In 2018, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, I helped organize a protest at a gun show being held at our county fairgrounds. I live in Indiana, just across the border from Chicago, so guns bought in my hometown often make their way to Chicago, which has much stricter gun laws. Unfortunately, Indiana state laws prevent local governments from passing any ordinance to restrict gun shows in their towns.
Around the same time, my daughter, together with two other girls, organized a walkout at her high school, coinciding with student-led school walkouts all over the country. It was her first act of political activism which she had initiated. I was really proud of her.
But if I was being honest with myself, even then I was more ambivalent about guns and gun control than my actions at the time suggested. Gun control is part of a constellation of positions that all good progressives are supposed to support. And after Parkland … and the Pulse nightclub … and Sandy Hook … and Las Vegas … and on and on … I found myself caught up in the progressive outrage. The problem, it seemed obvious, was guns, especially assault rifles. And the solution seemed equally obvious, to ban them.
Now it’s four years later, and yet another mass shooting has happened, this time about an hour from my home, in Highland Park, IL, and at a Fourth of July parade of all things. Both parents of a now-orphaned toddler are among the dead, as is an elderly man in a wheelchair. This latest shooting comes on the heels of the Robb Elementary massacre this past May, recently released footage of which shows police standing by while children are being murdered. And once again, my progressive friends are organizing to protest gun sales at the county fairgrounds. I understand the impulse. But I won’t be joining them this time.
In the past four years, my views about guns and gun control have changed significantly. I always had a nagging sense that there was a disconnect between the mass shootings which sparked progressive outrage and the policy reforms progressives proposed. How prevalent are mass shootings anyway, compared to other forms of gun violence? Would stricter gun laws actually have even kept guns out of the hands of the perpetrators of these mass shootings? Once my outrage cooled a bit, I started to look at the issue a little more objectively. Here’s what I came up with …
1. We have a lot of guns in the US. There’s way more guns per capita in the U.S. than any other country. Americans have 2 ½ times as many guns per capita as the next country (Yemen), 4 times as many guns per capita as Canada and Switzerland, 6 times as many as France and Iraq, 10 times as many as Mexico and Russia.
2. We have a lot of gun deaths in the US. The U.S. has 4 times as many guns as Canada and 6 times as many gun deaths. The U.S. has 25 times as many guns as the U.K. and 100 times as many gun deaths. (All figures are per capita.) Obviously, guns make it easier to kill people. However …
3. The majority of US gun murders are by handguns, not rifles. Semi-/automatic rifles (especially hard-to-define “military-style” “assault rifles”) get all the attention in the news. But it’s actually handguns that kill most people. None of my progressive activist friends seem to be talking about that. And none of the gun control reforms proposed by them would do anything about handgun murders.
4. The majority of deaths by firearm are suicides — almost double the number of homicides. After that comes gang-related gun homicides. And after that domestic violence-related gun homicides. Again, the gun control reforms proposed by my progressive activist friends would change very little about these forms of violence. Like researcher Leah Libresco, each of these circumstances seems to me to require its own specifically-tailored policy response: mental health access for older men who make up most suicides, interventions for urban youth, and protections for women in domestic relationships.
In addition, it seems that there is a deeper problem than mere access to guns. There is a compelling logic to the argument that taking away the instrument of violence would decrease the violence. And yet, as Dario McCarty explains in an article in the Berkley Political Review, “Why the Left Has the Gun Control Debate All Wrong”, this argument ignores the person committing the violence. “Gun control cannot be the definitive answer to the mass shooting question when it does nothing to reconcile that which drives these violent, deranged individuals.” (More on that in a minute.)
It seems to me that a big part of what motivates progressive anti-gun activism is simply a fear of guns. That fear is largely bred by unfamiliarity. Two-thirds of gun owners grew up in households with guns. Almost twice as many men as women own guns, and men are several times more likely than women to have participated in gun-related activities growing up.
I grew up in a household with a gun (a small revolver), though gun-related activities were limited to the Boy Scout summer camp shooting range. For years, I thought about buying a gun for our household, but fear kept me from doing so: fear that one of my children would find it and shoot themselves or someone else, fear that I might accidentally shoot a family member in the dark, fear that I might accidentally shoot myself, and even fear that I might shoot myself purposely during a period of depression.
