How—and why—Missoula progressives could reclaim guns for the left



Imagine it's six months from now. Your Facebook feed, never mind the newspapers, is still filled with foreign bombings, murky hints of Russian interference and reactionary analysis of the president's tweets. Just under the surface of mainstream discourse, alt-right groups continue to exacerbate tensions, engaging in public fist fights with anti-fascists and trolling the Internet with hate speech.

As an engaged citizen, you've attended local resistance efforts, marching in support of science and open borders. Such demonstrations have been happening with at least monthly regularity, so it's no surprise you've begun hearing rumblings about plans for a far-right counter-demonstration in Missoula. You're skeptical—the neo-Nazis who announced their protest of a Jewish real estate agent in Whitefish turned out to be a false alarm, after all.

As the scheduled day approaches, the group amps up its rhetoric. They start talking about carrying firearms openly, about showing Missoula what the alt-right is really made of. You try to brush off the implied threat, but it becomes harder and harder to unknot your stomach.

The day finally arrives. The whole city is anxious. This time, they actually show up.

Crowds of MAGA-hat-wearing young men (and a few women) swarm downtown. Some are sieg heiling, others hoist signs featuring Nazi symbology. Many of them are carrying: pistols, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles. In assembling, armed, they are exercising their rights—open carry and public protest are perfectly legal in Montana. And yet their presence feels clearly like a threat. The police are aware, of course—the demonstrators received the proper permits—but shy of actual violence there's nothing the cops can do.

  • cover illustration by Charlie Wybierala

Counter-protesters soon show up and line the streets. Paleoconservatives and neo-Nazis hurl insults at the spectrum of anti-Trump Missoulians. Resisters hurl insults back.

Then a shot rings out. Maybe someone fired into the sky as a warning. Maybe the shot was fired into a crowd, or at some protester in particular. Regardless, the street is suddenly thrown into chaos. Whatever intangible barrier separated the two sides collapses, and within minutes downtown is engulfed in violence. Rocks and punches are thrown, and guns are drawn. But just one side has the guns.

Soon, the police will swoop in with their full arsenal of military-grade response gear and quell the riot, but the police can't be everywhere.

Now let's say you're at this demonstration. Let's say you're black, or Jewish, or transgender, or Native American, or Latinx, or liberal, or poor. You're unarmed, and your belief that something like this could never happen here has just been shattered. Empowered by the violence, a 20-year-old kid storms toward you with a 9mm pistol on his hip.

Do you run?

Alternately, let's say that the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2017, shook you to your core. You couldn't get past the fear, born of the candidate's campaign rally thuggery and the embrace of white supremacists, that the country had taken a turn toward the threatening. So let's say that, in response, you went to a pawn shop, or a sporting goods store or Walmart, and you put $500 on the counter and left with a gun. You took some classes and got a concealed carry permit. You know how to use it.

And let's say, in downtown Missoula, mid-riot, with an armed kid charging you, you have your gun with you.

What would you do?

Throughout history, both the political left and the political right have found occasion to take up arms, from the FARC in Colombia to the Bundys in Oregon. But in America, mainstream gun culture tends to favor conservatism.

The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that 41 percent of gun owners in the United States identify as conservative, with only 23 percent considering themselves liberal. The National Rifle Association gave 99 percent of the roughly $1.1 million it spent on campaign contributions in 2016 to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Gus Hemphill, 23, in his apartment. Hemphill studies the development of far-right movements at the University of Montana. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Gus Hemphill, 23, in his apartment. Hemphill studies the development of far-right movements at the University of Montana.

Far-right individuals and groups make up just a fraction of conservatives, but Montana is no stranger to their influence. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in February that of the 917 hate groups currently active in the United States, seven are based in Montana. Five of those groups are considered anti-Muslim, and two are primarily white nationalist. (Whitefish is the occasional stomping ground of Richard Spencer and his white nationalist National Policy Institute.) Such extremism has a long history, but SPLC claims that its prominence and visibility has increased dramatically following the election of Donald Trump.

That election, and the newfound prominence and visibility of right-wing extremism, has leftists—Marxists, anarchists, socialists and some Democrats—reaching for their holsters. After the election last year, NBC reported that minority groups fearful of an uptick in hate crimes were arming themselves in response. And the BBC reported that FBI background checks for gun sales on last year's Black Friday, just weeks after Election Day, set a new single-day record.

Today, the threat of far-right violence is palpable for many Montanans. In an age when neo-Nazis threaten to storm Whitefish and white supremacist propaganda litters Missoula synagogues and gas pumps, opponents and potential targets of newly empowered racists, nationalists and fascists have reason to be scared, and motive to recalibrate their response.

