For a country founded in revolution, the United States has a strikingly barren tradition of successful armed revolt. In the nation’s two centuries of history, its government has only once faced a real existential threat from within — the insurrection of the Southern slavocrats — a rebellion infamous both for its perfect villainy and its utter defeat. The spirit of American (mis)adventurism has, of course, never shied away from fomenting unrest abroad — “Support the Texan slave-importers against Mexico!” it shouts at one moment; “Topple Allende!” it demands at another; “Arm the Afghani Mujahedeen!” it snarls; “Support the Free Syrian Army?…the liberals?…the Islamists?…Assad?” it squeaks weakly today — yet our own militants have disappeared from the national memory. John Brown’s body does indeed molder in the grave. Seattle is famous for Starbucks and the Space Needle, not for its general strike. The Black Panthers are remembered as the “dark side” of the Civil Rights Movement, a distraction from the nonviolent heroics of men like Martin Luther King. In order to be extolled in the canons of American history, radicalism must be baptized in the same pacific waters as were Thoreau and Tolstoy.
Given this history (and its distortion), the American Left’s unease with civilian ownership of firearms is unsurprising (when I say the American Left, I mean the kind of person who voted for Obama twice, but felt funny about it the second time). The rifle has never been an agent for the kind of social change the Left desires. Rather, it has acquired a twofold meaning in the Left’s imagination. In the first case, the rifle is a symbol of reaction, wielded alternatively by robed Klansmen, misogynistic mass murderers, and Jesus and Jingo Republicans. In the second case, it is a factor of inner city social disintegration, a tool that, when paired with racism, institutional poverty, and the vicissitudes of the capitalist economy, results in blood and dead bodies. One or another of these evils is inscribed in every shell casing in the United States.
I do not mean to caricaturize the Left-wing gun control advocate. Their concerns are significant and should be treated as such. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, we suffer from four times as many murders annually as do the United Kingdom and France. Likewise, the almost daily terror of mass shootings is an unhappily American phenomenon. What Swarthmore student did not feel a heaviness in their chest when they heard about a 4chan troll threatening Philadelphia colleges? Whether or not this fear of being shot by a masked gunman is rational (the typical American has a very low chance of being murdered, and an even lower chance of being killed in a mass shooting), spree killings become more common, it has become an increasingly regular American anxiety. The problem of violence in the United States is a serious one, worthy of both careful thought and forceful action. If the proper solution to that problem requires increased regulations on civilian gun ownership, then so be it. The question of what exact form those regulations ought to take — background checks, bans on high capacity magazines, required liability insurance for gun owners — I leave to statisticians and policy analysts. My main goal here is not to endorse or denounce specific legislation. Rather, I want to suggest that the Left ought to reexamine its ideological relationship with firearms.
The American Left has a great fear of discussing political violence. This is in large part justified: political violence is generally horrifying. It is easy to romanticize revolution in the abstract, to imagine bare-breasted Liberty leading the people. It is much harder to contend with the glut of blood that revolutions produce; Robespierre and the Jacobins left a prodigious number of bodies in their wake during the French Revolution. Movements that promise justice via murder deliver mostly murder. The 20th century proved to be a particularly cruel testament to this fact. Time and again, communist movements rose to power by the sword and ruled by the sword. An ideology that promised salvation and dignity for all humanity brought instead tyranny and common ruin, due in large part to the self-perpetuating nature of the violence its leaders were willing to employ.
The mainstream of the Democratic Party does not belong to the same ideological and political tradition as revolutionary socialism. But a substantial portion of its post-1960s intelligentsia has been influenced by the New Left, an intellectual movement that attempted to extract certain positive elements from the socialist tradition while rejecting the totalitarian excesses of the Soviet bloc. To oversimplify a terribly complex political idea, the New Left eschewed the Marxist idea of popular proletarian revolution in favor of more focused but tangible victories — racial equality, the breaking down of patriarchal gender roles, LGBT rights.
The New Left was right to do this. Proletarian revolution in the Marxist-Leninist model is generally inefficient, barbarous, and grossly immoral. It is better to learn to live with those who oppose you than to kill them. The new political paradigm privileges a certain class of agent: the non-violent activist, who typically organizes within a marginalized community and agitates for change to that community’s condition. This activist’s agitation often, but not always, aims to force the state to offer the community certain concessions, but the activist does not traditionally attempt to seize state power. They work outside but in parallel to the mainstream political system.
The activist model has proven tremendously effective at achieving certain kinds of change, particularly of a cultural nature. But in privileging this model above all others, we are at risk of dismissing legitimate uses of violence. Some conditions are so intolerable that they absolutely justify defensive force, even if that force is ultimately ineffectual. The Jews who rose up in Warsaw against the Nazis were heroic even though their rebellion was doomed from the outset. While their militancy could not stop the German war machine, it allowed the Jews in Warsaw to make a revolutionary choice: to die by their own terms, in combat, rather than in extermination camps (which is not to denigrate those who did not rise up; no one can in justice judge anyone’s response to such an impossible situation). The raid on Harpers Ferry was similarly justified by the profound inhumanity that was American chattel slavery.
These are extreme examples, obviously; they were responses to conditions that do not currently obtain, and hopefully will never obtain, in the United States. But the principle remains: the oppressed have a right to defend themselves with force in response to violations of their fundamental rights. The Left needs to seriously consider what the full implications of this right are. It is fundamentally absurd to claim with one breath that the police systematically victimize African Americans, only to call for confiscation of all firearms with the next. This is not a call for present day political violence by any means — our system is far from perfect, but progress and the redress of grievances are still possible within it. It is merely recognition of the fact that the future is not guaranteed. One need not be an absolutist about gun rights to understand that.