Eventually though, I did buy a handgun. I took a class in gun safety together with my wife (attended mostly by Black women, I was pleased to see). And I’ve since taken my son to the gun range for recreational shooting. Handling the gun, shooting it, cleaning it, has helped me feel more comfortable, not just with my own gun, but with guns in general — though I retain a healthy respect for their dangerous potential.
What caused me to buy a gun finally? How did I get over my fear of guns? How did I shed my progressive prejudice against guns? I think a lot of it has to do with my changing view of the future of society.
According to the Pew Center, generally speaking, the more liberal a person is, the less likely they are to own a gun. I think this has less to do with guns specifically and more to do with how liberals and conservatives view society. Conservatives generally see society as a competitive, even adversarial, environment, whereas liberals tend to view it as cooperative, at least in the ideal. Guns make a lot more sense if you see society as inherently adversarial, and a lot less sense if the goal you are working toward is broad-scale cooperation.
As I have become more aware of the slow (and yet accelerating) collapse of industrial-capitalist civilization, my view of society (and hence guns) has changed. Once upon a time, I hoped for a Star Trek-like utopia. Now, I’m anticipating some combination of The Handmaid’s Tale (on Hulu), with its right-wing armed insurrection, government-endorsed religious fundamentalism, and regressive sexual politics, and Incorporated (on SyFy), with its collapse of governmental institutions, unchecked corporate power and privilege, and massive refugee camps.
Over the next several decades of my life and my children’s lives, I expect to see continued economic decline within, as the elites suck the world dry, and increased immigration from without, from countries hardest hit by climate change and most exploited by global capitalism. Because of this, there will be increased racist hysteria and fascist fearmongering in the US — in other words, Trump to the n’th degree. There will be increasingly frequent environmental disasters, increased pandemics, mass migrations, food and water shortages, expanding war and ethnic conflict, governmental collapse, and the rise of charismatic authoritarian strongmen.
These are not good times to be unarmed.
I know most of my progressive friends still have faith in … well, progress. They don’t believe civilizational collapse is inevitable. But, even if they disagree with me on that, more and more of them are coming to see that we are in for some bleak times ahead. Trump, unchecked climate change, the January 6th insurrection, the overturning of Roe v. Wade-these are hard-to-ignore signs of decline, if not collapse.
So my question to my progressive friends is this: Do we really want to be unarmed when a well-armed fascist movement gets organized enough to take matters into their own hands?
And I don’t believe we can count on the government to protect us. For one thing, I don’t think they were ever there to protect us, not really. They are there to protect the property of the privileged, and that is all. For another thing, the government-from Congress to local police-are being increasingly infiltrated by the far right. At best, the police are ineffectual, as the footage from the Robb Elementary massacre shows. At worst, they are a fifth column for fascism. In any case, they cannot be counted on to save us.
This is something that many people of color already know. As Dario McCarty explains, progressives’ position on guns is really a function of privilege. Even Martin Luther King and Gandhi recognized the right to use violence in self-defense. King himself applied for a gun permit after his house was bombed. As Charles Cobb explains in his book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, guns kept people alive during the Civil Rights Movement.And I believe we need them now for the same reason.
McCarty goes on to argue that the root cause of gun violence in America isn’t guns. It’s America itself, specifically America entering the throws of late stage capitalism. The symptoms of this are gross economic inequality and an unprecedented level of social isolation, combined with a deeply rooted racism which has existed since America’s founding and has never gone away.
“It is here, in this crucible of inequality and solitude, that the alienation of these mass-shooters is incurred. … Society has signaled to these individuals all their life that they deserve more because of their skin color, that they are worth more than that which they’ve been dealt, and they lash out in violence. They do so because they cannot understand why they are disenfranchised; the false ideological tint of racial superiority they’ve adorned to understand their life was a lie, and it cannot explain the class inferiority they are experiencing.”
— Dario McCarty, “Why the Left Has the Gun Control Debate All Wrong” (Berkley Political Review)
This explains not just mass shootings, but also the recent manifestations of right wing extremism, from Charlottesville to January 6th. If McCarty is right and if economic inequality and racial scapegoating is only going to increase, then the gun violence we are seeing is just the beginning. No amount of gun regulation will change that. At best, it will be ineffective. At worst, it will keep guns out of the hands of people (especially people of color) who really do need them to defend themselves.
As my politics have shifted, I have discovered the truth of the statement, “If you go far enough left, you get your guns back.” There is actually a long history of leftist advocacy for gun ownership as a protection against both private racist violence and state-sponsored violence. It turns out, some of those Second Amendment folks are right: Sometimes the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.