I bought my first gun in Cincinnati, when I was sixteen. That summer, I was part of a program that provided minimum-wage jobs for teenagers interested in the arts, and I’d been assigned to a team tasked with creating a local newspaper, where I met Marcus (not his real name, for reasons that will become obvious). He was from a neighborhood that had a plausible claim to being the toughest part of town, not far from where I was growing up, but I was white and he was black, and I was middle class and he was not. Still, we shared a dislike of police officers and passions for shoplifting, the rapper Cam’ron, getting into fistfights, and acting harder than we really were. We quickly became friends.
Like many punk-minded teenagers in the George W. Bush years, I was getting into anarchist politics. I had also developed a hazy identification with what I thought to be a tradition of Jeffersonian self-reliance and idolized the few bearded back-to-the-land gun owners I knew, who seemed to treat their firearms as an American inheritance, an inescapable part of who they were. I adopted the conviction that a truly free person would own a gun and know how to use it, a decision partly motivated by my growing concern that the state might someday be seized by a cabal of right-wing tyrants and dispatch armed SWAT teams to take out dissidents. The possibility didn’t seem that remote—the Patriot Act had just been signed into law, and high-tech surveillance was beginning to invade every part of American life. So one day, I asked Marcus if he could get me a pistol.
He told me it would be no problem, that he could get me something for fifty dollars, and the next day, he came to work with a brown paper bag containing a decades-old, wood-handled .22 revolver with four rounds in the six-shot cylinder. Out of some misplaced sense of honor, Marcus wanted to shoot the thing to prove that it worked before completing the deal, so we went with a friend of his to try it out at the only place they could think of—the ratty crabgrass field next to my high school, in the violent but very heavily policed center of the city—at four o’clock on a weekday.
This plan was not without a number of risks: the rusty old gun could backfire; it could fire properly and the round could sail through a window and kill someone; it could fire and not kill someone, but we could all get arrested anyway; or I might break down and point out that the whole idea was insane, in which case I would humiliate myself in front of Marcus and his friend, neither of whom seemed at all worried about the possible consequences of firing a revolver in a field in the middle of the day in the middle of a major American city. Marcus took the gun, aimed it with one hand at a hillock toward the far end of the field, and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened—there hadn’t been a round in the chamber. We could have tried again, of course, but I told Marcus I’d shoot it at home instead, in the woods behind my house, where I’d be able to fire a few rounds and see how well the gun really worked. I brought it home in my backpack on the city bus and shot it twice back in the woods, without injuring myself or anyone else. But I never got over the leeriness I’d felt that afternoon, when Marcus so casually pointed the gun and pulled the trigger, and the consequences of owning and using a gun had become suddenly and frighteningly real. I buried the thing in my backyard, and somehow never got around to digging it back out. So far as I know, it’s still there, under a fallen oak tree.
Sixteen years later, in 2018, I found myself sitting in the same yard where that illegal pistol lies rusting, talking to my sixty-seven-year-old mother about whether she should buy a handgun herself. The immediate catalyst for this conversation was the rumor of a right-wing infiltrator in her branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the subsequent harassment of several DSA members at one of their meetings. This had rattled my mother, but her fear wasn’t entirely new: most of the men I’d known growing up in our woody corner of the county had owned at least a handgun or two, occasionally for hunting, but more often for reasons of “personal security.”
More recently, however, they had been expressing an increasingly acute worry over the possibility of an outbreak of civil violence. A series of bitter presidential election cycles, in a key swing-voting region of Ohio where close races had become less a reflection of political moderation than one of two finely balanced sides fighting over the soul of a civilization, had made the mostly white longtime residents of the area edgy, suspicious, or paranoid, depending on how much talk radio they listened to. It alarmed me to think of my mom, of all people, feeling a sudden need to keep a handgun in the glove box of her Prius. She told me that one of her neighbors had come by, one afternoon after Donald Trump’s election, correctly assuming that she didn’t keep any guns in the house. “If something happens and things get crazy,” he told her, “I want you to know I’ll help protect you, because even if we disagree, you’re still our neighbor.”
