U.S. prosecutors for the first time have charged a defendant, Guy Wesley Reffitt, 48, in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach with violating a federal law that makes it a crime to transport a firearm or explosive for unlawful use in a riot, reports the Washington Post. Prosecutors say Reffitt brought a rifle and semiautomatic handgun to Washington and recruited members to a right-wing Texas Three Percenters group claiming he had created a new security business to circumvent gun laws. Reffitt attorney William L. Welch argued that Reffitt harmed no one, that no government recordings or photographs showed he was armed at the Capitol, no police officers mentioned it, and he had not been charged with weapons offenses. The rioting statute has provoked debate among defense lawyers, civil liberties advocates and prosecutors after the Justice Department turned broadly to the civil disorder law in 2020 to prosecute protest-related unrest after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Prosecutors in Oregon, and a few other states and the District of Columbia, applied the law as a lead charge in more than two dozen cases as then-Attorney General William P. Barr urged a crackdown on violent or destructive demonstrators. Since Jan. 6, U.S. prosecutors in Washington have charged at least 120 riot defendants in 90 cases with violations of that or a related section in the afternoon storming of the Capitol. However, another section — the one used to charged Reffitt — imposes the same penalty against “whoever transports or manufactures . . . any firearm, or explosive or incendiary device, knowing or having reason to know or intending that the same will be used unlawfully in furtherance of a civil disorder.” Defendants say the law is vague and overbroad, defining civil disorder as any violent, public disturbance involving more than two people. They also say it infringes on constitutional rights to free speech, association and bear arms, while holding individuals criminally liable for “having reason to know” a firearm might be used unlawfully.