In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a popular narrative has emerged: that because rioters did not fire guns that day, they were not really “armed.”
But a review of the federal charges against the alleged rioters shows that they did come armed, and with a variety of weapons: stun guns, pepper spray, baseball bats and flagpoles wielded as clubs. An additional suspect also allegedly planted pipe bombs by the headquarters of the Democratic and Republican parties the night before the riot and remains at large.
Those weapons brought violence and chaos to the Capitol. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick died one day after two rioters allegedly sprayed him and other officers with what prosecutors describe as an “unknown chemical substance.” Four other people in the crowd died in the insurrection, and more than 100 police officers suffered injuries, including cracked ribs, gouged eyes and shattered spinal disks.
Some supporters of former President Donald Trump have argued that the dangerousness of the Capitol rioters has been overblown. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has said, for example, “This didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me.”
Others have echoed that view, and conservative and pro-Trump media, like Breitbart, The Epoch Times and the Washington Examiner, have seized on the congressional testimony of FBI Assistant Director Jill Sanborn, who said the bureau did not confiscate firearms from suspects that day. But FBI spokesperson Carol Cratty told NPR that Sanborn was talking only specifically about arrests by the FBI, and not other police agencies that made arrests on the day of the riot — including arrests of people allegedly carrying guns.
Police officers have a much different memory of that day. “I’ve talked to officers who have done two tours in Iraq who said this was scarier to them than their time in combat,” Robert J. Contee III, the acting chief of Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, said in January. At the time of his comments, he had just spoken with an officer who was attacked with a rioter’s stun gun.
Federal court records, included in NPR’s database of more than 300 criminal cases, allege that at least three dozen people who took part in the riot used or possessed some kind of weapon that day.
This number is likely a low estimate of the total number of weapons that rioters brought with them. As the Justice Department has noted in court filings, “no crowd member submitted to security screenings or weapons checks by Capitol Police or other authorized security officials.” Most of the people who stormed the Capitol were not arrested during the riot itself. Many are still at large.
“This was a pretty heavily armed crew of people compared to what you usually see at protests,” said Heidi Beirich, a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “Even when you see people who are armed at protests in states, for example, where they have open-carry laws, they aren’t storming into a building using the weapons in the way that we saw at the Capitol.”
Lorenzo Boyd, a former director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, called attempts to downplay the deadliness of the weapons used on Jan. 6 a “false narrative.”
“There were a lot of weapons that could be lethal weapons as applied,” said Boyd. In his view, the fact that the rioters were armed with a variety of weapons clearly contributed to the Capitol Police’s failure to protect the building. “If you see a lot of resistance and you’re being outgunned, outmanned, outpowered, you tend to kind of fall back a little bit,” said Boyd.
Beirich said downplaying the violence also undermines efforts to combat domestic extremism more generally.
“There is a reluctance on the part of some in conservative circles to accept that domestic terrorism is largely coming from right-wing extremist groups,” said Beirich.
Here are some of the myths about the weapons used in the Capitol riot and what thousands of pages of court documents can tell us about what actually happened.
The weapons used in the Capitol riot did not actually pose a deadly threat to lawmakers.
Many of the weapons allegedly used in the riot are considered “less lethal” but are dangerous and can even be fatal, according to experts.
“In America, we have this thought that everything is focused on a gun, on a firearm,” Boyd said. “And we miss the fact that so many other people are killed with so many other weapons.”
At least one of the rioters was allegedly found with a stun gun. Richard Barnett was photographed sitting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office with his feet up on a desk. Barnett, who self-identifies as a “white nationalist,” was seen in that photo with what federal law enforcement later identified as a “ZAP Hike N Strike 950,000 Volt Stun Gun Walking Stick.” According to a product description, the weapon “delivers 950,000 volts of knock down power, causing loss of muscle control and disorientation that bring attackers to their knees and makes them incapable of further aggression.” (A Reuters investigation found that, as of 2017, more than 1,000 people died after police used a stun gun on them.)
Other defendants allegedly brought a variety of blunt objects. Around 400 Americans are killed by blunt objects every year, according to FBI data.