In the time since I’d bought the pistol from Marcus, I had grown into a proper gun owner, but never into a “gun guy”—the shorthand that guys who like guns tend to apply to themselves. This was somewhat to my own surprise. When I was in college and enamored with the idea of backwoods living, I had assumed that as soon as I had enough money and a place of my own, I’d start collecting guns. I’d even kept a mental list of the guns I’d someday want: my everyday carry for self-protection, a “bug-out gun” for surviving civilizational collapse, an AR-15 for waging revolution. But by the time I reached my late twenties, and had enough stability and money to begin acquiring them, I found that I didn’t actually like guns very much—I didn’t find them to be attractive physical objects, and I didn’t care for recreational activities that involved loud noises, entry fees, or long periods of idly standing around.
I also discovered that I hated gun culture. I had spent most of my adult life reporting on paramilitary groups and had spent a lot of time learning about guns and talking to gun guys, but I found many of them to be pretty repellent. They could be pedantic and numbingly nerdy about the particulars of a weapon, small-minded or cruelly callous about the blood that guns spill, and evasive about the reason people actually own guns—which, putting aside the dwindling percentage of Americans who use their guns to hunt, is so that private citizens have the option to commit acts of violence.
Even so, and as much as I hate to see the damage wreaked by guns in this country, there is still a part of me that’s glad to have grown up in a society that entrusts gun ownership to its people. When I bought my first legal gun—a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun—I had been living in a string of rural areas where political divisions, widespread poverty, and drug epidemics conspired to make the potential for some kind of violence feel ever present. I had never been a good shot, and suddenly I had a lot of time and open space, and no excuse for not practicing.
I used the shotgun only once with earnest purpose, while off-roading in the woods outside Nevada City, California, when a pair of what I took to be meth cookers emerged from a camper secreted in the trees and shot at me with a pistol. I managed to chase them off by hiding behind a mound of dirt and shooting birdshot over their heads. Admittedly, they were firing uphill and were probably trying to scare me away rather than hurt me, and the birdshot certainly wouldn’t have done them any serious harm, even if I’d been aiming to hit. But the incident made me thankful that I’d been armed, and—in a way that makes me uncomfortable to admit—I found it thrilling, even a bit fun.
Still, I told my mom, with some vehemence, that I didn’t think it was wise for her to buy a gun. My basic argument was that by carrying a handgun to protect herself at every political meeting, or every time she walked the dog, she’d be embracing the sick personal-defense ideology of gun guys and the National Rifle Association, according to which every citizen becomes an isolated, armed actor, prepared to use deadly force against anyone threatening their sense of personal security. My mother had never been especially concerned about her own physical safety, and I doubted that she would ever be able to convince herself that someone posed such a danger to her that they needed to be shot. My feeling was that a can of bear spray—effective at sixty feet, and much less likely to result in an attacker or a bystander lying in a pool of blood at my mother’s feet—was a more reasonable option. “Okay,” she said. “But in that case, why should anyone have one?”
This was a question I had long wrestled with. 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 I went online to search for left-wing gun groups—in part because I was just curious to see whether any existed, and in part because I was hoping to find a gun culture that I might actually want to be involved in. I was looking for groups that weren’t at the mercy of big corporations and lobbyists, and that were removed from the dark, every-man-for-himself talk that dominates so much of the mainstream American gun scene. To my mind, the Second Amendment was a means to ensure that a form of concrete power was devolved to regular citizens, not a dictate that we were all doomed to live in a society of pervasive suspicion and knee-jerk violence. I didn’t want to see guns outlawed (and didn’t think that was likely to happen anyway), and I wanted to try to help build a better vision of what gun ownership could look like.
It turned out I wasn’t alone: I soon discovered the Socialist Rifle Association, a group that had officially formed only fifteen months earlier. 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.
