Why Waco is Still a Battleground in the 2nd Amendment Debate

In 1993, federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and generated a legacy that continues to shape antigovernment groups today.

In 1993, millions of Americans watched as federal agents laid siege to the Mt. Carmel compound of the Branch Davidians, after a shootout with the ATF left four agents and six Davidians dead. Fifty-one days later, the FBI sought to end the standoff by tear-gassing the compound. It went up in flames. Seventy-five Davidians died, including its self-appointed messiah, David Koresh.

Independent investigators later determined the Davidians had set the fire themselves, but after two decades the images continued to endure as a powerful symbol. Today, “Waco” is still a rallying point for antigovernment groups, militia, and self-proclaimed patriots who continually fear government aggression.

Related: Memories of Waco Siege Continue to Fuel Far-Right Groups by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Producer: Liam Dalzell
  • Editor: Bret Sigler
  • Reporter: Scott Michels
  • Reporter: Olivia Katrandjian

For Educators


This 14-minute video shows students how the federal government’s botched raid on the compound of the Branch Davidian religious sect in 1993 gave rise to a nationwide militia movement of people advocating an expansive and individualistic interpretation of the Second Amendment. Students will learn how this movement included terrorists like Timothy McVeigh as well as lawful activists, many of whom continue to influence the national conversation on gun rights. Including interviews with militia activists as well as their opponents, the video provides students with context and insight on a defining cultural and political moment in the tug-of-war between individual rights and government powers. Useful for any lesson introducing Second Amendment controversies, the video illustrates why the right of individuals to own firearms remains one of the most contentious issues in American government.

Background reading

The continuing controversy over Americans’ rights under the Second Amendment have often been framed by a single word: “Waco.”

It was near that Texas town in 1993 that federal agents raided Mount Carmel, the compound of an apocalyptic sect known as the Branch Davidians.

Federal agents looking for illegal weapons were seeking to execute a search warrant. They soon met fierce resistance from the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, a self-styled messiah.

That encounter triggered a 51-day siege, which eventually left 75 sect members dead, including Koresh. Most were killed by a fire set by the Davidians, a federal investigation later concluded.

The grim events led federal agents to reassess their tactics, but it fueled the rise of a militia movement, citizens who viewed the Waco raid as an attack on Second Amendment rights.

Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran who witnessed the siege at Waco, sought revenge two years later. He and an accomplice bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding some 700 others.

That bombing led to a federal crackdown on militias, which had almost disappeared until the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 set into motion a new wave of heavily-armed, radical anti-government groups.

Their presence continues to be felt today, whenever debates about Second Amendment rights arise.

Lesson Plan 1: The Second Amendment: Siege at Waco

Students will learn how the federal government’s botched raid on the compound of the Branch Davidian religious sect in 1993 led to decades of controversy over Second Amendment rights.

  • How a 1993 federal firearms raid near Waco, Texas, led to a 51-day siege and resulted in the deaths of more than 80 people.
  • How the events at Waco led to a national movement that advocated expansive interpretations of gun rights granted to individuals under the Second Amendment, and how some followers of this movement engaged in terrorism to advance their views.
  • How the Second Amendment controversies arising from the siege at Waco continue to affect the worldview of some gun rights activists in the modern world.
Essential questions
  • What caused the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to raid the compound of David Koresh’s followers near Waco, Texas in 1993? Which weapons was Koresh stockpiling?
  • What miscalculations and errors of judgement did federal law enforcement officials make during the initial raid on the compound, and in the weeks that followed?
  • How did some gun rights advocates interpret the raid on the compound? How did Waco become a symbol and rallying cry for the militia movement?
  • How was the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City directly related to the raid at Waco?
  • How was law enforcement’s response to a standoff with Cliven Bundy and his followers in 2014 different from their response to the standoff with David Koresh and his followers in 1993?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Geo.12.9-12. Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 3: Civil Liberties & Rights
    • Topic 3.5: Second Amendment: Right to Bear ArmsSkill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical context is situated within a broader historical context.