I’ve always been curious how American progressives got on the anti-civil liberties side of gun control. It strikes me as a grave strategic error. I have written elsewhere about the extreme difficulty liberals and progressives face in engaging the working class. I have also been highly critical of their tendency to get sucked into “lifestyle” campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-obesity, vegeterianism, etc.), owing to the strong class antagonism this engenders in blue collar voters.
Contrary to the stereotypes portrayed in the corporate media, class differences – and class hatred – are alive and well in the US. From the perspective of a blue collar worker, the progressive movement is the middle class. They’re the teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, lawyers and religious leaders who make the rules for the rest of this. Thus when they tell us not to smoke, eat big Macs, or buy guns, we don’t see this as political reform. We see it as an extension of their (privileged) class role.
Here in New Zealand, young upwardly mobile professionals manifest the same zeal as their American counterparts for anti-smoking and healthy eating campaigns. However there’s no gun control lobby here. It would be unthinkable in a country where one third of the population lives in cities. Gun ownership and proficiency are fundamental to the Kiwi way of life, especially in rural provincial areas.
The History of Progressive Opposition to Gun Control
For a progressive to take a stand against gun control is a pretty lonely place. However I’m not utterly alone. There’s a 1979 book edited by Don Kates entitled Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. There’s also an organization called the Liberal Gun Club, whose mission is to “provide a voice for gun-owing liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legalization, firearms safety, and shooting sports.”
Then there’s Sam Smith’s excellent article in the Preogressive Review: “Why Progressives Should Stop Pushing for More Gun Control Laws.” Among Smith’s numerous arguments, three leap out at me: the exacerbation of “cultural conflict” between rural and urban and wealthy and not so well off, the tendency for gun restrictions and prohibition to be intersect with a drive to restrict other civil liberties, and the need for progressives to stop treating average Americans as though they were “alien creatures.” He seems to share my view that progressives lose elections as much because of their condescending attitudes as their issues.
In January 2011 (following Representative Gifford’s shooting and renewed calls for gun control), Dan Baum wrote in the Huffington Post that progressives have wasted a generation of progress on health care, women’s rights, immigration reform, income fairness and climate change because “we keep messing with people’s guns.” He likens gun control as to marijuana prohibition – all it does is turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals and create divisiveness and resentment.
How Progressives Came to Oppose the 2nd Amendment
None of this explains how progressives got on the wrong side of this issue. US gun manufacturers wrote the first gun control legislation in 1958, in an effort to restrict Americans’ access to cheap imports. However, owing to civil liberties implications, the bill encountered stiff Congressional opposition. Finally in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson played the race card and used the inner city riots to pass a watered down version of the industry’s original gun control bill. It required gun dealers to register guns and ammunition, banned the mail order and interstate sale of guns, and instituted a lifelong ban on felons (even on non-violent convictions) owning guns.
Progressive research into gun control generally makes two equally salient points: 1) the aim of gun control legislation is to control people (mainly disenfranchised minorities and the poor), not guns and 2) in countries with strict gun control laws, the use of deadly force is restricted to the police and army, as ordinary citizens aren’t trusted to play any role (including self-defense) in maintaining law and order.
Using Gun Control to Control African Americans
America’s extreme preoccupation with gun control appears directly related to their 200 year history of slavery and oppressive Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation. As Steve Ekwall writes in the Racist Origins of US Gun Control,and Clayton Cramer in Racist Roots of Gun Control, the targeting of blacks with early gun control laws is extremely blatant.
In the south, pre-civil war “Slave Codes” prohibited slaves from owing guns. Following emancipation, many southern states still prohibited blacks from owning guns under “Black Codes.” This was on the basis that they weren’t citizens and not entitled to Second Amendment rights. After the 1878 adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which formally acknowledged blacks as citizens, southern states imposed high taxes or banned inexpensive guns, so as to price blacks and poor whites out of the market.
Ekwall also quotes gun control advocate Robert Sherrill, author of The Saturday Night Special and Other Guns (1972). Sherill states unequivocally that “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, not to control guns, but to control blacks.”
Ekwall goes on to describe the unprecedented 1965-68 race riots in 125 American cities, in which the violence was graphically magnified by extensive TV coverage. The paranoia this engendered in the corporate and political elite was greatly heightened by Stokely Carmichael and other Black Panthers openly advocating violent revolution and the well-publicized protests (and police riot) at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
The Last Pro-Gun Democrat
As Joe Bageant writes in Deer Hunting with Jesus, the 1968 pro-war Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey uttered the last breath of Democratic sanity over the gun control issue. It’s really sad how radical he sounds in 2014:
“The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”