When I was just five years old, before I had even started kindergarten, I received a tiny rifle for Christmas, a .22-caliber bolt-action rod called a Chipmunk, built for and marketed to small children. By the time I was twelve I owned a small arsenal of five guns, and proudly possessed a lifetime hunting and fishing license for the state of Oklahoma. But it wasn’t long before I discovered punk rock, and with it a hatred of all things redneck, including those formerly precious guns. Into my dad’s gun safe they went. I’d sworn off guns forever—or so I thought.
By my late twenties, I had gone full circle on guns. My politics had moved so far to the left that I saw gun ownership through a similar lens as the far-right extremists leftists love to denounce. I wasn’t worried about burglaries. I was worried about the tyrannous state sending troops door-to-door after it declared martial law.
At the height of my radical politics, in 2010, I visited ultra-left and anarchist “comrades” in Great Britain. There I met a Polish antifa activist who was in the country to take a break from daily street harassment and violence in his hometown in eastern Poland, which he said was overrun with violent neo-Nazis. Over pints at a local left-wing haunt, he recounted story after story of fistfights with Nazis, knife-fights with Nazis, the time he and his buddies were stuck inside their home while Nazis were lobbing Molotovs at their bolted front door.
The left should arm itself, he said, not so much against an overstepping government but in preparation for the government’s collapse and a fascist takeover. Right-wing Polish militants and their brethren in compounds in Idaho and Montana—these were the real threats to the “good guys.”
The idea appealed to me. The Polish antifa was a foot soldier, a militant, a martyr for a noble cause. And there were plenty of historical precedents in the States. The Black Panther Party was armed to the teeth, of course, as was the American Indian Movement. The 1960s was full of left-wing groups arming themselves in self-defense. Those groups had been either wiped out or marginalized, but that was another time and we were another generation. I knew some activists up in Kansas who fiercely advocated for armed self-defense. And they had guns. Lots of them. AR-15s, AK-47s, SKSs, and more. They engaged in tactical trainings. They rented booths at guns shows and tried to convert people to their side. The idea was sexy, empowering. I wanted in.
So a few friends and I rented a booth at the gun show in Oklahoma City. We brought with us a box full of left-wing tracts on everything from tactical training to insurrectional theory. One pamphlet was from the Black Liberation Army, whose members robbed armored cars to fund their cause. That this group was considered a terrorist organization didn’t faze me, not then. The BLA’s raison d’etre was “anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-sexist.” That was enough for me and my friends. I had even read their most famous member’s memoir, Assata, by Assata Shakur—Tupac’s aunt—who had been living as a fugitive in Cuba for decades, and was still on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list. She was like a hero to me.
We fanned the propaganda out on the table and gave it away for free. I placed an AK-47 front and center to prove we weren’t spineless liberals. We wore black skinny jeans, bright t-shirts from American Apparel, bandanas around our neck—anarcho-hipster chic. The AK was mine, a Romanian-made WASR 10 I’d bought for about $350 at a gun store just outside of town. A couple of forms and a background check, I was in and out in less than an hour. A bunch of us had guns by now. We were going deeper and deeper into gun culture. From time to time we drove out to my family’s land in the country and fired off a few boxes of rounds at beer cans and bottles and little paper targets. We had a gun-cleaning movie night where we watched First Blood; on another night it was the documentary about the Weather Underground. We dreamed of a revolutionary situation that would allow us—if not obligate us—to act bravely in defense of freedom.
But everyone has a different definition of freedom. We were promptly escorted out of the gun show after a few too many complaints. We really did stand out from the guys in camo with beards and Confederate flag patches on their XXXL jean jackets. (I was more creeped out by the clean-cut guys with tucked in white shirts and shooter glasses. They seemed like the brains behind another parallel revolution underway, the right-wing kind I was preparing to resist.) On our way out two old white guys—the management—told us we weren’t allowed to distribute “political” information, even though the Minutemen were doing just that a few booths away. But there was nothing we could say to change their minds. They clipped the neon orange bands off our wrists and told us to never come back.
