early and often

‘Self-Defense Is Self-Care’: How the Growing Ranks of Left-Wing Gun Owners See the Election

Americans of all political stripes are arming up in 2020. Photo: Keith Srakocic/AP/Shutterstock

“For anyone that talks about how Biden will take their guns, remind them that we had 8 years of Obama/Biden where that never happened,” reads a popular post in a progressive subreddit. “But Donald Trump has definitely suggested he would take guns away from people without due process.” The average liberal who supports much stronger gun-control measures may understand this as a criticism of the Obama administration, but this wasn’t posted in your average left-leaning internet forum. It comes from r/liberalgunowners, a Reddit community of over 100,000 people who defy the archetype of the gun-hating cosmopolitan Democratic voter.

Gun control tends to be a clear red-and-blue issue in American politics, but the general uptick in gun ownership among people across the political spectrum — 2020 will be a record year for firearm sales in the U.S. — points to the possibility that the Democratic Party may include more gun owners in the future than it has in the recent past. In rapidly growing online and real-world communities, there’s a sizable, vocal bloc of progressives who are voting for Biden but think the Democratic Party’s position on gun control is backward.

Plenty of lefties liked guns before Trump became president, but the escalation of right-wing violence on top of a global pandemic has made things feel extra apocalyptic for a lot Americans in blue states. “The demographics of gun buyers appear to be shifting, too,” reports Politico. “Retailers are selling to more women, and more Black men and women, than in previous years.” The membership of r/liberalgunowners has also grown enormously this year. In November 2018, it had around 24,000 subscribers; in 2019, it reached 39,951; and now it has over 100,000. A recent poll posted in the subgroup asked, “Do you expect calm or violence eruption in the U.S. after election night 2020?” If the poll is a good indicator, about 80 percent of the subgroup’s members foresee postelection conflict.

“You can’t say you’re for civil rights and have a civil right you’re absolutely interested in curtailing,” says Lara Smith, the spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club, an organization founded in 2008 that provides gun-skills courses for as little as $10 a year and has 4,500 members. She says that Democratic lawmakers are totally ignorant when it comes to how guns actually work.

In keeping with national trends, Smith says Liberal Gun Club membership has grown a lot in the past year. “People are really concerned about this particular ultra-right-wing threat they’re perceiving,” she says. “I can’t tell you the number of friends of mine who have always [thought of me as their] ‘crazy gun friend’ who have called me and said, ‘I want to buy a shotgun. I want to buy a handgun. Where do I go?’” She has been hosting beginner shooting lessons in her backyard to meet the increased demand for gun skills that the pandemic and the upcoming election have inspired.

As opposed to understanding firearms as the primary cause of gun deaths in the U.S., the Liberal Gun Club is interested in investigating “root-cause mitigation,” or, what causes violence beyond the easy access to deadly weapons. “If you don’t understand how the tool works, then you don’t understand what problem you’re solving or not solving with it,” Smith says, noting the ineffectiveness of AR bans.

Liberals get “everything” wrong about guns, Adam Selvage, a truck driver who lives in Albuquerque, told me. He started the Facebook page Pro-Gun Democrats in 2012 after going out shooting with his then-girlfriend; they got to talking about how they were the only people they knew who were “incredibly liberal and still like shooting.” At the beginning, his page had likes in the single digits, but eight years later, it has upwards of 2,500 followers and has sprouted a Facebook group where members can chat privately about firearms.

Many of his fellow Democrats, Selvage says, have a negative view of guns “because they know what they see on TV, and the guns on TV are illegal in the United States, for the most part. They get scared because they think guns are just used for killing people.”

Every pro-gun lefty I spoke with expressed dismay at the Democratic machine’s devotion to gun control. It makes sense that the party would come out against guns — after all, a 2019 Pew study found that 86 percent of Democrats and left-leaning independents support stricter gun laws. According to Smith, the push for gun control by politicians like Michael Bloomberg, whose organization Everytown for Gun Safety has poured tens of millions of dollars in digital advertising into this election cycle, is both “authoritarian and Republican” and appeals to “upper-class liberal white women.”

“Here’s the whole thing about Parkland,” she says. “How many Black kids are killed every day? No one cared until it [happened] to a bunch of cute white teenagers. It was when white kids died that people started caring.”

For Yafeuh Balogun, the founder of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, an organization that teaches firearms skills to people of color as part of a commitment to self-defense and “militant culture,” guns are an integral part of his progressive ideology. His father was a marine and Vietnam veteran who was shot in the face in combat. Nevertheless, a formative part of Balogun’s childhood involved his dad teaching him and his siblings how to use guns safely.

Owning firearms, according to Balogun, is a way to have agency over communities that have been failed and brutalized by the police state. “Guns are tools to push toward self-determination,” he says. “In a utopian sense, we would hope for a world that doesn’t need weapons. We would hope that we can have a world where people can live in unity and harmony across the color spectrum. That’s not the case.” (To quote a popular post in r/liberalgunowners, “Armed minorities are harder to oppress.”)

Gun-loving libs are not, to paraphrase Barack Obama, clinging to their guns as a way to express their frustration with being left behind by globalization or whatever. For Randy Miyan, the executive director of Liberal Gun Owners, gun ownership feels like an essential part of the human experience. He gets frustrated with the Democratic Party’s aversion to guns because, he says, it’s ahistorical. “Liberals and leftists treat the 1960s as year zero,” he told me. “We have had a specialized relationship with specialized projectile weapons for 73,000 years. They’re archaeologically normative.”

Liberal Gun Owners, an organization without an official membership model, grew out of a Facebook group and remains mostly dedicated to moderating discussions between its 4,000 subscribers on the social-media platform. Miyan became involved with Liberal Gun Owners shortly after Adam Sorum, one of the few Democrats in his rural Minnesota community, founded the Facebook page in 2007. (The mission of Liberal Gun Owners, which is registered as a 501(c)4, is to provide a community for gun-loving lefties as well as to look for solutions for gun violence beyond gun control.) The earliest iteration of the group, Miyan explains, “was a shitshow of 4chan, 8chan bullshit. Whenever you do something online and don’t put a gate around it, every regressive asswipe and jerko on the internet is going to find you.” When Miyan finally earned the role of moderator, “the new sheriff was in town,” he says. He created a set of rules and protocols to turn the group into a healthy space for gun-toting lefties.

Miyan grew up in a working-class family of Democratic voters in Pittsburgh and now lives in North Carolina, but his affinity for guns is part of his spiritual questing. From age 21 to 31, Miyan studied to become a Buddhist monk, and though he ultimately chose to follow a more conventional path of getting married and having children, his time studying under Tibetan monks taught him the importance of compassion, love, and nonviolence. “There’s a notion out there that guns couldn’t possibly be an extension of compassion, that their very existence is regressive,” he explains. “You can be involved in self-defense and firearms and have that be an extension of love for your kin.”

For Miyan, “self-defense is self-care.” In a similar vein, a recent post to r/liberalgunowners that received 3,700 thousand upvotes shows a sticker on a container of huge bullets that reads, “The tree can’t be harmed if the Lorax is armed.”

‘Self-Defense Is Self-Care’: How Liberal Gun Owners See 2020