If I had been slightly better versed in online leftist politics, I might have known that the “Socialist RA” subreddit had started way back in 2015. Like so much that happens among young leftists today, it began as a sort of internet joke: a group of Reddit users started generating memes about a radical counterpart to the NRA that did not yet exist. But in the spring of 2018, a year in which even proudly moderate Americans began to think the country was sliding into political chaos, and at least fifty murders would be linked to right-wing extremism, three regular contributors formed an LLC and turned the forum into a bona fide organization. Things started to take off when the rapper Killer Mike name-checked the SRA on MSNBC. “I think you should join,” he told Joy Reid. “Turn your backs to the NRA.” That November, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg spent some time with the North Georgia chapter and published a surprisingly sympathetic op-ed titled “Rise of the Armed Left,” in which she interviewed an enormous, bearded, and richly tattooed SRA member nicknamed Oso, along with Brad, the bespectacled and wiry president of the North Georgia chapter. “As a squishy liberal,” she wrote,
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.
The SRA had quickly grown from a ragged band of online posters to a slightly less ragged team of earnest real-life organizers with a national profile. Following Hurricane Florence in 2018, the group drew significant attention on social media when they organized a relief truck, which Oso drove down to the Georgia coast. People joined by the hundreds, and chapters sprung up in places that might have seemed unlikely seedbeds for leftist organizations. In a way, this was part of the point—to reach people who otherwise tended to think of leftists as tweedy Brooklynites or state-loving authoritarians: “It’s been one of the icebreakers when I have a big disagreement with somebody . . . and they have these preconceived notions of what a leftist is,” an anonymous SRA member in Anchorage told Alaska Public Media in November 2018, “to start talking about guns and gun ownership and gun rights.”
The first meeting I attended was held in a small community arts center in southern California’s Inland Empire, and led by 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. One of the founding organizers of the SRA, she now serves as the group’s national vice president. The other members present had come from as far as Santa Barbara and the Coachella Valley—a distance of some two hundred miles—and earned paychecks delivering packages for UPS, tending the register at Bass Pro Shops, driving for Uber, or working other precarious, underpaid jobs. When I arrived, some fifteen of them were crammed around a jumble of tables, without any obvious indication as to the group’s identity, so as not to alarm any visitors dropping in to see some local art on a Saturday afternoon. The meeting itself consisted mostly of debates about chapter bylaws and, because this was southern California, discussions of how to deal with traffic and travel times for the more far-flung members. We talked about setting up a table at a local gun show, coordinating wildfire relief, and whether anyone was interested in getting SRA-subsidized training as a firearms instructor. Then we headed off to a range to shoot skeet.
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.
Faye reminded everyone to be careful to avoid wearing SRA T-shirts at protests, particularly those where the likelihood of violence was high. The SRA is only the largest of a number of new armed leftist groups. Others include the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club—an organization known for providing security at demonstrations throughout the Pacific Northwest—and Redneck Revolt, which showed up armed to protest the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Some of these groups are openly insurrectionist and willing to use guns the way right-wing militias have been using them for years—in armed street politics. This means that they are more limited in their membership than the SRA, which advertises itself to anyone who is “working class, progressive, anarchist, socialist, communist, eco-warrior, animal liberator, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, PoC, LGBTQ+”—basically anyone who isn’t a law enforcement officer (the organization’s rules ban cops). The SRA’s official motto is “We Keep Us Safe,” but members have a sort of joking incantation that gets repeated far more often: “We’re not a cult,” it goes, “and we’re not a militia.”
Not that anyone who saw us at the range that day would have mistaken us for a militia: we were a shaggy bunch, and most were younger than me, in their early twenties. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I realized that many of my fellow members in tight jeans who spent their days posting on Reddit were more comfortable using and talking about firearms than I was. We lined up in the late-afternoon heat, and I watched as Faye effortlessly hit clay after clay, alongside Hispanic kids from the desert, community college students from the Inland Empire, and a former police officer from Santa Barbara who’d had a leftist awakening and was on his way to a perfect 25 for 25.
