With the recent March for Lives bringing out people across the country, it would seem at first glance that support for gun control is an axiomatic position on the left. Liberal Democrats have been pushing hard for increased legislative gun control measures since the Clinton administration. With the exception of the 1994 Brady Bill, which required background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers, these efforts have seen mixed results. Further to the left of this liberal consensus, however, there lies a more complex understanding and interpretation of gun rights and ownership that is often ignored or minimized by liberals, who generally focus on legislative and state-sanctioned responses to social problems.
Leftists, especially those more firmly committed to direct action and revolutionary sentiment, have spoken out and continue to speak out in support of gun ownership. Groups like Redneck Revolt and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club have revitalized left wing gun ownership and have made the case for gun ownership on the basis of self-defense. They are committed to resisting creeping fascism through means outside of the traditional political systems. They point to recent success in shutting down the alt-right movement as an example of the power of direct action. If a racist movement widely linked to supporters of President Donald Trump can be minimized with shows of force, then why should the left not embrace a confrontational—and yes, sometimes violent—opposition to racism and fascism? As one leftist gun owner put it: “Guns are a necessary form of self-defense so long as there is an oppressive, racist state that exists to uphold white supremacy.” Since the powers of the state have only continued to expand, and the state continues to uphold the values of white supremacy, some revolutionary leftists see gun ownership as a fundamental tool in the struggle for justice.
While an acceptance of the legitimacy of violence might seem revolutionary, it is not a new idea on the left. The Black Panthers in the 1960s have their origins in coordinated community service and defense. Members of the Black Panther Party became so upset with seeing African Americans terrorized by the police that they marched on the California state capitol in Sacramento, taking advantage of California’s then lenient open carry laws. While the demonstration was only one part of a larger community advocacy effort, the media highlighted the action and established the organization as violent radicals in the minds of many whites. The Black Panthers were so effective that they actually caused California Governor Ronald Reagan to sign the Mulford Act, which banned the carrying of loaded weapons in public. The bill was also supported by the NRA, which today seeks seemingly limitless access to high powered weapons.
In terms of understanding the relationship between the left and guns, this is not just an interesting story, but something that reveals a deeper truth about gun control in the United States: gun control is the de facto response to Black and radical gun ownership. Ronald Reagan’s political career was built on a hard-right free market conservatism that posited that government was the problem, not part of the solution. However, young Black men with guns were considered to be such a threat that Reagan and California Republicans were willing to expand government power to prevent them from carrying weapons legally. Reagan wanted limited government, to be sure, but he wanted to limit the power of African Americans even more. In American politics, racism trumps everything. This is true for the gun control debate, as well.
We must concede that it is not possible to effectively resist state oppression with the guns.
While the left’s history of support for gun rights needs to be acknowledged and embraced, we must concede that it is not possible to effectively resist state oppression with guns. The American military has an annual budget of billions. An AR-15 is no match for a multi-million-dollar ballistic missile. The imperialist nature of the American state also means that the country is in a near constant state of war. Since 9/11, this has also meant increased surveillance against American citizens, with the Patriot Act being renewed under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Much of the states’ military surplus goes to local and state police, creating what are essentially occupying paramilitary forces. The state also has an arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons that could easily be turned against any large-scale attempt at rebellion.
Additionally, leftists should be aware of, and ready to combat, media portrayals of anti-fascist direct action. Especially after the election of Donald Trump, potentially violent, left wing self-defense has dominated media narratives of the anti-fascist movement. Even after a white nationalist murdered someone with his car in Charlottesville, publications such as Time echoed President Trump’s controversial and factually wrong “violence on both sides” narrative, conflating Nazis and antifascist protesters. Even when left wing protesters are literally run over by white supremacists with cars, they are accused of inciting violence. This further stigmatizes left wing gun ownership, and increases the separation between liberals and leftists.
Gun ownership in the United States is highly racialized. It is also gendered. Not only do white men own the majority of guns in the United States, women bear the brunt of gun-based domestic violence and are the victims of gun crimes in disproportionate numbers. What the left cannot do is focus on surface level gun control, such as outlawing automatic weapons and imposing lengthy prison sentences for those convicted of owning or possessing such a weapon. While this might have some positive impact by making it harder for potential mass shooters to obtain weapons, America’s racialized law enforcement and policing will likely transform noble intentions into lengthy sentences for young minority men who are disproportionately targeted by police and receive harsher sentences than white offenders for similar crimes. Any discussion of gun control must go hand in hand with an argument for de-militarization and an end to the carceral state, or it will only further disempower those most vulnerable to state violence.
If the real goal of gun control is reducing violence, then reducing the state’s capacity for violence must be a top priority.
The struggle against gun violence, like all of our shared struggles, is intersectional. Gun violence is a product of toxic masculinity, white supremacy, state power, and yes, easy access to high-powered weapons. One-dimensional legislation creating more laws and restrictions on private gun ownership will not solve these deeper societal issues. The solution is complex and requires an intersectional approach. If the real goal of gun control is reducing violence, then reducing the state’s capacity for violence must be a top priority. Pushing for anything less is to concede that we, at least in part, care less for the lives of our neighbors than for the prevailing systems of power that disproportionately benefit white men.
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