Nick Campbell, a 27-year-old independent construction contractor and musician in Missoula, started learning to shoot from his parents when he was 5 years old. Today he's the very picture of a working-class anarchist, wearing jeans and a T-shirt revealing a tattoo of a black cat on his triceps, a symbol of the anarcho-syndicalist union the International Workers of the World.

Campbell, whose ideology centers on workers unionizing to take control of the economy, didn't form his far-left beliefs until getting into the Missoula punk scene as a teenager. That's where he began to see violence as a potentially necessary force against racism, and for self-preservation. He watched racists try to force their way into a music scene that didn't want them. And he watched members of the scene fight them off physically. "That's what made them leave," he says.

Campbell thinks that people beholden to certain ideologies simply can't be reasoned with, because they fundamentally don't respect the rights of other people to exist. What an avowed racist may consider a different point of view is experienced by others—especially members of traditionally targeted and marginalized groups—as a threat to their safety.

"The ability to effectively defend yourself is a fundamental human right," Campbell says. "In a world where guns exist, that means you need to be able to own and competently use a firearm."

The notion of armed self-defense resonates with Sean Rudolf. The 23-year-old Missoula janitor inherited his .22 rifle, a family heirloom, which he leans in the corner of his downtown apartment, fully loaded magazines at the ready.

Rudolf lets me inspect the gun, a beautiful old Ruger, as he tells me about his politics. He is genuinely fearful of the climate engendered by the Trump administration.

"However much we want to put faith in these bodies that are supposed to guide us as a country, those are the people that make me scared," he says. "I don't know what the future holds," he says, but he wants to be prepared.

Rudolf, who had always been agnostic about guns, came to see the benefits of gun ownership after watching Schindler's List. He says the film made him reflect on the ability of the state to tear families apart, and an individual's helplessness in the face of that power.

For many leftists, such fear isn't confined to the federal government. In Montana, largely untouched by immigration enforcement, it can sometimes feel like we're beyond the influence of D.C. What's more concerning is what freshly empowered far-right citizens are up to.

And alt-right groups are starting to take up arms. Vice co-founder and former Fox commentator Gavin McInnes' group, Proud Boys, a faux fraternity dedicated to espousing the virtues of Western culture and male chauvinism, recently declared the formation of a "military wing." The group gained momentum after its violent response to Ann Coulter protesters in Berkeley, California. (McInnes ended up reading Coulter's speech after she canceled, citing a lack of support from the university.)

Nick Campbell, 27, target shooting with an AK-47 near Miller Creek. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Nick Campbell, 27, target shooting with an AK-47 near Miller Creek.

It's such non-governmental threats that have Gill Wiggin, a 27-year-old Missoula bike mechanic, worried.

"I am much more afraid of nongovernmental militant right-wing groups that feel inspired or mobilized by the current political climate than I am of the actual Trump government," Wiggin said.

Wiggin and Campbell both say that friends and acquaintances have recently begun taking steps to educate themselves on firearm safety and usage.

Wiggin considers—and owns—guns both as a practical tool for hunting and an instrument of self-defense. While he said he knows he could never stop a large-scale violent action by himself, that doesn't mean he intends to leave himself personally defenseless.

There's plenty of American precedent for armed self-defense. The black struggle for civil rights saw an oppressed group and its sympathizers responding to violence from both the state and organized individuals. Police officers turned hoses on pro-rights demonstrators, and Klan members killed and terrorized black people.

But while the civil rights era is consistently lauded for its nonviolent resistance, from sit-ins to bus boycotts, and regularly deployed as a counterexample by critics of violent resistance and armed self-defense, that narrative is flawed, according to Charles Cobb Jr., author of This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Cobb's book asserts that gun ownership and armed self-defense were integral to the movement's success.

"Nonviolence, which most people use to characterize the Southern civil rights movement, doesn't really have very deep roots in southern black communities," Cobb says in an interview with the Independent. "The deeper tradition is one of self-defense."

That impulse to self-defense isn't confined to history, and its role in the struggle for equality is now becoming associated with new groups, including leftist gun clubs.

Two—the Huey P. Newton Gun Club and the John Brown Gun Club—have nationwide affiliates and chapters. The former, founded in 2014 and named after Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton, concentrates on community patrols and armed demonstrations against police brutality. The latter, longstanding but known as Redneck Revolt since 2009, is named after abolitionist John Brown, who encouraged armed revolution as a means of overthrowing slavery. It has a chapter in northern Idaho.

