite of pointing out this error more than three and a half months ago. A competent administrator would have been on top of this. Mr. Hobbs is facing an appropriate challenge for Secretary of State by the consummately qualified County Auditor from Pierce County, Julie Anderson. Make a note. We need a skilled administrator with experience as Secretary of State, not a career politician. 

This Election in General:

All the other races on this year’s primary and general election ballots are U.S. federal government (the ten U.S. Representatives from WA State and Patty Murray’s U.S. Senate Seat), State Legislative, or County positions. (This is the general pattern for even-numbered election years. Municipal [e.g. City of Spokane], school board, and fire district elections are the main fare for elections in odd-numbered years.)

NEW Spokane County Commissioner Districts and Races:

County Commissioners in the State of Washington wield far more power over our daily lives and our communities than most of us understand. It is time we paid attention. In this election there are five new County Commissioner Districts, and from each of the five districts (as opposed to the previous three) a Spokane County Commissioner will be elected solely by the voters of that District. (Previously, according to state law, each of the three County Commissioners ran for office just in their district in the primary, but were elected by voters county-wide in the general election—a system that often produced a uniformly Republican Board of three County Commissioners.) 

On top of that, this year, and this year only, all five County Commissioner Districts will elect a Commissioner. (Hereafter, the four year terms of office of the five Commissioners will be staggered, i.e. three of those elected, the ones elected this year in Districts 1, 3, and 5 will have to run again in 2024. The other two, Districts 2 and 4, will be up again in 2026.)

It’s time to sit up and take notice. The best way to figure out which new County Commissioner District a voter’s address is in is by visiting the campaign website of Amber Waldref, candidate for County Commissioner in District 2:


There I found this very useful map program created by a civic-minded individual who, as far as I can tell, remains anonymous. Thanks!:


Spokane County Commissioner Candidates (I’ve only listed the likely major contenders—if you want to see everyone who has filed click here.):

District 1 (W City of Spokane): Chris Jordan (D), Kim Plese (R)

District 2 (E City of Spokane): Amber Waldref (D), Michael Cathcart (R)

District 3 (N Spokane Valley & NE County): Josh Kerns (R)

District 4 (S Spokane Valley and SE County): Mary Kuney (R)

District 5 (SW South Hill and SW County): Maggie Yates (D) and Al French (R)

Jordan, Waldref, and Yates are three excellent Democratic candidates who, with proper support, could shift the balance of power on the Spokane County Commission away from the current stranglehold realtors and developers have maintained for more than a decade under the leadership of Al French. This is an historic opportunity. 

Figure out which District you’re in, research the candidates, donate, get involved. Don’t wait until the ballot appears in your mailbox. If your residence is in District 3 or 4 there is nothing keeping you from lending your support to campaigns in other districts. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. I list only Mary Kuney in District 4 and Josh Kerns in District 3 because they are incumbent Commissioners with name recognition. Their only opponents are relatively unknown Republicans, who, as far as I can tell, don’t differentiate themselves much from the incumbents, at least on their campaign websites.