There are several arguments given for gun ownership and each reason favors a particular type of gun. Some people may feel they need them for self-defense because they live in places they think are dangerous or are particularly fearful for their safety. Other use them for hunting. The ones that cause the most controversy are the high-powered, fast-action ones like the AR-15 or the AK-47 that can fire many rounds very rapidly and thus can cause many deaths in a short time. These weapons are primarily designed for military uses.
The debate over guns in the US, like most things, tends to be split along left-right lines. Those who oppose pretty much any restrictions of the right to own and carry and use guns of all types tend to be on the political right. The National Rifle Association is the group most publicly identified with this hardline position but I learned that there is another group called the Gun Owners of America that takes an even harder line and boasts that it is “The only non-compromise lobby in Washington”.
But not everyone fits into these left-right ideological niches. The more common exceptions are some on the right who are alarmed at the easy availability of high-powered weaponry to pretty much anybody who can acquire them. While those advocating for some restrictions on accessibility and even bans on certain types of guns tend to be on the left-liberal side of the spectrum, in the April 2020 issue of Harper’s magazine that has on its cover in big letters ARM THE LEFT!, we see a rarer exception to this pigeon-holing, this time on the left. James Pogue, who bought his first gun when he was sixteen, writes in an article titled Good Guys With Guns (subscription may be required) that there are leftists in the US who think that it is time for the left to arm themselves, not to engage in some kind of civil war with the right, but as a means of community self-defense.
It is a very long article and I am excerpting just a few passages to give you a sense of the argument Pogue is making.
He begins by admitting to some ambivalence about this issue.
For years I had been torn between a commitment to being clear-eyed and honest about the damage guns do and a belief that the right to own them ought to be preserved. I suspect that many Americans struggle to balance these two thoughts, especially now that our national conversation about guns is driven by cable news and Twitter, zones where the issue tends to be reduced to “pro-gun” and “anti-gun” sentiment. But I clung to the hope that it might be possible to build a politics that tends toward a more caring and collectively minded society while also being sensitive to some of the currents of anti-authoritarianism that run through our national life and often find expression in an attachment to gun rights.
So he went online to see if there were other people on the left who thought like him and discovered that there were several organizations that served that need, with the largest being a group called the Socialist Rifle Association that had formed around 2017. The group welcomes members who are “working class, progressive, anarchist, socialist, communist, eco-warrior, animal liberator, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, PoC, LGBTQ+”, but excludes anyone who is currently a police officer, though former ones can join. Pogue said that most of them were younger than him, in their twenties.
The SRA already boasted chapters from Alaska to Alabama, as well as a Central Committee and a paid president. It was attempting to offer an alternative to the “mainstream, toxic, right-wing, and non-inclusive gun culture” by organizing disaster relief, by providing first-aid and wilderness-survival training, and, above all, by offering a community for people who felt uncomfortable in the heavily right-wing world of American firearms. And it had quickly enlisted more than 2,500 dues-paying members, including, now, me.
He said that the group grew when New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote a sympathetic account about the group, that “As a squishy liberal, I generally find the idea of adding more guns to our febrile politics frightening and dangerous. But sometimes a small desperate part of me thinks that if our country is going to be awash in firearms, maybe it behooves the left to learn how to use them.”
Pogue writes that these groups want to change the image of leftists. The SRA’s national vice- president is a “twenty-eight-year-old trans woman named Faye, a soft-spoken construction-materials supplier in a long skirt and denim jacket who described herself as an anarcho-communist… Alex, a tall and reserved twenty-two-year-old trans woman and former factory machinist who serves as the SRA’s president, a role for which she is paid $12 an hour out of the organization’s treasury.”
The SRA had joined various national consortiums of gun groups but after being accepted, some right-wing groups vociferously protested the inclusion of a left-wing group and their admittance was revoked.
Pogue attended a meeting of the SRA to get a sense of what they wanted to achieve.
It was just what I’d imagined any American gun-club meeting would be, except people were wearing eat the rich shirts and Industrial Workers of the World buttons, and their animating anger and fears were related to resurgent fascism, immigrants being herded into camps, and seeing every part of daily life governed by market forces and tech companies rather than marauding black rioters, George Soros, and the dangers of radical environmentalists. But the idea, as I was coming to understand it, was precisely to avoid becoming a lefty mirror of a paranoid right-wing militia—to instead use our shared interest in guns as a starting point for engaging in a more hopeful politics. It just happened that most of us thought that doing so at this particular moment might make us want to know something about using a gun.
