After Alexandria Shooting, Progressives Must Hold Their Own Accountable on Guns and Political Violence

I remember being absolutely repulsed when I first saw the “Defend” tv ad run by Democratic Montana congressional candidate Rob Quist in April of this year.
 
In the ad, Quist wields a loaded rifle and promises to “protect” the gun rights of Montana residents “because it’s my right, too.” Quist then makes reference to his Republican opponent in the race, saying, “I won’t stand by while a millionaire from New Jersey tries to attack my Montana values.” As the ad concludes, Quist levels his rifle and fires at a television set, blowing its screen out. “I’m sending this [message] to protect [my right to bear arms],” he explains.

In his “Defend” ad, “progressive” Democratic congressional candidate Rob Quist took metaphorical aim at his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, who Quist portrayed as an outsider “attacking” Montana values.

I was used to seeing Republicans like Sarah Palin make these types of not-so-subtle attempts to appeal to their constituents’ most base and violent instincts, but I couldn’t believe a “progressive” Democrat in a high-profile congressional race would go there.
 
The Republican that Quist was metaphorically killing, of course, was Greg Gianforte, who would go on to physically assault Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about health care the day before Montana’s special congressional election. 
 
Gianforte being an insufferable a**hole aside, I was surprised how quick progressives were to excuse the “Defend” ad. “Yes, it’s noxious, but Democrats need that seat in the House,” they told me. “Republicans do it, too. Who cares?” Even many gun violence prevention groups failed to speak out against “Defend.” Bill Scher wrote a scary op-ed for Politico on May 24th (“The Issue Democrats Wish Would Go Away”) in which he highlighted the free pass that progressives gave to Quist regarding his hardline pro-gun advocacy. “Quist’s break with the Democratic Party platform hasn’t produced a peep from the activist left,” wrote Scher. “The gun issue wasn’t even raised before MoveOn.org decided to endorse him.” 
 
The problem is that silence comes at a cost.
 
We were reminded of that on June 14 when concealed handgun permit holder James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois attacked Republican members of Congress at a baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia. Armed with an SKS assault rifle and a handgun, he opened fire from the dug-out, shooting and wounding five, including Republican Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who remains in critical condition at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

James Hodgkinson was passionately pro-Bernie, anti-Clinton, and anti-Trump. “Bernie is a Progressive, while Hillary is Republican Lite,” he wrote on Facebook. “Trump is a Traitor … It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”

Hodgkinson didn’t come to his violent anti-government extremism by way of right-wing politics (as is common with mass shooters). Hodgkinson was a Bernie Sanders volunteer. He loved Rachel Maddow. He couldn’t stand Karen Handel. He said things like, “I have never said ‘life sucks,’ only the policies of the Republicans.” And:

There’s a new version of what GOP stands for. It’s not the Grand Old Party anymore. It’s the Greedy One Percenters. I wish everyone could see how by changing the tax code, more than 95 percent of this country’s problems could be solved … We need to vote all Republicans out of office.

Admit it, progressives. That could be any number of people that we’re Friends with on Facebook.

As we confront the reality of a progressive mass shooter, the easy thing for the left to say in this moment would be:

James Hodgkinson was an aberration. His act doesn’t signify any broader support for armed, political violence among the left. Greg Gianforte, on the other hand, is the logical result of a radical GOP that openly embraces political violence. Just look at Donald Trump and his “Second Amendment People” threat, or Alex Jones fantasizing about Wolf Blitzer being shot and killed.

The tougher, more honest thing for progressives to say would be:

Yes, the Republican Party has abandoned its commitment to peaceful, democratic government. They embrace and even applaud politically-motivated violence. At the same time, it is no longer clear that there is consensus support for nonviolence among the political left in this country.

I’ve been concerned for some time about a revival of support for armed political violence on the left, and certainly not just among supporters of Bernie Sanders. It’s broader than that. On the surface level, much of this anti-government rhetoric on the left appears to be simple opposition to — or apathy about — gun control. But there’s something deeper here that speaks to how we see the citizen / state relationship under our democratic system of government. 
 
During the Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders made it clear that gun control was neither his passion nor focus. When Sanders dug his heels in on his 2005 vote for unprecedented legal immunity for the gun industry — a law drafted by the National Rifle Association — his supporters followed zealously. In the process, they trotted out a series of talking points to defend the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” that were originally developed by the NRA. The fact that the law strips victims and survivors of gun violence of their fundamental democratic right to access America’s judicial system seems to worry Sanders’ supporters little if at all. When called on to offer tacit support to the NRA, and embrace a pro-gun agenda, they have done so without hesitation.
 
