In the debates over guns and gun rights in America, it is all too common among both the participants and the audience to assume that private gun ownership is a right-wing value, while support for restrictions on the same belongs to the left. I suspect that this is the result of our big tent approach to politics — the lumping together of broad swaths of the political spectrum — which is itself the consequence of our founders’ belief that parties — they called such things factions — are bad for the nation, even while they were gathering themselves into the same. We have shown a preference for two parties, one in power and one in the opposition, and this is predictable, given the separation of the executive and legislative branches. Gridlock is built into the system intentionally, and treating the process as one of team sports is the byproduct.
I have often argued that the left loses votes in much of the country due to taking a stand against gun rights, and the polling data of ISideWith.com bears this out, especially in the south and west where support for gun rights is strong. And a lot of the country has large minorities saying that new restrictions on gun ownership are not needed. What this suggests is that when we on the left push gun control, we are guaranteeing significant opposition that will bleed over into the key parts of the progressive platform.
Yes, I mean exactly that. Gun control is widely seen as integral to the left-wing’s program, but it is in fact a necessary component of authoritarian governments, regardless of their location on the political spectrum. Socialism or a social democratic party do not have to take this approach.
Consider the thinking on this subject of one of the best known democratic socialists, George Orwell. In his essay, “Don’t let Colonel Blimp ruin the Home Guard,” he argues that private gun ownership is a sign and a support of a free society. His concluding paragraph, quoted frequently by right-wing supporters of gun rights without realizing what they are doing, goes as follows:
“The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do; they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. 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.”
His argument comes out of the period when a German invasion of England seemed likely and thus the British people were forming volunteer defense groups to resist. The problem with this, from the perspective of governments who believe that power belongs to the government and not to the people, is that an armed population can resist any occupying force, foreign or domestic. The response of the British government was, in Orwell’s words, to impose “Colonel Blimp and the old-style sergeant-major” on the militias. The colonel that he has in mind was a bulbous retired officer whose views of the world and England’s role in it come fixedly out of the nineteenth century, the character first drawn by cartoonist David Low. The goal of such types was to organize the militias, drilling them in marching and saluting when irregulars have no need for such activities. The Home Guard as Orwell wanted it to be was something akin to what he experienced in Spain while fighting the fascists, a “democratic People’s Army in which they could take a crack at the Nazis without being bawled at by the sergeant-major in the old-fashioned style.”
To Orwell, personal weapons are a demonstration that the people are in charge, that power is loaned to government by the people. It is a recognition that we must be individually capable if we are to be collectively effective. Progressivism that does not understand this will lose its way, ending up as yet another tired establishment that wonders why the commoners are getting uppity.