Barreling Toward Revolution: The American Horseshoe on Gun Rights

Gun rights exemplifies one of the strangest aspects of American politics: the political horseshoe of the far left and far right. On at least a few notable issues — international trade, non-interventionism, and guns — political opinion converges around a libertarian consensus as you move further away from the center. 

In the present moment, when mass shootings plague our schools and bullets scar both the flesh of innocents and the nation’s psyche, the issue of guns in the American imaginary cannot be understated. I walk around Walmart with an eye on each shopper to make sure they’re not reaching too deeply into a backpack. Black and Brown bodies litter the sidewalk while police officers fidget with their pistols, fingers unaware or unwilling to understand that behind the façade of metallic justice are real bullets, real bones, and real lives. My cousin can’t remember a school year where he didn’t practice sheltering in place. We live in a world of blood. 

What, then, when faced with such atrocity, is the fundamental allure of guns for the leftist?

For the right, at least, a consistent ideology underpins their support for gun rights. It is to those who preach socialism (and its “democratic-” variant) as the brightest political project, as a project guided by humanitarian kindness, that we must ask: what mental gymnastics justify not only a support of gun rights, but an enthusiasm for wielding as a tool such dangerous weapons? I ask this genuinely — it is an impulse I personally feel and a question I personally need an answer for. How can I believe in the unparalleled importance of universal healthcare, understand the fundamental violation of life and autonomy allowed by our uncaring government, and still be so fascinated by the idea of rifles and pistols?

When I was in Missouri working for Senator Claire McCaskill, I went to a gun range to try out shooting a pistol. It was a great experience, and the casing from one of the bullets sits on my dresser to this day. I hope to get a chance to try again some time — the woman who taught me how to aim said I would be a great shot with just a bit more practice. When the Capitol insurrection occurred on January 6, my housemate and I had many discussions about the national escalation of violence. ‘Awful, terrible news. We can’t let that happen. Look how thuggish they’re being. We stand by a principle of kindness. Where is the nearest gun store?’ 

After a few months of reflection, the idea that drove me to such thoughts is clearer. This paradigm is not the only driver of the American obsession with guns — the forces of marketing, conservatism, the idea of the “frontier, are among numerous other factors — but it is certainly a large if not the most significant one. For Americans today, whether on the left or right, the myth of the armed revolutionary survives. 

This phenomenon draws its origins in the American Revolution. It is a narrative hidden in elementary-school history books, where the “first” of the great American intellectuals emerged victorious in their quest for moral victory after British despotism both necessitated and justified taking up arms. The revolutionary was only fully realized if thought manifested into action on the battlefield. The intellectual revolutionary became synonymous with the military revolutionary, with the armed revolutionary. And thus the myth was born. 

Two hundred years later, the myth survives and gave way to a subtle, unsaid assumption held simultaneously in contradiction with standard American rhetoric: while democracy is good, there’s a point at which the strength of a grievance justifies its dismissal. The 20th century working class, brought up under this mythos, became alienated. At that moment, the horseshoe formed. It’s no surprise that on both the far left and the far right, the two political camps that tend to attract those who feel most alienated by the current political-economic realities, there is lust for this fiction. The assumed response to failed government is revolution, and the call to arms, quite literally, provides this working-class base with a way to chant along without being “anti-patriotic.”

I won’t pretend to be able to convince those on the right of anything. So let me simply finish off with a hard truth, one I have yet to internalize but that I hope we on the left can recognize and in doing so bring together our coalition with parts of the liberal one: the armed revolutionary died a long, long time ago. The myth of the armed revolutionary is just that: a myth. A pistol in your pocket and a shotgun on your lap is not going to do jack s**t when the government sends a missile-equipped drone to your doorstep. They can assassinate the top general of a country thousands of miles away and barely make a splash. You, in your home in West Virginia, don’t stand a chance. 

The future of our movement requires that we abandon all pretensions to being the vanguards that the government is plotting against. The underground revolutionary left is a vestigial politic of playing-pretend. The most radical action of our day is not to plot an attack, and it is certainly not to fantasize about one. It is to get down and dirty, and to recognize that the work to bring about the world we want is not going to be fun or easy. It is the reality that we need to organize a disparate, separated, and purposefully fractured working class and prove that our interests align. And the interest of life — of not having our children shot dead in the street or in the schoolyard — is prime among them.