I believe Sanders has done enormous damage with his callow description of America’s gun violence epidemic. He ignores entirely the problem of gun suicide, even though his home state of Vermont has a high gun suicide rate. [Quick reminder: the Alexandria shooting was an act of suicide as well as homicide.] When Sanders speaks about gun violence, he sees only a black, inner city problem involving gun homicide. His message to his supporters is clear. “It’s their problem, not yours. If they would stop, everything would be fine.” 
 
Combine this sanctified view of gun ownership (the “white good guy with a gun” theory) with some of anti-government paranoia we have seen from the Sanders camp since the Citizens United ruling and you have a dangerous mix.

Semiautomatic SKS rifle with detachable magazine like the one used by James T. Hodgkinson.

We saw that during the Nevada state Democratic convention in May 2016, when Sanders’ supporters revolted after 64 of their delegates were legitimately disqualified (because they didn’t show up, failed to register as Democrats, or didn’t respond to attempts to confirm their contact info). Local Democratic Party offices in Las Vegas were vandalized and Democratic State Party Chairwoman Roberta Lange received a slew of threats via voicemail and email. She was called a “cunt” and “bitch.” One caller told her, “[I’m] praying to god someone shoots you in the face and blows your democracy-stealing head off!” Another said he wanted Lange to be “hung in a public execution.” 
 
Senator Sanders responded not by calling his supporters to task, but by questioning criticism of their actions. “Party leaders in Nevada…claim that the Sanders campaign has a ‘penchant for violence,’” Sanders wrote in his official statement. “That’s nonsense.” Sanders refused to specifically condemn the threats that Lange was subject to, instead referring to his general support of nonviolence.
 
Simultaneously, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was targeting supporters of Bernie Sanders with negative fake news stories about “establishment” Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton. One of those stories claimed Clinton was leading a child prostitution ring in the basement of a pizza joint in Washington, DC. We all know what happened there — a wing-nut on the right (who was getting the same fake news that Bernie’s folks were) — traveled up from North Carolina to “investigate” the situation with his AR-15.

Russia’s targeting of Bernie supporters continues to this day.
 
The irony is that the Sanders movement’s primary ally on the left on matters of guns and political violence is the constituency the senator has most alienated: Black Lives Matters activists and other intersectional advocates. 
 
The BLM movement exhibits the same disinterest in gun policy that the Sanders camp does. If you look at the agenda of the 50+ organizations in The Movement for Black Lives, for example, you will see hardly any mention of gun policy. The one exception is a statement of opposition to laws that force colleges and universities to allow gun-carrying by students on their campuses, under the rationale that this would lead to campus police demanding to be armed as well.
 
The Movement for Black Lives agenda is perfectly reasonable, as is the central source of BLM angst about gun laws — the fear that such laws will criminalize young men of color given the racial disparities in our justice system. Of course, you could make that argument about any area of law or regulation in America (What type of laws haven’t been used to discriminate against people of color at some point in history?), but criminalization is nonetheless a valid concern in an era of mass incarceration and overt bigotry against black Americans.
 
One would hope, however, that there is room for compromise between gun control advocates and intersectional activists. For example, agreeing to reduce sentencing for offenders of the two primary federal gun crimes (felon in possession of a firearm, and possession of a firearm during commission of a drug-related felony) in exchange for an expansion of gun purchase prohibitions to include those convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes (i.e., assault, battery). I have never met any gun control advocate who denies that our our criminal justice system is racially biased and in need of reform. There is growing consensus on the left and right that mass incarceration policies have been a failure.
 
The problem is that legitimate skepticism of government among intersectional advocates is sometimes taken to the extreme. Recently, I read a white paper from a disability rights advocate who suggested doing away with background checks on gun buyers altogether. The argument was that background checks unfairly criminalize people of color, the LGBTQ community, and the disabled because the American criminal justice system is inherently discriminatory, and screening for criminal and/or mental health background is not an accurate gauge of who is likely to be violent. No mention was made of the potential impact on public safety of allowing individuals convicted of violent felonies to buy firearms without prior screening.
 
Increasingly, intersectional advocates are opposing gun laws as harmful and even immoral. In recent decades, that is an argument that has only been made by activists on the far right wing of politics. It’s a huge departure for a progressive community that has long recognized the need to better regulate firearms in America in order to reduce our astronomically high gun death rate. 
 