A number of those charged were found to have possessed batons, although it’s unclear how many were brought to the riot and how many were seized by rioters from law enforcement during the violent demonstrations. Prosecutors allege Bruno Joseph Cua was captured in a video allegedly wielding a baton, while Scott Kevin Fairlamb was seen on Capitol grounds carrying a collapsible baton. Colorado resident Jeffrey Sabol allegedly told federal investigators that he picked up a baton from a law enforcement officer but did not recall whether he struck the officer with it because “he was in a fit of rage and the details are cloudy.”
Jonathan Mellis can be allegedly seen on footage from a Metropolitan Police Department body camera “repeatedly striking and making stabbing movements towards the officers” using a large stick. According to court documents, Mellis appears to be “attempting to strike the officers’ necks between their helmets and body-armor where they are not protected.”
Federal prosecutors have called Michael Foy “one of the most violent of the Capitol rioters” and have said that evidence shows him “brutally assaulting law enforcement officers” with both a hockey stick and a “sharpened pole” during the riot. Foy’s attorney has argued that Foy was acting in self-defense and that his actions were “justified” and not premeditated.
People involved in the Capitol riot were not “armed” because they did not have any guns.
At least three people arrested in connection with the Capitol riot are facing gun charges, though the government has not alleged that those three were part of the actual breach of the building. Other defendants are suspected of possessing guns during the riot but, like the vast majority of the estimated 800 rioters, were not searched that day.
Federal prosecutors say that Christopher Michael Alberts of Maryland was arrested on Capitol grounds on the evening of Jan. 6 while carrying a Taurus G2c 9 mm handgun with one round in the chamber and a full 12-round magazine. He also allegedly had an extra magazine in his pocket and was carrying a gas mask, pocket knife and first-aid kit.
Lonnie Leroy Coffman of Alabama was also arrested that evening after law enforcement found two firearms on his person, as well as what a federal judge referred to as a “small armory” in his truck, which was parked near the Capitol. According to the court, the government found “a loaded handgun,” “a loaded rifle,” “a loaded shotgun,” “a crossbow with bolts,” “several machetes,” “a stun gun” and “11 mason jars containing a flammable liquid, with a hole punched in the top of each jar.” According to the government, surveillance footage showed him “in attendance at the events at the Capitol,” though he has not been charged with breaching the building.
Cleveland Grover Meredith of North Carolina planned to arrive in D.C. for the Trump rallies on Jan. 6, according to federal prosecutors, but he was delayed because of car trouble. He was arrested the following day for allegedly assaulting a man in Washington, D.C., in a traffic-related incident and for making death threats against the D.C. mayor and Pelosi.
During a search, law enforcement said they found in his possession “a Glock 19, nine millimeter pistol, a Tavor X95 assault rifle and approximately hundreds of rounds of ammunition.” Citing text messages sent by Meredith, a federal prosecutor argued in court that he “relished in the carnage of January 6th.”
The government’s case against members of the far-right, anti-government militia known as the Oath Keepers alleges that the group discussed planning a “Quick Reaction Team” with weapons just outside Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. One such defendant, Thomas Caldwell, allegedly wrote in a text message on Jan. 3, “we could have our Quick Response Team with the heavy weapons standing by, quickly load them and ferry them across the river to our waiting arms.” Caldwell’s attorney, meanwhile, has argued that references to such a team demonstrate that the group was purposely adhering to D.C.’s strict gun laws. Caldwell’s attorney also argued that the messages were not about storming the Capitol, stating that the team was “nothing but a contingency plan hatched up by retired military guys strategizing in the event that Antifa launched a coordinated attack against rally-goers.” (There is no evidence antifa played any role in the events of Jan. 6.)
Prosecutors believe other defendants in the Capitol riot possessed guns on Jan. 6, though those rioters were not arrested and searched for weapons that day.
For example, Guy Wesley Reffitt allegedly “led a group of rioters up the Capitol steps” and “confronted law enforcement” but retreated after being pepper-sprayed. Reffitt was wearing tactical gear and “carrying his pistol” during the riot, according to the government, and also brought plastic flex cuffs.
Federal prosecutors say Reffitt is a member of the Texas Three Percenters, a far-right militia group. Reffitt’s son told federal investigators that when Reffitt returned home from Washington, D.C., he brought an “AR-15 rifle and a Smith & Wesson pistol” in the house along with his other things. Reffitt was arrested on Jan. 18.
