Democratic members of Congress recently staged an around-the clock sit-in to demand that gun-control legislation (their slogan was “No bill, no break”) be passed by the House of Representatives. This unification by Democrats reveals how, with a few Republican exceptions, they have owned the issue of gun control, pardon the pun, lock, stock and barrel. They proudly point to an honorable tradition of gun-control measures extending back to FDR, and continued by LBJ, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
They have a point. President Roosevelt did propose and sign into law the first federal law gun-control act. Alarmed by the trigger-happy bank robbers, like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, who shot up civilians and policemen and then escaped across state lines, the new administration in 1934 advocated the national registration (and taxation) of all firearms. Gun owners were alarmed and Congress responded by watering down the bill to only tax machine guns and sawed-off shotguns—weapons only used by gangsters. The bill kept handguns, which they deemed necessary for people to protect their homes, from having to be registered or taxed. Lawmakers argued that the lack of police presence in rural areas necessitated that individuals own weapons.
The baton was then picked up by FDR’s protégé, President Johnson, in 1968. Fueled by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Johnson signed into law a measure that banned ordering rifles and shotguns through the mail (Lee Harvey Oswald had ordered the rifle he killed JFK with through the mail) and barred felons, drug users, and people deemed “mentally incompetent” from buying guns.
In 1993, President Clinton signed into law a ban on assault weapons for civilian use. Today, President Obama has taken a number of executive actions on gun control such as extending “background checks for guns purchased via a trust or corporation”; “requiring a license and background check for conduction for all gun distributors” (including those sold at gun shows, which previously did not require demand backgrounds for buyers); and “extend[ing] data for background checks and response times.”
Hence, at first glance, it would seem the argument that the political Left has always been the agent of gun control seems valid. But upon closer examination, this has not always been so, even today. If one defines the Left as peopled by liberal Democrats, civil rights activists, and Bernie Sanders socialists, then there have been a considerable number of Leftists who have supported the Second Amendment.
To begin with a Democratic President who did not fit the mold, President Woodrow Wilson envisioned the same kind of governmental tyranny as the National Rifle Association today if a citizen’s right to bear arms were curtailed by federal legislation. Likewise President Kennedy, while doubting that the kind of state tyranny envisioned by the Founding Fathers if gun control were enacted was a genuine worry, said in 1960 that
The Second Amendment still remains an important declaration of our basic civilian-military relationships in which every citizen must be ready to participate in the defense of his country. For that reason I believe the Second Amendment will always be important.
For blacks in the 19th century South, as we know, the nightmare scenario that had haunted President Wilson was very much a reality. As Historian David Kopel has noted, in the 1800s, “gun control laws were exclusively a Southern phenomenon.” The only people allowed guns in the antebellum South were whites. Blacks found with weapons were often executed on the spot. After the Civil War, nervous whites—Democrats, all—feared freed slaves’ having access to guns and made weapons bans part of their punitive Black Codes. So determined were they in this endeavor that when the federal occupying authorities deemed the Black Codes illegal, gun control for blacks was enforced after hours by the Ku Klux Klan.
Given this history, it is understandable that some of the firmest proponents of gun ownership in the 20th century were black Americans. “Article number two of the constitutional amendments,” Malcolm X argued, “provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.” Even such proponents of nonviolence as Martin Luther King, Jr. purchased a firearm and installed armed guards around his house (one visitor likened it to an armory). The cornerstone of the self-styled Maoist group the Black Panthers rather worshiped guns.
Nor were white socialists against gun ownership. Eugene Debs, a four-time socialist candidate for President, saw gun control as a means for capitalists to install a tyranny over a weaponless working class. (Debs would pay the price for such views; he was jailed by President Wilson for criticizing American involvement in World War I.)
Another world war later and across the ocean, another socialist would oppose gun control. George Orwell, who, as Christopher Hitchens once wrote, was “conservative in many things but not politics,” supported the right of the citizen to bear arms. Some might say that it was only natural that a former coolie-crushing colonial policeman such as Orwell would be a gun enthusiast. But Orwell viewed gun control through a politically socialist, not a law-and-order, lens:
That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.
These sentiments were based on hard-worn experience. As a soldier on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was aware that it was only the citizenry breaking into the armory that 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, having the misfortune of belonging to a Trotskyite militia, engaged in street fighting against these gun confiscators.
And so, personally aware of how a tyrant crushed his 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 that a home-grown fascist coup and/or separate peace would never happen. Predictably, the Colonel Blimps among his countrymen worried about any sophisticated weaponry getting to these “Reds” and sought to halt it. A better example of gun control cannot be imagined—but Orwell believed that the Home Guard should remain weaponized beyond the war so as to protect individual liberty.
For those government officials such as Vice President Biden, who assert that the populace doesn’t need sophisticated weaponry (read, assault rifles) to protect themselves, George 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, however, when owned solely by the government “make the strong stronger.”
Hitchens, Orwell’s fellow Briton, would contradict the Nation’s editorial stance against guns in the 1990s by writing his own defense of gun ownership in the magazine. 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 fails, 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.”
Today, this socialist support for gun rights is present in the form of the erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders came under considerable criticism from opponent Hillary Clinton for his gun-control stance. In the 1980s, 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.