Lefties Embrace Guns at Risk of Political Suicide

This op ed is a response to Knute Berger's recent article, "Ashcroft May Teach Liberals to Love Guns," published last week on AlterNet.

Knute Berger (AlterNet, February 13, 2001) calls on liberals to abandon our support for gun control and instead take up arms -- literally -- as a means of advancing a progressive political agenda. Mr. Berger's argument is based on dangerous misconceptions, and heeding his advice would be politically counterproductive.

Mr. Berger castigates liberals for disarming. If he means that at some point most liberal or leftists were armed, he's clearly mistaken. If he means that we should arm ourselves to advance our political goals, Mr. Berger is guilty of an astonishing misreading of modern American history -- it's as if he's learned nothing from the experiences of the Black Panthers or the anti-war movement.

Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan in the first quarter of the 20th century is the clearest example of the successful use of armed force by a civilian group in pursuit of a political agenda -- and the Klan owed its success to government complicity rather than resistance to the state.

It's not clear what Mr. Berger would have liberals do with our guns: would we have stormed the Senate to stop the Ashcroft confirmation dead in its tracks, so to speak? Will armed demonstrators persuade lawmakers to move left? Will we spend the next four years hooting over the latest Republican wimp jokes? (What do you call a conservative politician who has never been threatened by an armed liberal? Damned lucky.)

Equally disturbing is Mr. Berger's inability to comprehend how the current lamentable state of the union's gun laws contributes to the oppressive state of the union. In many inner city communities, young African American and Latino men are, in fact, already armed. The result isn't a progressive politics energized by the threat of violence, but rather internecine slaughter, with the attendant human tragedy, fueling calls for the same failed tough-on-crime policies that have decimated communities of color, drained resources that could be used more productively, and provided conservatives with a stalking horse that they have ridden to power for decades.

Mr. Berger argues that gays and lesbians can benefit more from embracing gun ownership than from legislative change. If the rest of the country is any guide, gays' and lesbians' guns more likely will be used to settle quarrels among friends violently, end domestic disputes with a note of finality, and turn a passing impulse into a permanent solution (the majority of all gun deaths are suicides), than to offing homophobic attackers.

Mr. Berger suggests that American Jews' experience indicates that guns can work political magic for gays and lesbians because Jews have been "empowered" by self-defense. Armed Jews? In the US? That most liberal of liberal (read: unarmed) groups? On the contrary, Jews won enfranchisement through economic prosperity and communal organization -- and the willingness to leverage them in the political arena -- not by the antics of fringe groups like the Jewish Defense League.

Conservative gun culture harbors a deep suspicion of the rule of law. The NRA's leadership and the militias share the view that the Second Amendment safeguards the individual's right to rebel against tyrannical government. Leaving aside the legally well-settled fact that the Second Amendment does not refer to individual gun ownership, the framers of the Constitution clearly did not intend the Second Amendment to grant individuals license to rebel (the Constitution is clear on the framers' distaste for rebellion). Disputes over justice must be played out according to the rule of law, not the rule of violence. That's why gun control can't be abandoned to advance a liberal agenda: gun control is integral to any liberal agenda worthy of the name because it embodies the liberal principles of respect for the rule of law and the notion that government can and should be used for the common good as well as for the protection of civil liberties.

Indeed, the main lesson to be learned from examining Mr. Berger's suggestions is that only peaceful political action -- which includes civil disobedience -- can bring desired change. It worked in the past, and there's no reason to believe that it can't work in the future -- and every reason to believe that abandoning it for armed violence will bring nothing but repression and de-legitimization, setting back our work even more than the outcome of the recent election did. Embracing guns would be political suicide for the left.

Joel Streicker received a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Stanford University, and is currently is a policy analyst for a national gun control organization. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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