Carnegie Mellon University

Taking Aim: Rhetorical Conspiracism, Far-Right Extremism, and the Narrative Politics of Guns

Author: Richard Branscomb

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2023

In this dissertation, I interrogate the conventional culture of gun violence in the United States by providing a rhetorical history of how that culture has evolved from the 1990s to the present. I demonstrate through my analysis how extremist and “mainstream” gun advocates have concurrently given life to U.S. gun violence culture through conspiracy narratives rooted to this country’s settler- colonialist history. This project thereby situates the U.S.’s longstanding saturation in gun violence with recent trends in far-right mobilization and violent white-Christian ethnonationalism worldwide. Building on interest in rhetoric and communication studies in the policy-oriented discourses of guns and gun rights, this dissertation relies on racial rhetorical criticism and narrative analysis to scrutinize a range of far-right extremist and/as mainstream narratives as they circulate within their pro-gun communities, particularly as those narratives intersect with white-male supremacist and ultimately eliminationist rhetorics that have global reach. I contend this approach is necessary to substantively address the diverse harms of gun violence culture as it festers in the U.S., without committing to terms of engagement that only accommodate the minoritarian interests of white, gun-hoarding citizens. Through case-driven analyses, I develop my argument by linking digital and historical archives of right-wing advocacy to demonstrate how pro-gun narratives have evolved from “militia”-based defense against governmental tyranny to racialized urgencies for armed “self-defense.” By drawing attention to the rhetorical commonalities in these domains, this project underscores how the distinct harms of a rampant gun violence culture are not contained within the U.S., but in fact contribute to transnational violence targeting communities frequently deemed to be enemies of white domination.