Samuel Fisher allegedly posted photos of himself, along with a rifle and handgun, in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. He posted on Facebook early that day that he was leaving things in a parking garage, “maybe except pistol,” and added, “if it kicks off I got a Vest and My Rifle.” Fisher was arrested on Jan. 20 and is facing charges of entering and remaining in a restricted building, as well as disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building, but not weapons charges.
Nolan Cooke, another Capitol riot defendant, allegedly told FBI agents that he “brought one or more firearms” to Washington, D.C., but he claimed he did not bring the weapons to the Capitol itself. He was arrested on Jan. 21.
A Capitol Police officer was killed after being hit with a fire extinguisher.
Early news reports appear to have gotten this wrong. Some officers were attacked with fire extinguishers, but Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick was actually attacked with an unidentified chemical spray, per court documents, and died the following evening.
Two men — Julian Khater and George Tanios — allegedly conspired to injure police officers defending the Capitol and used an unidentified chemical spray on three officers, including Sicknick. Prosecutors say Khater said on video “give me that bear s***” at one point, suggesting the chemical was bear spray.
“All three officers were incapacitated and unable to perform their duties for at least 20 minutes or longer while they recovered from the spray,” federal prosecutors say. Two officers told investigators that the spray was “as strong as, if not stronger than, any version of pepper spray they had been exposed to during their training as law enforcement officers.”
Sicknick died on Jan. 7, but officials have not yet made public details about the exact cause of his death.
Khater and Tanios were not the only suspects who, prosecutors say, used pepper spray on Jan. 6. At least five other individuals charged with crimes around the Capitol riots were found to have possessed some sort of irritant spray.
Self-declared Oath Keepers member Jon Ryan Schaffer, for example, allegedly sprayed Capitol Police with bear spray as he and others tried to press forward into the Capitol building. Robert Gieswein was armed with a baseball bat and an “irritant spray” and allegedly used both against police officers who had been assigned to protect the Capitol. He was charged with “assaulting, resisting, or impeding certain officers using a dangerous weapon.”
And even though Sicknick does not appear to have been attacked with a fire extinguisher, other defendants allegedly did use fire extinguishers as weapons.
Matthew Miller is accused of discharging a fire extinguisher on the steps leading to an entrance to the Capitol building. And Robert Sanford allegedly struck three U.S. Capitol police officers in the head with a fire extinguisher.
Rioters in the crowd were not dangerous because they were just carrying flags.
In at least seven cases, federal prosecutors say rioters used flagpoles as weapons to attack law enforcement or destroy property.
Federal prosecutors accuse Jeffrey McKellop of assaulting police officers with a deadly or dangerous weapon on Jan. 6. An FBI affidavit cites police body camera footage that allegedly shows McKellop wearing a gas mask and tactical gear and attacking police with a flagpole. At one point, prosecutors say, he threw a flagpole like a “spear” and lacerated an officer’s face.
A video cited in federal court records allegedly shows Peter Stager striking a police officer repeatedly with a flagpole while the officer lays facedown on the steps of the Capitol building. Court documents allege Thomas Webster attacked an officer by lunging toward him and striking him with a flagpole numerous times.
Chad Barrett Jones allegedly used a “long, wood flagpole” to strike out a door’s glass panel near the Speaker’s Lobby as the mob shouted, “Break it down!” and “Let’s f***ing go!” Soon after, rioter Ashli Babbitt tried to climb through one of the doors’ broken windows and was shot and killed.
New Yorker reporter Luke Mogelson followed rioters into the Capitol on Jan. 6 and told WHYY’s Fresh Air that bringing flags seemed to be a concerted tactic. The flagpoles were unlikely to be confiscated by police earlier in the day but could still be used as weapons. That observation appears to be borne out in the court documents.
Federal prosecutors allege that Dana Winn stated on video that he brought flagpoles to the Capitol to “hit antifa in the head if need be.”
William Chrestman, whom prosecutors identified as a member of the Proud Boys extremist group, also allegedly carried “a long wooden stick, which was initially wrapped in a blue flag, that the government believes to be an axe handle.” In a court opinion regarding Chrestman, federal judge Beryl Howell stated, “a defendant’s carrying or use during the riot of a dangerous weapon, whether a firearm, a large pipe, a wooden club, an axe handle, or other offensive-use implement, indicates at least some degree of preparation for the attack and an expectation that the need to engage in violence against law enforcement or, indeed, the Legislative branch, might arise.”