I was genuinely excited about the SRA, but there seemed to be concern that I might be an FBI plant, or at the very least a fancy poser. Being over thirty and working as a journalist, I came off as a bit of a faded, privileged hipster among this crowd of deeply angry young wage slaves. When it was my turn to shoot, I kept bumbling, reloading my shotgun before I was supposed to, at one point even dropping an unspent shell that, for safety purposes, had to be located in the grass before we went on, holding everything up for a mortifying amount of time. I had brought my old short-barreled pump-action shotgun, which isn’t a good choice for shooting trap, and I missed my first ten clays, leading to a nervous jitteriness that can be extremely dangerous when you’re discharging a weapon. But I finally figured out how to get off a quick shot and finished by squarely vaporizing fifteen straight clays. I left with a warm and pleasant feeling—on my way out, I took a stack of pamphlets to distribute to people I thought might be interested. “We Keep Us Safe” was written across the top of each one. “We have friggin’ trifold pamphlets?” a young woman asked as I stuffed them in my briefcase. “This is getting so real.”
Last July, the SRA—whose membership now totals about three thousand—held its first-ever national convention, in a suburban hotel on the outskirts of Denver. It was all a bit hush-hush. When I set my bags down and asked the young attendant at the desk where the event was located, she grinned at me and made air quotes with her fingers. “Oh, the ‘firearms meeting’? It’s down the hall and to the left.”
The conference room looked as if it had been set up for a regional gathering of bank branch managers—rows of tables covered in cheap black tablecloths had been set up in front of a stage, and a coffee station was laid out to the side. The tables for panelists onstage, however, were bedecked in banners displaying the SRA’s winkingly Soviet-style logo: three rifle cartridges under a red star, encircled by stalks of wheat. Oso, the big guy whom Michelle Goldberg had interviewed for the Times, stood at the door, checking the guest list.
I wasn’t actually sure whether I’d be allowed in. Left-wing groups are always the subject of intense FBI scrutiny and disruption, and with the SRA being an armed left-wing group—and with the possibility of “alt-right” plants—there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of a nosy newcomer. But Oso gave me no trouble. He found my name on the list, and I headed inside, where I ran into Faye, who was helping her fiancé deal with a livestreaming setup. She seemed surprised to see me, as though she’d forgotten I might come. But I was still a member of her chapter, and the SRA is nothing if not welcoming. “These aren’t just your fellow classmates in a firearms course anymore,” a former Coast Guard sailor named Rob told the crowd during one Q and A session with the Central Committee, after someone had asked what to do if a member stopped showing up to meetings or online chats. “These are your comrades. So just cut out whatever arm’s-length bullshit you’re used to and reach out and make a connection.”
The next morning, I found Faye and the rest of the Central Committee seated onstage around 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. Alex was explaining that the SRA had applied for membership in the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the country’s largest trade association for gun groups. “We know the NSSF is a fairly reactionary organization,” she said. But for the SRA, joining the NSSF was part of a larger goal of establishing itself as a responsible and mature player among American gun groups, one that involved getting the group insured, keeping its finances transparent, and joining mainstream gun-advocacy organizations—a push the SRA membership overwhelmingly supported. So far, it hadn’t exactly worked out.
The NSSF initially admitted the SRA, said Alex, but about a week before the convention, an incensed forum thread had appeared on a website called AR15.com, which, like almost all gun sites, tends to be dominated by the political right. Commenters encouraged one another to contact the NSSF to complain about the fact that it had allowed a left-wing gun group to join. “That’s just fucking great,” one wrote. “Is NSSF going to help them get grant money to dig all the execution pits?” There were hundreds of other comments, many of them from users with Hitler portraits or other openly fascist iconography in their profiles. “Can the Klan League of Marksmen join?” “Target acquisition.” “Has anyone asked them what they’re doing making friends with people who want to kill them?”
Some commenters reported that they had canceled their NSSF memberships. One, claiming to know the address and phone number of an SRA Central Committee member, provided the member’s initials and called the operators of the gun ranges where he gave shooting lessons, doxing him as a dangerous leftist.1
Less than a week after the SRA’s admission—four days before the start of the convention—the president of the NSSF sent Alex a letter informing her that it was being kicked out. “The NSSF embraces free-market capitalism . . . manufacturing firearms for both law-abiding civilian and law enforcement needs, and support for the Second Amendment,” the letter read. “The NSSF is aware . . . that your organization does not share these same values.”