George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, says that groups like Redneck Revolt show that bearing arms as a leftist isn't just about self-defense—it's about building movements.

"Too often, people reduce it to a question of armed force, when it's actually much more importantly a political question," he says.

Maher, who researches armed self-defense movements in Mexico, describes self-defense as a radically political act, pointing not only to black Americans resisting racism, but unionists and laborers fighting back against corporatism—a dynamic with a rich history in Montana's mining economy of the early 20th century.

"It's important to understand that something happens to people when they defend themselves," Ciccariello-Maher says. "They grow, they develop, and they gain a certain degree of autonomy. That's a certain part of what people on the left are trying to build. We're saying that we're capable of building communities that defend themselves."

Building community, however, usually means doing so with like-minded people. The idea faces a special challenge in the United States, where the two-party system reflects and helps shape sharp divisions over ideological issues like gun ownership. Here, where there's a very limited tradition of revolutionary change, movement building is also about winning over the other side.

Not all leftists see the merit in armed self-defense, but some do believe that guns have the potential to build bridges between diverse elements of a divided working class. That's what Gus Hemphill, a 23-year-old University of Montana student of far-right movements, thinks. Sipping coffee from a "Feel the Bern" mug in his immaculately clean apartment, he occasionally gestures to the array of weapons—three rifles and a handgun—on his kitchen table, all unloaded and displayed for a reporter's visit.

"To expect that a Montana liberal should be against gun ownership is kind of ridiculous, given the idea that they're supposed to be representing their constituency, much of which does own weapons," Hemphill says.

Hemphill's guns are for hunting and target shooting, not for self-defense. He's careful to acknowledge the dangers posed by semiautomatic guns. He barely missed being present for a 2013 shooting at Santa Monica Community College when he was enrolled there. But even so, he sees liberal resistance to guns as counterproductive.

In Montana, 1 in 57 people has a concealed carry permit, according to the Great Falls Tribune. The same report says that 61.4 percent of Montana households contain guns, with an average of three guns per owner.

Campbell, the Missoula musician, thinks that if Democrats dropped their traditional support for gun control, they could gain a supermajority. He says he encounters many conservatives who are politically concerned almost exclusively with guns, and that he usually finds little to disagree with them about other issues.

Campbell thinks gun violence is a condition more of poverty than of access to firearms, a result of basic needs going unmet. He says Democrats should focus on addressing economic inequality.

"Democrats and liberals really planted themselves on the side that guns are the problem, gun culture is the problem, and that if we could just get rid of these pesky guns, then all of this violence would stop, which is an insane notion," Campbell says.

Say it's a few weeks after Inauguration Day, and you walk into a sporting goods store. You pass the bowie knives and the fishing poles and continue to the back, where the guns are.

Maybe you grew up around guns, maybe you didn't. Maybe you spent your childhood shooting at prairie dogs with a weatherbeaten .22, or maybe your parents moved here from New Jersey and told you they'd disown you if you ever carried a gun. Maybe you've never even touched one.

Nick Campbell loads a 9mm pistol during target practice. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Nick Campbell loads a 9mm pistol during target practice.

For a long time, maybe you thought the world was a better place without guns. The near-constant stream of mass shootings, many of them perpetrated by misanthropic white men fearful of multiculturalism, may have left you wondering if Australia, where guns are nearly impossible to obtain, might be a better place to hang your hat at night.

But now everything is different. You could be a Democrat, you might be a Marxist, or you may be entirely apolitical. What matters is that you're afraid. What matters is that the news terrifies you, that the glares and scowls have started to increase in frequency, that the sight of a red baseball cap makes you turn a corner and walk the other direction.

What matters is that you want to survive the next four years.

Your security no longer seems a thing you can take for granted, and so you plunk down $500 for a handgun. It's small, and could easily fit in a holster under your jacket. You don't want to use it—you have no intention of shooting anyone. But you immediately feel safer holding it. For the first time since November, you feel like you have some power.

You learn how to assemble and disassemble it, and you store it responsibly. You apply for and receive a concealed carry permit. Should the alt-right come to town with guns blazing, at least you won't go down without a fight.

You'll probably never use it, but just knowing that you could is a radical act. The right has known this for years. But now you, pushing back against groups and ideologies that would deny your humanity, are showing that the left can know it too. Whether it's a matter of feeling a little more secure or building a movement that might lead to a more equitable and interconnected world, the gun you now own signals a kind of resistance more pronounced than protest.

Guns have always been a means to an end, and preventing the infliction of violence is just one. The construction of a new, more inclusive, and more secure left could be another.


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