'Waco' Made Me Understand The Other Side Of The Gun Debate

The Miniseries ‘Waco’ Made Me Understand The ‘Other Side’ Of The Gun Debate

May 18, 2020 Updated May 19, 2020

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Paramount Network

I hate guns. In my opinion, they have become a plague upon our society. They enable racists, bigots, abusers, and people who’ve just plain snapped to enact the very worst of human possibility. The laws surrounding guns are as bad as the guns themselves. Stand your ground laws take situations that ordinarily would result in a yelling match, a fistfight, or a call to police, and turn them into gun duels and state-sanctioned murder, harming black people disproportionately.

The United States has more guns than people, with four out of ten households having at least one gun in it. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans who own guns cite “protection” as their primary reason for owning a firearm, followed by hunting (38%) and collection (30%).

I sort of understand wanting a gun around for protection. Gun ownership became personal years ago when a friend’s life was in danger. She lived alone and an abusive ex-boyfriend was stalking her and threatening her life. What was she supposed to do if he broke into her house? Call the police and hope they got there before he killed her? Fight him off even though he was twice as big as her? I supported her right to have a loaded gun in her nightstand for as long as that threat existed.

But what I never understood is the paranoid conspiracy theorists building arsenals and ranting and raving about how they’ll be damned if anyone thinks they’re going to take their guns and leave them defenseless. They damn sure intend to be able to protect their families.

I would think, Defenseless from what? What in the hell are you so afraid of?

And then I watched the miniseries Waco, currently playing on Netflix. I was a self-absorbed 13-year-old in 1993, so I only barely remember hearing about Waco and the Branch Davidians. Something about a cult? Some dude who thought he was Jesus and a bunch of his idiot followers who died by suicide with him? Was Kool-Aid involved? (No, that was something different. But I definitely remember people comparing Waco to the tragic Jonestown mass murder-suicide of 1978.)

The Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel compound outside of Waco, Texas, burns to the ground during the 1993 raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Nearly 80 members of the religious group were killed in the fire, which ended the 51-day standoff between the Davidians the ATF.
The Branch Davidians’ Mount Carmel compound outside of Waco, Texas, burns to the ground during the 1993 raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Nearly 80 members of the religious group were killed in the fire, which ended the 51-day standoff between the Davidians the ATF. Greg Smith/Getty

Waco tells the story of the tragic events of 1993, but more than that, it tells a story of extreme government overreach. The filmmakers attempted to make the series as true to life as they could, with moderate theatrical embellishment, based on books written by two survivors of the event — A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story by David Thibodeau, by one of only nine Branch Davidian who survived the 51-day siege, and the other, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, written by FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner. A source from each side.

As much as I hate guns, as much as my beliefs about their dangers are based in science and common sense (i.e., more guns = more opportunities for people to shoot themselves and others = common sense), watching Waco caused something to shift in my brain.

Some backstory, in case you don’t know the gist of what happened in 1993: The Texas ATF (alcohol, tobacco, and firearms) attempted to execute a search warrant of the Branch Davidian compound which was home to the Branch Davidians, a religious sect that began as an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The raid went horribly wrong and resulted in a shootout between Branch Davidians and the ATF, killing four ATF agents and injuring 16 others, and killing five Branch Davidians. As a result of that botched search, the FBI was brought in, and a 51-day standoff began.

Important side-note: many outlets report that part of the search warrant had to do with child and other forms of abuse on the part of David Koresh. However, the US government’s own website is clear that the warrant related to a weapons violation only — specifically, “unlawful possession of fully automatic machine guns and destructive devices.” I feel this is important to point out, because tellings of this story often imply that the ATF was there to rescue abused women and children. This isn’t true. The warrant was about the weapons and nothing else. (Though Koresh was believed to have committed multiple acts of child abuse and statutory rape, these things weren’t in the search warrant.)

The Miniseries 'Waco' Made Me Understand The Other Side Of The Gun Debate
Paramount Network

Anyone can go to YouTube and find videos of David Koresh just being David Koresh and immediately tag him as an incredibly disturbed individual. To me, even when he appears mostly calm, something terrifying is boiling underneath. Recordings of the 9-1-1 call he made during the initial shootout reveal him attempting to preach the Seven Seals to the Waco Deputy Sheriff. This bears repeating: in the middle of an active gun battle between his people and ATF agents, in which his own people were being shot and killed, as you can literally hear gunshots in the background of the phone call, David Koresh thought it appropriate to take time to attempt to convert the sheriff to his brand of Christianity.

David Koresh’s crimes and questionable soundness of mind aside, Waco still impacted my understanding of why people stockpile guns. As I moved through the episodes, I could empathize with how some might ultimately view what happened as government overreach. The ATF and FBI by their own admission failed again and again and again. ATF’s mission to serve the warrant failed from the outset and should have been aborted rather than sustaining gunfire for an hour and 45 minutes against a civilian structure that contained an unknown number of innocent children within it.

That gun battle broke any potential trust between the two sides and initiated the 51-day pissing match between the Davidians and the FBI that ultimately led to 75 Branch Davidians being burned alive in a fire, 25 of them children. Hours of research tell me that many mistakes and stupid decisions were made on both sides, but the fact is, one side had tanks and helicopters and bullet-proof vests, and the other side had a building full of kids.

The Miniseries 'Waco' Made Me Understand The Other Side Of The Gun Debate
Paramount Network

Meanwhile, the media got their information from the FBI, who claimed the Davidians fired the first shots, while surviving Davidians insisted it was the ATF who shot first. The FBI also said it was the Davidians who started the fire that killed so many, though, again, survivors have always insisted they did not start a fire and that there was never any plan for suicide. Regardless of how insane their leader was, there were innocent Americans in that compound. No matter how you look at it and no matter who you think was in the wrong, the fact is, Waco was a battle between American civilians and the American government. And that government showed up at these people’s homes prepared to use military force against them.

I believe Koresh was illegally stockpiling firearms. How else could his group so effectively engage the ATF? I think he broke the law and should have been held accountable. But after watching Waco (and by the way, if this is blowing your mind, read about Ruby Ridge too), I understand how people can get to the point of being distrustful of our government. I empathize with the fear that motivates people to stockpile firearms, and I see why people distrust the media.

To be clear, I still hate guns. I hate that this country has more guns in it than people — I will never not believe this is absolutely fucking bonkers. At the same time, I think it’s important for those of us who can get a little self-righteous and preachy about our country’s need for common sense gun regulation to understand where the opposition is coming from. They’re scared, and they want to be able to protect themselves, and we’re telling them they have no good reason to be scared, nothing from which they need to be protected.

Except, the incident at Waco, Ruby Ridge, and others, suggest that this doesn’t always seem to be precisely true. For some people, these incidents suggest that if their beliefs don’t align with the beliefs of those in power, they may one day be the victim of a siege, too. Even if, in the great scheme of things, that likelihood is infinitesimal, even if the truth is that if people would just, you know, not illegally traffic firearms they’d be okay, the fact is, the fear is there. People are scared. They feel attacked and defenseless. And when it comes to these kinds of foundational disagreements, feelings matter.

Based on my research, it is my opinion that the Waco miniseries portrayed Koresh far too sympathetically. He committed many crimes and needed to be brought to justice. But the Texas ATF and the FBI failed the rest of the people in that compound, especially the children, who had no agency to remove themselves from harm’s way.

And if we ever want to have a conversation with gun rights activists where we’re not talking past one another, if we ever want to enact commonsense gun legislation, we need to be able to acknowledge and address the fears that drive people to think they need guns to protect themselves from their own government.