There was a murmur of laughter as Alex described the blacklisting. “But we do support firearms manufacture, since you can’t buy a gun if it can’t be manufactured,” she said. “And we don’t say anything specific about cops besides basically in our bylaws saying, ‘Don’t be a cop.’ We’re a threat to them because we challenge the right wing’s monopoly on gun culture.”
As if to confirm Alex’s point, the United States Concealed Carry Association approved the SRA for affiliation a few weeks later, only to revoke it after another protracted social-media dustup. The USCCA eventually released a wordy statement condemning the SRA for “discriminatory beliefs” against law enforcement and the rich, and confirming that the USCCA “stands opposed to socialism.”
After a morning of livestreamed opening speeches, cigarette breaks, and reports from Central Committee members detailing cash flow and recruitment figures—the SRA was signing up new paid members at a rate of almost six per day—Faye and I went off to the buffet for penne and salad. She told me she had come to leftism, like almost all the SRA members I had met, not through a university education or by family tradition, but because she felt fucked over, resentful, and scared for her future. She got into politics and discovered her bisexuality as a teenager living outside Cincinnati, just a few miles from where I grew up. After her family was hit hard by the 2008 financial crash, they relocated to Midland, Texas. “Texas was Texas,” she said. “I pretty much abandoned my queer identity just to blend in. The only openly gay man in my high school was assaulted a number of times, and he dealt with it by being very flamboyant, aggressively gay. And that wasn’t for me.” After a stint in community college in New Orleans, she found her way to Los Angeles, where she got a job at a small software company. “Working in the electronics industry,” she said, “I sort of got exposed to the dark underbelly of capitalism, and just how crappy it is. Seeing the CEO of the company I worked for scream at this aide—this twenty-one-year-old woman—because she forgot to pull out his chair at a board meeting, and after that he cornered her in his office and just screamed at her until she cried.”
In 2016, just around the time she came out to her parents, Faye was laid off. She was broke and depressed, struggling through another stint at community college, where she was working on a degree she still hasn’t been able to complete. “I basically went through a really rough period where I was almost homeless,” she said, until by chance she met the man who is now her fiancé, on OkCupid. He was attending the same college and is now the moderator of the SRA’s online forums. Together they moved from L.A. out to the Inland Empire, and Faye began transitioning and identifying as a woman. It was there that she got an inkling of where things were headed politically, and how she personally wanted to respond.
“There were a couple times I’d be walking down the street and a pickup truck would drive up and someone would yell ‘faggot’ at me. There was a time I heard an engine gun behind me and then a bottle smashed on the sidewalk next to me, and I saw a pickup tear off and it had a Trump sticker on it.” Just before Trump’s inauguration, a driver swerved toward her and her fiancé’s car on the highway and, as she saw it, tried to run them off the road. “I don’t think that was because we were queer,” she told me. “I think it was because we had a Bernie bumper sticker. He was a typical alt-right-looking, dweeby white guy. And seeing all these Nazis in the administration—that’s when I started worrying. If fascism comes to America, I thought, trans people are going to be high on the list of targets.” She connected with other queer gun owners online and began calling herself a leftist.
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. 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.”
Owning a gun for any reason other than hunting or target practice—uses that account for only 21 percent of U.S. gun ownership—is an inherently political act. To draw a pistol and choose to shoot someone who has violated your safety or sense of safety is to arrogate to yourself the right to decide whether someone ought to live or die. Merely carrying a pistol for self-protection means arrogating to yourself the same right. The Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision interpreted the Second Amendment’s provision for a “well regulated militia” as more or less an endorsement of that right and of the NRA-fed gun culture Faye was objecting to—a culture in which every private citizen is free to act as a deadly militia of one.
We talk less about the more directly political role that guns have played in our national life. 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.”