Within a few months I was over it. I stored my guns in the attic, and my politics gradually moved toward the center as my disillusionment grew with radical politics and the subcultures that revolve around them. Later, I went to another gun show and sold my AK to a complete stranger. To this day it haunts me that I didn’t destroy the gun. It is still out there, unregistered, anonymously owned, its only trace the serial number attached to my name as its buyer, if that record even exists.
Thank God I came to my senses and left this world behind. This world, though, is very much alive.
The day after Donald Trump assumed the presidency, a thinkpiece was published on an obscure left-wing website called DiversityofTactics.org, titled, “Why the Left Needs a Gun Culture.” The timing of the piece suggested that American politics had entered a new phase, with new problems, requiring new tools to solve them. This urgency is familiar to anyone on the left. Hate crimes were on the rise. People were espousing outright fascist views and the mainstream media was there to cover it, sometimes with kid gloves, normalizing abhorrent ideas.
“Why the Left Needs a Gun Culture” quickly made the rounds on Reddit and other online forums, such as the website of the aptly named Liberal Gun Club. The screed’s author, Lorenzo Raymond, emphasized that owning a gun is a “Second Amendment right,” adopting language from the right. But more to the point: “If conservatives have successfully claimed this privilege, then it makes no sense for the Left to disarm itself and unilaterally renounce the Second Amendment. The Right won’t follow their example, but will instead briskly proceed to consolidate their monopoly on non-state force.”
The Weberian phrase “monopoly on force” (or sometimes “monopoly on violence”) is adored by the militant left. There are books on the subject: Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill and How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos, to name just two. The gist is that the state has a monopoly on force. The right-wing has a monopoly on “non-state force.” The left needs to change the playing field—or risk obliteration. (Raymond and others on the gun-wielding left do not cede that the state’s monopoly of force is legitimate—that it is there to settle disputes and prevent society from devouring itself in cycles of violence.)
Citing historical examples going back to the labor battles of the 1920s, the Civil Rights era, and the coalminer strike featured in the film Harlan Country USA, Raymond argued that it’s time for another wave of armed left-wing activity. Indeed, he claimed that one was already afoot, noting recent armed activism on the left, such as the John Brown Gun Club, a nationwide network comprised mostly of activists rooted in the ultra-left and anarchist subcultures, founded by some of those same radicals from Kansas I once knew. Brown, the anti-slavery militant who led the raid on Harpers Ferry in an attempt to start an armed insurrection against the government, is the white militant left’s patron saint.
In June 2016, the John Brown Gun Club gave its network a name: Redneck Revolt. There are 32 chapters across the U.S. and counting. The group describes itself on its website as an “anti-racist, anti-fascist community defense formation.” On the internet you’ll find dozens of images of Redneck Revolt members wearing flannels and Army-issued fatigues and tactical vests, brandishing tricked-out AR-15’s, side arms, walky-talkies, and other gear. Some of them showed up with their weapons at Charlottesville last year, ostensibly to take an oppositional stand or to keep the peace. Mostly it was to just tell the world, “Hey, we exist.”
It’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart from the neo-Nazis they oppose. The first clue is their signature red bandana, which is actually where the term “redneck” originally comes from, after the bandana-clad West Virginia miners who fought in the Battle of Blair Mountain in the 1920s. But the term also signals their antipathy toward “upper class urban liberals,” and their “pride in our class as well as a pride in resistance to bosses, politicians, and all those that protect domination and tyranny.” In this, they sound like reactionaries. However, they do call for the “total liberation of all working people, regardless of skin color, religious background, sexual orientation, gender, country of birth.” There are a number of women among them, and even a few people of color. And I suspect that not a few of them come from upper-class, urban-liberal homes themselves.
