[ED: Jon Stokes is a founder of Ars Technica and a former editor for Wired. He’s written about guns and technology for TechCrunch, AllOutdoor.com, TheFirermBlog.com and others. This post was originally published back in 2016 at Medium.com under the title, Confessions of a Progressive Gun Nut. When we asked Jon for permission to run it here, he asked that we make it clear that he “no longer qualifies as progressive anymore, given how far around the bend they’ve gone.” When we asked how he identifies himself today, he said he’s a “civil libertarian and a populist.”]
By Jon Stokes
Over the course of my years-long engagement with smart people on all sides of America’s gun debate — from coffee shops in San Francisco to private suites off the floor of the gun industry’s annual Las Vegas trade show — I’ve come to believe that there are really only two broader ideological camps that people fall into when it comes to the right to keep and bear arms.
No, the two camps aren’t “blame the shooter” vs. “blame the gun” — that whole discourse is a sad sideshow, and I think both sides are probably tired of swatting each other with the same limp bromides (“the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” vs. “here’s what every entry in this catalog of otherwise unrelated horrors has in common: guns!”).
Rather, the real divide between the pro- and anti-gun camps is much deeper, and is rooted in their sharply divergent readings of the history of human relations. To use a ten-dollar word from my years as a humanities grad student, what we have here is a clash of hermeneutics.
Not only do both camps reason about the present and future on the basis of different interpretations of a shared past, but the gun control argument is so exhausting for everyone involved because it ultimately forces each side into the uncomfortable position of arguing for the truth of grand propositions that it actually hopes are false.
Despite all of this, I believe there’s a faint glimmer of hope for finding common ground. But before we can discover what we have in common, we have to understand where and how we truly differ.
The Moral Arc vs. the Vicious Cycle
Any given gun control discussion may work its way through topics like hunting and other hobbies, or delve into theoretical questions of individual liberty and its limits, or cover the practical nuts-and-bolts of who really needs what type of firearm for which hypothetical use-of-force scenario, but all arguments over Americans and their firearms ultimately end up in one place: a dispute about the usefulness and legitimacy of the constitutional right of private citizens to keep in their homes the tools of violence as a last bulwark against tyranny.
How you view the Second Amendment — as an embarrassing relic of a barbarous past, or as a last-ditch deterrent against the rise of domestic tyranny — depends on the shape you see when you look at history: an arc or a circle.
Folks in the anti-gun camp tend to believe, with Martin Luther King Jr., that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These are people who have faith in Progress and Perfectibility, and who will warn you in all earnestness that there is a “right side of history” and you had better get on it.
These folks aren’t having any talk of a hypothetical fascist dystopia in the US. To them, that’s paranoid fantasy from a bygone era, and meanwhile there are real lives being lost to gun violence right now.
The other camp, to which I confess to being a lifetime member, sees history as cyclical, with no real long-term trajectory. We take it as self-evident that there is nothing new under the sun. Human nature doesn’t change and humans keep re-learning the same painful lessons as species.
To those of us who are members of the “human relations go ‘round in a vicious, bloody circle” tribe, the concept of any sort of long-term positive trend in the way we relate to one another is not only lunatic, but actively dangerous.
In this respect, despite the fact that I’m a Christian, I find myself sympathizing with the atheists who look on in frustrated wonderment as otherwise rational people bend the knee and send their petitions up to an invisible man in the sky, as if that would solve a single pressing problem faced by humanity.
Whenever my liberal friends bring up the magical Moral Arc to buttress their argument on some issue or other, I think to myself, “How could someone so smart be so stupid? Are they really willing to put their trust in this smug, secular eschatology? How can they believe, on the basis of a few paltry decades of mostly mixed evidence, that the great Moral Arc of the Universe will eventually, over the very long term, ensure that their ‘right side of history’ wins out in the end?”
A Costly Deterrent
Despite the way I tend to vote and the liberal causes I tend to support, my circular outlook on history makes me a poor progressive, because while I fight for progress I really just don’t believe in Progress. All of my work in this world is to achieve a momentary respite for me and mine, until whatever rough beast, its hour come round at last, drags us into ever more technologically sophisticated forms of savagery.
This admittedly grim outlook explains the conviction of “gun nuts” like myself that, sooner or later, the developed West’s relatively recent experiments with civilian disarmament will end badly for all involved. The oppression of the unarmed many by the armed few has happened in many epochs and in diverse cultures.
It happened in feudal Europe and feudal Japan. It happened in the antebellum South, where African Americans’ access to guns was severely restricted, and where slavery was enforced by gangs of armed whites. It’s happening right now less than a thousand miles to the south of me, in Oaxaca, Mexico, where a militarized narco-state is massacring disarmed civilians for protesting neoliberal policies that we in America invented, perfected, and exported.
Guns in private hands, then, are viewed by the “vicious cycle” camp as a way of pausing or slowing the circle of history’s rotation back toward tyranny. The civilian populace has a right to maintain a credible deterrent* against the pretensions of any armed and organized gang, and that right is the one that underwrites all of the others — or so the theory goes.
But even the most ardent Second Amendment supporter must admit that the price of this deterrent is high and paid in blood. Every year, innocents die because people like me believe that an armed citizenry is the final guarantor of freedom.
And when someone points out the lives that have been saved by civilian disarmament in countries like Australia or Britain, all we can do is offer the same fear-mongering hypothetical: “Just give it time. Human nature has not changed, and eventually the armed and organized few will turn on the unarmed many.”
