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Guns and Partisan Politics

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Did you know you can own a firearm regardless of political affiliation? Of course you did. So, if pretty much everyone, regardless of politics, can own and have owned firearms, why is “the gun” today considered only a tool of the Right?

Too bad that answer isn’t simple. However, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Some may reference the National Rifle Association — see Ackerman McQueen — for what was a successful campaign to unite its current membership base using identity politics. Through their “I am the NRA” campaign, they united people from all walks of life, economic status, races, genders, and sexual orientations through the common need for self-defense. In a sense, they framed a collective political identity for an individual right. That is, of course, as long as you weren’t a liberal snowflake. And on the flip side, recent Democratic politicians have a nasty habit of fighting for gun control, highlighting to many gun owners on the Right hypocrisy in the term “liberal gun owner.” 

But that doesn’t stop them from existing. According to a Pew Research poll from 2018, the political breakdown between Republican and Republican-leaning gun owners versus Democrat or Democrat-leaning gun owners was 44 and 20 percent, respectively. While that certainly shows more firearms ownership amongst the Right, 20 percent is still nothing to turn your nose up at. Furthermore, today, organizations exist for left-leaning gun owners, such as the Liberal Gun Club — founded in 2008. As someone who was a registered Democrat and liberal gun owner when I initially got interested in firearms, I have and continue today to ponder the thoughts: When did partisan politics take over an subject that objectively has no reason to be political at all? And if this is a more recent division, are we beyond the point of stripping guns away from politics and letting it just be the tool that it is? 

firearms and self defense
In the ’60s and ’70s, there were several armed activists movements. On the University of California, Berkeley campus, you could buy a handbook about firearms safety and training and take a firearms training class. The photograph at the left is the cover of the pamphlet, Firearms & Self-Defense: A Handbook for Radicals, Revolutionaries and Easy Riders. This pamphlet was a part of the International Liberation School in Berkeley, California, and published by the Radical Education Project in December 1969.

Unfortunately, the answers to the universe (42) aren’t found in this article, and it probably won’t solve anything. However, this is a mental exercise to speculate from whence partisan politics around the gun came and if it isn’t too late to return to sender.

Liberalism and Guns

When I initially got interested in firearms history, I was a registered Democrat and most of my gun-owning friends were Democrats. Furthermore, as I studied the macro-history of firearms, which spans 500 years, I couldn’t really understand the politicization of guns. In the grand scheme of that history, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that Republicans and Democrats even existed, so how did the two-party system grab such a hold on our guns? 

Prior to the U.S. two-party system, the idea of politics and the gun consisted of who could own them and who couldn’t. This reality hasn’t changed much. However, this usually consisted of discrimination based on race and economic status. In Europe, royalty tried to pass laws that favored nepotism and kept firearms out of the hands of those who could rebel or even assassinate those at the top. In the colonies, our fore brothers and sisters banned the sale of firearms to Native peoples and free Blacks. These laws were so extreme that the punishment in Europe for being caught without a hunting license was death — as was selling firearms to prohibited people in the colonies.

Interestingly, and bear with me on this, an ideology popular among some Founding Fathers was classic liberalism — the political ideal that sought civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom. It’s important to note that there are traits within modern Republican and Democrat parties that align with Classic Liberalism. In fact, some even argue American Conservativism is a resurgence of this philosophy. Thomas Jefferson applied this line of thinking when writing the Declaration of Independence. However, he took John Locke’s classical liberalism, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property,” and changed it to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” — a much more socially liberal concept. Although I’m no political scholar, if liberalism, both classic and social, influenced our Founding Fathers, then it’s probably fair to say it also influenced the Second Amendment.

Not even 50 years after these words were written, individual states fought legal battles over whether firearms were an individual or militia right. In 1813, Kentucky placed a ban on concealed carry, which sparked activism against gun control. In 1822, in Bliss v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, a court case ruled that gun ownership was indeed an individual and collective right. In 1842, State v. Buzzard declared their interpretation to be a militia right. It was also around this time of fighting over the meaning of the Second Amendment and to whom these Rights applied that the Democrat Party (1828) and Republican Party (1854) were formed. 

Liberal Gun Club Range guns and partisan politics
At the range photo of the Liberal Gun Club. If you’d like to learn more about the work of the Liberal Gun Club, go to Photo by John White

As the American Civil War approached, it was evident that at this point in history, Democrats were very much tied to their firearms. So much so that the National Rifle Association was formed after the war because Union soldiers were terrible marksmen in comparison to their Confederate, Democrat, counterparts. After the War, through regulations in the South such as the Black Codes, Democratic politicians often passed laws to keep firearms out of the hands of Black citizens as well as poor rural whites, but they didn’t eliminate Democrats’ use of firearms. They purely wanted to keep firearms out of certain people’s hands — the proverbial “guns for me, but not for thee.”