Still, the logic behind arming the left is confused. Do the people advocating for armed self-defense against tyranny actually think a toe-to-toe battle with the government will occur? Do they imagine a scenario where left-wing militias will rove around the Midwest or the South or upstate New York defending “the weak” against enemy militias? Do they think anyone will join them?
At the height of my zealotry, I was convinced any or all
of the above scenarios were not only likely, but imminent. It’s a well-worn
fantasy. You surround yourself with fellow believers and read the same rhetoric
from the same voices and feel a sense of duty and pride that you are part of an
elect. You ignore any evidence to the contrary, and scorn mainstream sources
that peddle it. It’s a dangerous example of confirmation bias. Cults operate in
a similar way.
On a recent episode of his podcast, Vox’s Ezra Klein interviewed Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona and author of Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. A large part of Carlson’s thesis is that the decline of the “bread-winner” role for men has been in recent decades substituted with the purchase of guns, which raises the male status at home and in society to the “protector” role. This is a dramatic shift, says Carlson, from the days when guns were thought to be used primarily for hunting. Once a gun moves out of the closet or gun safe and is strapped to your hip or chest, it becomes a different kind of weapon. Now its use is exclusively for people.
Klein tries to understand what carrying a gun does to our minds. In public the gun carrier is “constantly scanning for threats,” Klein says, while he is “sitting with a clear view of all the exits.” Carlson agrees. She points out that “situational awareness” and “running through scenarios” are part of NRA gun training classes.
Klein goes on to speculate that carrying a gun in public “seems like it makes the world into much more of a drama, in which they’re the hero and they may be called to do these extraordinary, dangerous, heroic things at any moment, [which seems] like a really addictive, interesting way to approach the world, to enliven your day, particularly if other parts of your life at this point offer less opportunity of that kind of narrative and status and feeling of essentialness.”
This “feeling of essentialness” is key to understanding
why gun possession is an existential issue for so many people. It’s not only
part of their identity, like skin color or religious faith, but it’s an
identity that presupposes importance and a kind of indispensability to others. Gun
owners are fighting both for their very existence and for the benefit of greater society. Without their guns they’re
just another office worker or truck driver or clerk.
When my friends and I went out to the woods and set up targets and fired off rounds we weren’t thinking we were making up for the diminished role of our gender. There was usually a woman or two among us, just enough to think this had nothing to do with masculinity. But if I’m honest, it had a lot to do with masculine posturing, at least for me. We joked about the collapse of law and order. We mocked the police. We believed we would act as special protectors when the shit hit the fan.
There is a fantasy at play when civilians put on camo and carry around an AR-15. While some people are out golfing or mowing the lawn, the good citizens with guns are here to keep the bad guys in check. The self-styled revolutionary is no different in this regard. He will get violent if need be to alter the course of history and keep it bending ever toward justice.
But this romantic posture can easily curdle into something malign. For decades, the moral high ground on the issue of guns has been occupied by the left. Nearly all the mass shootings in recent years have been couched in reactionary politics of one stripe another, either Islamist militancy or homegrown American white supremacy.
Last June we saw a rare exception to this rule when James Hodgkinson opened fire on a charity baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia, wounding four, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, before the shooter was killed by the police. As a 66-year-old white guy with a history of domestic abuse, Hodgkinson seems on paper like a perfect candidate for such a crime. But Hodgkinson was a “progressive” who loved Rachel Maddow and hated Donald Trump. He had even volunteered to campaign for Bernie Sanders. The left, including Bernie Sanders, quickly denounced the man and his crime, and continued to retain the moral high ground on guns. But what is stopping this from happening again? Just as Ted Kaczynski justified his murders in the name of environmentalism, it is all too easy to dehumanize people in the name of a righteous cause.
Just how much traction the armed left will get remains to be seen. I suspect another tragedy will happen before it’s all over. I hope I’m wrong, but recent history has shown that nothing much good comes from guns.