Socialist Rifle Association member James Pogue’s long piece at Harper’s is worth a read. He mixes a hard leftist’s paranoid view of a racist, authoritarian, overclass-dominated America with some very lucid views on the the role of guns in society and the meaning and importance of the Second Amendment.
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.”
– James Pogue in Good Guys With Guns: Why the Left Should Arm Itself