By the turn of the 20th century though, politics in America was changing. There was mass migration into cities and increased urbanization, reducing the need for firearms and subsistence hunting — which was already damaged during the formation of the conservation movement. Also, during this time, the assassination of President McKinley incited growing unrest in the country and worry about anarchy. Global wars vastly increased the quantity and accessibility of all kinds of firearms, including machine guns that would be used infamously — although not nearly as often as the movies would lead you to believe — by organized criminals. This, of course, all culminated in the National Firearms Act of 1934, supported by a Democrat president and introduced by a Democrat. To be fair though, the National Rifle Association supported it as well.

But even so, that didn’t eliminate gun ownership among liberals and Democrats. It did, however, price out National Firearms Act items for many in the population because affording a $200 tax stamp back then was no easy feat. Nor is it today for many. By the post-World War II period, there was a distinct fracturing among the liberals, Left, and/or Democrats in terms of gun ownership. Many left-leaning academics wrote about increasing levels of gun violence. Some in the feminist and Civil Rights movements embraced gun ownership while others shunned it, leading up to the Gun Control Act of 1968 — more restrictions on gun ownership paradoxically supported by Democrats and the National Rifle Association.

Guns and Partisan Politics lgc officers
National Officers of the Liberal Gun Club. Photo by Daniel Bergeron

And while this summary is oversimplified and certainly not comprehensive of the nuance of the situation, I believe the decline of liberal and Democrat gun support to still be a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, over the past 20 years, the bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus has held a shooting sports competition, pitting Senators and Congressmen against each other for bragging rights. This match took place at a range close to Washington DC. According to former NSSF CEO Steve Sanetti, when he first attended, “the Democratic and Republican participants were about equal in numbers, which emphasized the bipartisan nature of both and the interest of both parties in the shooting sports.” With the reduction of Blue Dog Democrats in rural constituencies, fewer and fewer Democrats have participated in recent years. This particular example involves history so young, it can’t even drink.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

There are certainly a lot of moving pieces here that aren’t necessarily comparable. No one has ever said one political party can or cannot own guns, as has been the case for individual groups of people. And others will point out that the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus is about sport and not self-defense, and therefore doesn’t directly address the Second Amendment. But it’s all these differences that reveal one area that may highlight the reason why gun owners of various political persuasions exist. People have a lot of reasons for owning firearms and not everybody makes defense their priority. Furthermore, not everyone views firearms ownership as a central part of their identity. 

But whatever people’s rationale for gun ownership, the current idea that a firearm must be purely a tool of the Right, while understandable based on many Democrat politicians’ platforms, is really more of a recent development thanks to targeted marketing across the board rather than historical longevity. 

President Kennedy winchester model 70 guns and partisan politics
President Kennedy (D) was an NRA Life Member. The Cody Firearms Museum has several firearms belonging to both Republican and Democrat presidents. Photo by George Dillman; artifact from the Cody Firearms Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

And in the past decade, many new organizations that represent the diversity of gun owners have popped up and continue to expand; however, the discourse among the far ends of the gun-owning spectrum often remains stymied. Gun owners in this country feel alienated enough. Why do we need to fuel such division within our own ranks, only furthering to splinter our cause? Sure, a collective political identity of gun ownership helped to invigorate the NRA base years ago, but this is a very different world we live in — especially this year, with so many new gun owners from all walks of life and belief systems. So, perhaps instead of scaring them off by telling them that they must now be a Republican and believe everything on that platform, perhaps we should focus on supporting one another — which can in the long run impart change from the people to our employed politicians of all political persuasions, as a means to truly represent their constituencies, and not those of their largest donors. I’m looking at you, Bloomberg. And ultimately, perhaps it may get guns out of the hands of political power brokers and into the hands of all responsible gun owners, no matter which side of the aisle they may otherwise identify with.  

guns and partisan politics

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1 Comment

  • Neale Wade says:

    I’ve been a gun owner since I was a youngster, and while I support many liberal goals I strongly support the Second Amendment as a personal right to own guns.

    I’ve been sharing with my friends, both gun owners and non-gun owners, that dividing gun owners into factions that can be pitted against each other is a tactic of the anti-gun movements.

    We, all gun owners, regardless of personal political affiliation or any other “label” must stand together to protect the Second Amendment.

    United we stand and divided we fall.

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  • I've been a gun owner since I was a youngster, and while I support many liberal goals I strongly support the Second Amendment as a personal right to own guns.

    I've been sharing with my friends, both gun owners and non-gun owners, that dividing gun owners into factions that can be pitted against each other is a tactic of the anti-gun movements.

    We, all gun owners, regardless of personal political affiliation or any other "label" must stand together to protect the Second Amendment.

    United we stand and divided we fall.

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