As Kristen King’s husband lay dying in their yard from three gunshots to his head, she told a 911 operator in Okeana, Oh., “His name is Austin Combs. He’s come over, like, four times confronting my husband because he thought he was a Democrat...Why? He's the love of my life.”
The Nov. 5 killing of Anthony King was among 213 cases of political violence identified by Reuters since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by supporters of former President Trump on the U.S. Capitol. Academics who reviewed the cases say they add to growing evidence that America is grappling with the biggest and most sustained increase in political violence since the 1970s.
The violence has killed at least 39 people, including King. Some deaths followed one-on-one disputes, such as a fatal brawl last year between two Florida men arguing over Trump’s business acumen.
Others happened publicly, such as the shooting of five social justice protesters in Portland last year by a man immersed in far-right political rhetoric. Politically motivated mass killings claimed 24 of the lives, including the May 2022 shooting of 10 Black shoppers in Buffalo by a white supremacist who called for a race war.
About two-thirds of the politically violent incidents documented by Reuters were assaults by lone assailants or clashes between rival groups at public events, such as demonstrations over police killings, abortion and transgender rights.
The rest involved substantial property damage, often associated with social justice protests and frequently attributed by police to left-wing militants.
Incidents of political violence began rising in 2016, around the time of Trump’s first run for the presidency, said Gary LaFree, a University of Maryland criminologist who has tracked the violence in a terrorism database between 1970 and 2020.
Political violence surged for nearly a decade starting in the late-1960s – 1970 saw more than 450 cases, LaFree said. But it had become relatively rare by 1980. There were a few spikes in the 1990s, including the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing that killed 168 people in the nation’s worst act of homegrown terrorism.
Political violence started to climb again in 2016, LaFree added, and “it doesn’t seem like we’ve hit the top of the wave yet.”
Much of today’s political violence is aimed at people – and most of the deadly outbursts tracked by Reuters have come from the right. Of the 14 fatal political attacks since the Capitol riot in which the perpetrator or suspect had a clear partisan leaning, 13 were right-wing assailants. One was on the left.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll of nearly 4,500 registered voters in May, roughly 20% of both Democratic and Republican respondents called violence “acceptable” if committed “to achieve my idea of a better society.”