*Note: It bears stating explicitly, because I’ve seen this come up time and again, that wanting to preserve private ownership of guns as a deterrent is not even remotely the same as actively preparing to shoot at police or American soldiers. Not every homeowner who keeps a large dog with a vicious bark is eagerly expecting to maul an intruder.
Contradiction and Defeatism
“But the government has drones and tanks and lasers,” the anti-gunners argue. “Surely you don’t think a bunch of untrained hillbillies with assault rifles can stand up to such technologically advanced weaponry?”
This is the number one practical objection raised against the pro-gun camp’s “guns as a bulwark against tyranny” argument, and it is fundamentally defeatist, which I know can’t feel good to the otherwise optimistic progressives who make it.
Regardless of what I think of that argument (“not much,” in case you’re wondering), I cite it not to poke holes in it, but to illustrate the way that the gun control debate ultimately puts anti-gun progressives in the uncomfortable position of arguing for the supreme omnipotency of the modern security state. Such people must maintain that any violent popular uprising against true oppression, at least in the advanced Western nations, is already hopelessly lost before it has even begun.
The same federally coordinated police forces that are called in to crush popular protests with batons and pepper spray, that gun down the innocent in their homes in no-knock raids, that execute unarmed black men in the streets, and that confiscate citizens’ cash and valuables without due process of law, are exalted as practically invincible by the anti-gun left.
As a corollary to this, progressives must also believe that the mechanisms of liberal democracy, as broken as they presently appear, can and will be peacefully restored to their former glory by non-violent protests, international outrage, loss of allies, sanctions, and eloquent appeals to the common good. In other words, that mighty Moral Arc has lot of work to do, given the recent track record of most of these tools in advancing the cause of human rights in much weaker countries than the US.
I’m fairly confident that even as the left is saying these things, though, they’re secretly hoping they’re not right — that if the absolute worst happens, then, well, screw it, there may be some slim hope of a successful popular uprising.
But I’m actually worse off than the anti-gunners in this regard, because find I myself arguing a position that I’d dearly love to learn is a sick mistake.
My dream for my young daughters and their future children is that the progressives’ faith in the Moral Arc ultimately proves justified. With every nasty glimpse I get of a nascent American fascism, I pray that history really does have sides and that my fellow civil libertarian “gun nuts” and I will be judged harshly by future generations for being on the wrong one. To have history condemn me because I wasted the lives of the innocent and most vulnerable in a pointless effort to secure freedom against a threat that never materialized is the best possible outcome for someone in my position. And boy, does that suck.
Ultimately, then, the private ownership of weapons of war is an issue that pits each side against its own hopes for the future. The anti-gun crowd finds itself arguing for the unassailable tactical superiority of the present neoliberal order, and the pro-gun crowd finds itself making the awful case that horrific deaths in the present are necessary to prevent a dystopian future that it fervently hopes will never come to pass. These rhetorical contortions from both sides of this debate are painful, both to execute and to watch.
Even worse, each side no doubt finds itself in moments of silent envy of the other’s position. There is a strain of old-school leftist that still fantasizes about the revolutionary potential of smallfolk and small arms, while many on the right are bone-weary of America’s costly, endless wars and wish they could live in a world where swords are safely beaten into ploughshares. Neither side, though, is convinced enough by the other side’s vision that they can bring themselves to do more than trade sneers and smears in public.
Thus we find ourselves at an impasse. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Way Forward
I wish I had some clever argument that could reconcile both sides of this debate, but I don’t. I can, however, offer the anti-gun optimists the secret to defeating my side completely and decisively, and fortunately it’s something that we can all agree we want: the return of broad-based prosperity.
To use a metaphor from finance, guns are increasingly a short position on civilization, and they come with all the limitations a short position entails — namely, a capped upside and an unlimited downside. As long as the future of a shorted asset looks grim, people will keep piling into the short side in ever greater numbers. A short position becomes untenable, though, when the outlook for the asset changes for the better and it begins to appreciate, forcing the shorts exit the trade and cover.
Thus the anti-establishment rage and fear for the future that’s surfacing across the developed world is the pro-Second Amendment camp’s greatest ally, because it brings more and more investors into the “short civilization/long guns” trade. (This is true in Europe, as well.)
People watch the collapse of revered cultural institutions and the apparent disintegration of the postwar world order, and they know deep in their gut that the worse things get the more they’ll be left to fend for themselves. So they reach for that one tangible bit of individual sovereignty and political power that’s still left to them: the gun.
If the anti-gun camp wants to change the definition of American gun ownership from “costly but necessary backup plan” to “antiquated and ridiculous waste of lives,” then the best thing they can do is work tirelessly to prove gun owners’ fears wrong by showing us that the moral arc is real and is still at work in our present world.
Note that the recent gay marriage victory isn’t nearly as potent in this regard as the left would like to believe. Marriage equality was marketed as having a massively beneficial impact on a very small slice of the population, and absolutely no impact on the rest of us in our day-to-day lives.
But for all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, there’s still economic stagnation and uncertainty, and in many quarters there’s a spreading fear of getting robbed, raped, or gunned down by the uniformed few to whom the left would offer a total monopoly on force of arms. Leave these fundamental insecurities unaddressed, or give them populist lip service on the campaign trail while working hand-in-glove with well-connected elites to preserve an increasingly shaky and bloody status quo, and gun sales will keep climbing.
I honestly hope that progressives can break the hold of guns on the American imagination by helping to usher in a new era of common prosperity in which legions of formerly anxious gun buyers rediscover that they still have a meaningful stake in this shared project we call “America,” but if history is any guide, I’m not optimistic.