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Many On The Left Used To Strongly Support The Right To Defend Oneself With A Gun

bernie sanders
Image CreditGage Skidmore/Flickr

Black civil rights leaders and socialists believed gun ownership offered protection from racists and dictators.

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The horrific shootings at Uvalde Elementary School have once again brought gun control into the national debate. The political divide remains the same; with Republicans defending the Second Amendment and Democrats demanding more stringent gun control to allegedly stop such shootings from occurring in the future.

This issue is so partisan that it is hard to remember that once upon a time there wasn’t such a clear divide between right and left.

In 1934, crediting trigger-happy bank robbers such as Bonnie and Clyde, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed and signed into law the first federal gun-control act. The bill involved the national registration and taxation of all firearms.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress were alarmed about this threat to gun rights, and gutted the bill to taxing only shotguns and machine guns — weapons at that time only used by criminals. They protected the rights of pistol owners from registration and taxation, asserting that rural landowners did not have quick access to police protection and thus needed to defend their homes.

After the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 signed into law a measure that would ban ordering rifles and shotguns through the mail (Lee Harvey Oswald had ordered the rifle he killed JFK with through the mail) and kept felons, drug users, and people judged “mentally incompetent” from buying guns.

Republicans including actor Jimmy Stewart and future National Rifle Association (NRA) president Charlton Heston supported the bill. Heston appeared on TV to back the bill:

This bill is no mystery. Let’s be clear about it. Its purpose is simple and direct. It is not to deprive the sportsman of his hunting gun, the marksman of his target rifle, nor would it deny to any responsible citizen his constitutional right to own a firearm. It is to prevent the murder of Americans.

The Left Once Supported the Second Amendment

But what is most surprising about the history of the gun control debate isn’t that once upon a time Democrats and Republicans banded together against gun control legislation or that Heston, once the most public face of gun rights, supported restrictions on gun ownership by an uber-liberal president. It is that many on the left, in contrast to those today who line up en masse for gun control legislation, have supported the Second Amendment.

Given the police and vigilante violence against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, support of the Second Amendment was one matter that united Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who otherwise differed considerably. Malcolm X asserted that American blacks should own a weapon, as did King, who owned a gun and traveled with armed guards.

Even white socialists, in contrast to the Democratic Socialist Party today, opposed gun control. Eugene Debs, a four-time socialist candidate for president in the early 1900s, saw gun control legislation as a means for capitalists to install tyranny over a weaponless working class.

The Rifle Is a Symbol of Democracy

George Orwell, a fervent socialist, supported the right of the citizens to bear arms. Orwell saw this issue through a leftist and not a law and order lens: “The rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or laborer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.”

Orwell’s sentiments were based on experience. As a soldier on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was aware that only the citizenry breaking into the armory initially repelled Francisco Franco’s fascist-backed rebellion.

When Joseph Stalin, who “backed” the Loyalist side, sought to import his murderous purge trials into Spain, and thus kill off any non-communists on the Loyalist side, his first order of business was confiscating the Loyalist fighters’ weapons. Orwell, who belonged to a Trotskyite militia, engaged in street fighting against these gun confiscators.

So, personally aware of how a tyrant crushed a weaponless opposition, Orwell was determined for this never to happen again. In 1940, when a Nazi invasion of his native Britain seemed all but imminent, Orwell joined a citizen’s militia, the Home Guard, which was deliberately modeled on the “people’s army” of Spain (many of the volunteers had fought there). This group was tasked with protecting England’s bridges and railroads and, if necessary, fighting from house to house.

But Orwell saw a bigger role: that of ensuring a home-grown fascist coup would never happen. Predictably, the Colonel Blimps among his countrymen worried about any sophisticated weaponry getting to these “Reds” and sought to halt it. Orwell also believed that the Home Guard should remain weaponized beyond the war so as to protect individual liberty.

Protection from the Government

For government officials such as President Joe Biden who assert the populace doesn’t need sophisticated weaponry (read: assault rifles) to protect themselves, Orwell can again be consulted. In a postwar essay, “You and the Atom Bomb,” he noted that when there is “no answer to it,” “rifles” are “inherently democratic weapons” and “gives claws to the weak”; complex weapons, when owned solely by the government, “make the strong stronger.”

The late Christopher Hitchens, in many ways Orwell’s socialist heir, who once wrote for the far-left Nation magazine, opposed their editorial stance against the Second Amendment. In the 1990s he used his column in the magazine to defend gun ownership. As an immigrant to America he found, “I have, gradually, come to think that there is something truly admirable in a country that codifies the responsibility to self-defense.”

Like Orwell, he thought it wise to prepare for the possibility that gun owners “might have to muster against the state.” What he saw in the United States was instead “cowering citizens” whose fearfulness caused them to turn more and more power for their defense over to the “military-industrial complex.”

Rather than demanding protection from the government and, when that failed, cheering on vigilantism, Hitchens urged the “revolutionary” and very much “in the American grain” idea of citizens’ being in charge of their own self-defense. Reviving the idea of a “well-regulated militia” would destroy the need for a military-industrial complex. Rather than viewing the NRA as the enemy, Hitchens saw the group as essential to this scheme by providing weapons training for the citizenry to “be accompanied by a reading of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

Socialist Sanders Opposed Gun Control

Even socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders as late as the 2016 presidential election had a less knee-jerk condemnation of gun rights than he does today. His then-primary opponent Hillary Clinton condemned Sanders’s record in the 1980s regarding gun legislation. In that period, this self-declared democratic socialist voted against the Brady Bill, which required federal background checks for firearms purchases.

Sanders also voted to prevent lawsuits against gun manufacturers, to allow guns to be transported in checked baggage on Amtrak trains, and to prohibit foreign aid from going to any international efforts to restrict gun ownership. In response to the Sandy Hook shootings, Sanders stated: “If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen.”

As one can see from the rarely mentioned history of gun support on the left, the same concern that the NRA expresses today, of a weaponless citizenry being tyrannized by a weapons-confiscating federal government, was shared by a variety of people on the left. Black civil rights leaders, black separatists, and black revolutionary groups believed their only protection and liberation from racist whites was gun ownership. Socialists feared that a weaponless working class would usher in a dictatorship by capitalists.