To Faye, gun ownership had become a reflection of a hyper-individualist and alienated American populace. “There is a narrative that’s been pushed by the NRA and other groups that’s very harmful, that’s very atomized, that’s focused on, you know, packing heat at all times to protect yourself from whatever,” she said. “The way the SRA approaches it is not necessarily focusing so much on individual, personal defense.” Instead, the SRA believes in “community defense,” a concept that can sound pretty jargony and vague, but simply denotes oppressed people using direct, and sometimes physical, confrontation to face down threats of state or vigilante violence. The Black Panthers are America’s most famous example, though re-creating anything like their parallel-state organization seems to me like an anachronistic goal, especially in a disjointed society such as ours, where so many people barely know any of their neighbors, and where many of today’s active community-defense movements—such as those combating ICE—take place over wide geographic regions.
But just as young leftists are imagining new forms of workers’ solidarity in an era when the power of big industrial unions has largely faded away, perhaps the idea of community defense can be adapted to an increasingly fragmented world.
This, as far as one member can speak to it, is the SRA’s project: to turn the country’s long, complicated relationship with firearms into a vehicle for recruiting people into collective action and politics.
Pogue says that the knowledge that some of the people in a demonstration may be carrying guns often causes the police to hesitate to use force on them.
I mentioned at one point that, in my time reporting on militia protests, I had often seen police and federal agents stand back when they knew there were guns around. I had to admit that many of these actions had ended up looking like successes, and Faye took the point. “If you don’t have the means to defend yourself, the state will do whatever it wants to you,” she said. “Even when a firearm is not used, a firearm is a symbol of power.”
Most often, guns in civilian hands have served as a means for power—usually white power—to violently exert itself, rather than as guarantors of liberty. This history extends back to the first armed slave patrols and up through the pro-Trump militias and suburban neighborhood-watch groups like the one to which George Zimmerman belonged when he killed Trayvon Martin. Gun-control laws have in fact been designed expressly to keep guns out of the hands of black Americans. One of the key components of Southern Black Codes—laws reasserting white supremacy after the Civil War—was the attempt to prevent black people from owning guns. Martin Luther King Jr.’s concealed-carry permit application was denied by Alabama in 1956, and California’s first law barring the open carry of a loaded firearm, passed in 1967, was a direct response to the Black Panthers’ “cop watch” patrols in Oakland. More recently, Michael Bloomberg justified the wanton stop-and-frisk policies of his mayoral administration in New York by characterizing them as the aggressive enforcement of gun laws.
The elite fear of a gun-owning underprivileged class of Americans points to a truth about the place of armed politics in our national self-conception. There’s a reason why John Brown is an American hero, and why Ida B. Wells wrote that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.” At moments of political extremity, guns can remind those in power that there’s some physical risk to leaving people feeling hopeless. Eugene Debs took heart, after the violent repression of miners’ strikes at Paint Creek and Ludlow, in the idea that the miners could arm themselves. “When the law fails, and in fact, becomes a bulwark of crime and oppression,” he wrote in 1914, “then an appeal to force is not only morally justified, but becomes a patriotic duty. The Declaration of Independence proclaims this truth.”
Pogue says that people on the left need to rethink the way they argue about guns, because they tend to overlook the need to defend against an authoritarian state.
Policymakers and gun-control advocates are fond of saying that there’s no reason for a civilian to own an AR-15—a fair point if you were only thinking about guns as objects for hunting turkeys or scaring off intruders. But it’s a hell of a good gun if you’re thinking about the possibility that the country will descend into chaos or tyranny. It won’t do much if the FBI decides to send an armored vehicle up your driveway, but it’s deadly enough that they wouldn’t want to come up your driveway without an armored vehicle, and a hundred million gun owners in this country makes for a lot of driveways to deal with.
[I]t’s entirely reasonable to think that our system of governance is no longer answerable to the people it’s supposed to represent. I’m not deluded enough to think that a collection of angry citizens with guns can suddenly change this situation, but the point of the Second Amendment isn’t that an armed people can necessarily push over the government. It’s just that an armed people can only be pushed so far.
Pogue’s view will be controversial to many on the left but I think that he is raising very important questions. The basic one is how likely you think that there is a real danger of a tyrannical takeover of the country that will require the population to engage in some kind of guerilla insurgency to combat it. The other question is to what extent you think that in such an event, armed civilians can counter the massive military might of the US.
The idea that there is threat of an overthrow of democracy in the US was once exclusively the product of fears of the paranoid right, who raised specters of a foreign troop invasion, black helicopters, and United Nations overlords. But the Trump presidency’s assault on democratic institutions has broadened the spectrum of people who have similar fears, but this time of a domestic right wing takeover. It is not clear, however, whether it has significantly broadened the spectrum of people who think that arming themselves is the way to prevent it. The answer to that question will be seen in how rapidly fledgling groups like the SRA grow.