I’ve also seen support for the concept of violence against government in the intersectional space. I had a conversation with a well-regarded BLM activist in a private Facebook group during the unrest in Ferguson. He defended the #WeShootBack hashtag and sanctioned the use of “justified” gun violence against agents of government (police). It was essentially the same argument I see on a daily basis from pro-gun supporters of Cliven Bundy (or George Zimmerman, for that matter). Later, this activist introduced a policy agenda that suggested (further) arming America’s urban communities because “people have a right to feel safe.” Contrast this with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote, “I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house … Had we become distracted by the question of my safety we would have lost the moral offensive and sunk to the level of our oppressors.”

Johnson was an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He had no criminal record and was not affiliated with any terror groups. He was upset about recent police shootings of African-Americans

Remember, too, that James Hodgkinson isn’t the first mass shooter the left has disowned. When black nationalist Micah Xavier Johnson killed five police officers and injured nine others on July 7, 2016 at a Next Generation Action Network protest against police brutality (a righteous cause, we’d all agree), there was no debate on the left about violent, anti-government ideology. And it wasn’t just Johnson who took up arms against the government that night. There were a total of 20–30 protesters who showed up openly carrying assault rifles! Some wore gas masks, bulletproof vests, and fatigues, according to Dallas Police Chief David Brown. 
 
Can you recall any progressives talking about whether that type of armed protest by the left was conducive to our democracy’s health? I can’t, even though Chief Brown made it clear that the open carriers in Dallas made a dangerous situation worse when officers at the scene had to take time to detain them as potential suspects in the chaos that ensued. On the other hand, progressives never hesitate to cry foul when white, right-wing open carry activists make the same type of implicit threat of violence against our government.

Micah Xavier Johnson was not the only citizen who brought an assault rifle to the protest against police brutality on July 7, 2016. 20–30 other open carriers showed up bearing rifles. Some wore gas masks and body armor. Several were detained in the chaos that followed.

And does anyone want to talk about the fact that Marissa Alexander just testified in support of a successful expansion of the already lethal “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida? The law will now effectively put the burden on prosecutors to prove their case not once, but twice, when shooters like George Zimmerman take a human life in a public confrontation they otherwise could have walked away from safely. [Editor’s Note: Both Jordan Davis’ mom, Lucy McBath, and Trayvon Martin’s mom, Sybrina Fulton — along with many other gun violence survivors — spoke against the original “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida and its expansion.]
 
I suspect we will again hear silence, because many progressives turned Alexander into a hero after she fetched her concealed handgun from her car and walked back into the house of her abusive (and unarmed) husband to fire shots at him as he stood next to his two children, ages 9 and 13. Alexander knew the two boys were in the house. Thankfully, no one was hit by her bullets.
 
Look, I’m not saying it’s the 1970s again, with groups like The Weather Underground or Black Panthers running around engaging in actual violence, but in an era of Trumpism — where fears regarding government violence and the loss of individual rights feel legitimate and urgent — it’s not clear that there is consensus support for nonviolence on the left anymore.
 
The rule of law is eventually going to catch up with dictator-wannabe Donald Trump. As progressives, we have to have some type of positive vision of the America we want to live in after he is removed from the White House.
 
I can’t understand why anyone would want to live in an America that makes it even easier for people with a history of violence to legally obtain firearms and ammunition (or even an America that maintains our current, macabre status quo on firearms). Furthermore, as progressives, we embrace the Federalists’ view that an energetic, capable government is necessary if we are to fully realize our individual liberty as Americans. Why would we possibly want to allow individuals to engage in armed violence against that government when they personally decide it has become “tyrannical”? 
 
I don’t want to see another Alexandria. As a progressive, I am not OK with the next mass shooter being one of our own. We are far better than this. There must be accountability. This is our community.
 
 If there are some on the left who have bought into the NRA’s perverse “Insurrectionist Idea” regarding the citizen / state relationship, make your voices heard now. Suggestions that the solution to our political problems can be found at the end of a gun barrel must no longer be might with silence by progressives. It’s time for a robust debate about the civic health of our democracy.
 
Finally, the DNC and other organs of the Democratic Party might wish to ponder whether the debate over guns during the Democratic presidential primary had deeper — and darker — meaning than originally presumed.

[Update: The co-chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party technology committee, Phil Montag, was fired on June 22 when an audio recording emerged of Montag saying, “I’m glad [Rep. Scalise] got shot. I’m not gonna f***ing say that in public ... I wish he was f***ing dead.”]