In recent decades, the idea of guns as a last resort against unchecked authority has been almost entirely excised from respectable national conversation. In an age of mass surveillance, in which the state possesses incredible destructive powers, many TV commentators and politicians have stopped believing that guns could be used for such a purpose. This skepticism was recently taken to a darkly comic extreme when the California congressman and former presidential candidate Eric Swalwell responded on Twitter to a suggestion that a government program to confiscate assault rifles would lead to a civil war. “It would be a short war my friend,” he wrote. “The government has nukes.”
But Swalwell was betraying a misunderstanding of how armed politics actually works. Even a cursory look at the history of recent uprisings around the world shows that depth of will, much more than an ability to match firepower, is the real key to sustaining a rebellion. Insurgencies persist by showing a willingness to kill or be killed in the name of a cause and by provoking a response from power. A government that bombs a great number of comparatively defenseless rebels only creates new ones—something you’d think Americans would have learned from decades of near-constant war in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Many gun buyers grasp this lesson more clearly than our politicians do. This January, roughly six thousand armed demonstrators gathered outside the Virginia State Capitol to protest modest proposals for new gun restrictions. They chanted, plausibly, “We will not comply,” as they marched. Many wore body armor, and many carried AR-15s, the most popular rifle in the nation. The AR-15 is a rapid-firing and highly customizable semiautomatic weapon, designed by the ArmaLite corporation in the 1950s, that became the model for the military M16 (“AR” comes from the brand name, not “assault rifle”). NPR recently described it as “America’s rifle.”
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. The Irish Republican Army so favored AR-pattern rifles sourced from the United States that the “little ArmaLite” is still a fixture of rebel ballads in Northern Ireland. Although the IRA quickly learned that it couldn’t carry out sustained firefights or hold territory, it was well-armed enough to be a constant threat and to keep recruiting—and that was what it took to keep the conflict going. As the war reporter Robert Evans—who recently sat down with Faye to record an episode of the SRA’s house podcast—put it in a tweet, “If you don’t think a bunch of yokels with long guns could fuck up the U.S. military you ain’t been paying much attention to Afghanistan.”
On the last night of the SRA convention, a group of about twenty of us went out for Korean barbecue and karaoke. At dinner I sat next to Rob, the former Coast Guard sailor. We’d just been served when he and the rest of his Bay Area chapter began to get worried texts. There had been a mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, about eighty miles south of San Francisco. A nineteen-year-old had brought an AK-47-style rifle to the fair, murdering three people and injuring seventeen others before killing himself. Like most everyone else, I had never heard of Gilroy or its garlic festival. Someone remarked that it was a grim quirk of American life that we often first learn of places such as Gilroy or Newtown or Aurora or Parkland because they have been the scene of mass shootings. The jokes we had been making about scared liberals we knew who were afraid to even hold a gun suddenly seemed less funny.
A few days later, I got a series of worried texts of my own, after a mass shooting unfolded in Dayton, Ohio, an hour north of Cincinnati. A twenty-four-year-old shooter had killed nine people and wounded seventeen in just thirty-two seconds, using an AR-15 variant equipped with a hundred-round magazine. This, almost unfathomably, came only thirteen hours after a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where a white supremacist who had set out to murder Latinos killed twenty-two people with an AK-47.
The Dayton shooter turned out to have left-wing views, and the New York Post subsequently ran a story by the alt-right journalist Andy Ngo labeling the SRA an “antifa gun group.” Rumors flew around the internet that the shooter had been an SRA member (he had not). All this made me a little queasy, and fed a growing consensus among liberal politicians—even Bernie Sanders, who had often supported gun rights and had voted against the 1993 Brady bill—that weapons like “America’s rifle” ought to be banned.
And yet, all the attention these shootings receive obscures a troubling detail: banning assault rifles would do surprisingly little to curb gun deaths in America. Mass shootings provoke justifiable terror, but their incidence has not increased dramatically over the past decade, during which they resulted in an average of about one hundred deaths a year. Gun suicides, by contrast, account for over 22,000. Even if mass shootings were eliminated entirely, that would save fewer lives than the hundreds that have been spared annually as a result of safety initiatives to reduce accidental discharges. Moreover, while assault rifles tend to make individual mass shootings deadlier, handguns are used in 81 percent of such incidents. And in 2017, the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available, 64 percent of all gun murders were committed with handguns, and only 4 percent with rifles, which includes guns classified as assault weapons.
I have a lot of trouble writing out statistics like these. So often, this sort of talk is an attempt to minimize the toll gun violence and mass shootings take on individual lives and on our collective psyche. Gun organizations like the NRA have made an art of throwing around such numbers to distract us from the real work of reducing gun deaths in this country, which would require tackling the self-defense ideology that drives handgun sales and doing the even harder work of building a more just and inclusive society in which fewer people feel compelled to commit suicide or murder large numbers of strangers.
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. And I like to think that, just maybe, this could contribute to building a country where people are less inclined to want to shoot themselves and others as often as they do now. “I didn’t really know what leftism was before I started going on Reddit,” a thirty-seven-year-old former body-shop worker named Adrien told me at the conference. He had been in and out of trouble with the law in his younger years, and a brief stint in the Navy hadn’t worked out. At his last job, his boss made overtly racist comments and forced employees to listen to right-wing talk radio, and Adrien began to think that people like his boss might be part of a larger problem. “I just knew that I didn’t like how he talked about poor people,” he said. “And then I found the SRA.” It was the first time he’d ever been involved in politics. “I’m not saying I think there’s going to be a revolution tomorrow,” he told me. “But guns do give you that power, that thing where people have to pay attention.”
The next month, I went to join Rob at a campout that his chapter was holding in a remote section of the Mendocino National Forest, a few hours north of San Francisco. I followed the GPS coordinates he had given me down long dirt roads into a camp full of people in fatigues engaged in mobile-shooting drills. “Dude,” Rob said as I pulled up in my truck. His long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, his figure enveloped in camouflage and a tactical vest. “Can I give you a hug? Do you want to shoot?”
I had suffered a concussion in an accident a few days earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to deal with the noise and recoil of a 9mm handgun. I might have been embarrassed admitting this in some of the more macho settings that I associate with shooting, but everyone was very understanding here, so I sat in a camp chair with earplugs and watched Rob and another SRA member, who’d been an Army infantryman, give instruction. The trainees were young, of every race and gender and non-gender, but they were all living at the bottom end of the economic spectrum in the Bay Area, one of the most unequal parts of the Western world, in a society where money represents supreme power and even the most sanguine moderates have cause to wonder whether the president of the United States would accept the results of a lost election. Even so, no one at the campout said any rash words about planning for a violent revolution, and no one seemed to have any thought that a heightening of political or civil violence would be any kind of adventure. They just seemed, as trite as it sounds, empowered. As someone who has tended toward hopelessness these past few years, I felt glad to be among them.
The morning after I arrived at the campout, a crew of hunters wearing digital camo pulled into the secluded site in a pair of late-model pickup trucks. For a moment, I was worried that they wouldn’t take kindly to a bunch of leftists in tactical gear toting assault rifles. But it turned out that a shared interest in firearms proved more interesting to them than our politics. “We’re not a cult, and we’re not a militia,” a few of us yelled out, almost by rote, as we sat around the fire. “This is a legit fucking setup you guys have,” one of the hunters said before wheeling off to find a different camping spot. “Be safe.”
The campout was a coming together over a solemn right, in full acknowledgment of the implications of exercising that right. If our society is going to let its citizens own guns, I thought, then this is what gun ownership should look like. The tragedy of American gun culture is that it is inseparable from the tragedy of American life today. The suicides, the mass shootings, the vast numbers of people sent to prison for gun crimes: these are all expressions of the fact that the United States is a place where millions feel alone and see no future for themselves, where a seemingly unaccountable elite is willing to wreck the entire planet rather than sacrifice the profits of a small number of corporations. In that world, it’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.