Sara Robinson of Seattle, Washington, is chatty, affable, and obviously liberal. For years the former writer for Alternet has been a member of a tight-knit community of activists who write and organize around progressive causes. Or at least she was a member, until her “tribe,” as she calls it, effectively banished her in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. “I was forced out,” she says.
Robinson, a registered Democrat since the Reagan era, is also a life-long gun owner. And almost as soon as news of the massacre broke, her relationship with her left-leaning circle began to fall apart over the issue of firearms.
As she and her peers discussed the tragedy—with Robinson speaking as a reform-minded but unapologetic, gun owner—email correspondence with her peers quickly devolved. Friends told her they would never allow their children into her home knowing guns were in the house—no matter how responsibly they were stored. Within weeks, she was pushed out of an online list of “tightly bonded peers” she had co-founded herself. “People who had once valued me as a person capable of great balance and nuance were suddenly characterizing me as some kind of pistol-packin’ Bonnie Parker. I kept saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is me we’re talking about here,’” she recalls, “‘don't you know me better than that?’ It was like losing family, or your church.”
For a long time, being both liberal and a gun owner didn’t seem like a big deal. “Guns were certainly an issue,” Robinson says, “but owning firearms wasn't enough to get you tossed out of the movement.” After Sandy Hook, though, that changed “with a speed that was truly breathtaking.”
“I think the uptick in vitriol from the far right has driven people toward us,” says Mark Roberts, the founder of the Liberal Gun Club. “People recognize us as an alternative to the NRA. They’ve felt ostracized by not thinking that Obama is an ‘evil, islamo-fascist who’s going to take their guns.’”
With each new shooting in America—the couple who killed two police officers and a civilian yesterday in Las Vegas; Elliot Rodger’s rampage last month in Isla Vista, California; and last week’s violence at Seattle Pacific University among the most recent—the issue of gun control surges to the forefront of national debate. Anti-gun liberals seethe with frustration that nothing has changed, and gun advocates tighten their ranks. As this dynamic of polarization intensifies, many Americans have found themselves shunted into the no-man’s land between camps. Increasingly, among liberals, owning a gun is a dirty secret. Among gun advocates, being a liberal is much the same.
And yet, according to Gallup, there are some 16 million liberal gun owners—pariahs to some of their progressive peers, and refugees from America’s NRA-dominated gun culture.
Many left-leaning gun owners are finding a home in alternative groups like the Blue Steel Democrats—the official state gun caucuses of the Democratic party—and the Liberal Gun Club, an online forum and meet-up group for people who share an interest in guns and also respect each other’s political beliefs. (Despite the group’s moniker, politics vary widely among members.) It’s a sort of Universalist Church of Gun Owners, where all are welcome.
“I think the uptick in vitriol from the far right has driven people toward us,” says Mark Roberts, the founder of the Liberal Gun Club. “People recognize us as an alternative to the NRA. They’ve felt ostracized by not thinking that Obama is an ‘evil, islamo-fascist who’s going to take their guns.’” At shooting ranges, some of which require NRA membership, liberal gun owners often fear revealing their politics to their fellow shooters—and for good reason. The gun movement has become fierce in enforcing discipline within its ranks. Last December, when the prominent gun journalist Dick Metcalf penned a column in Guns & Ammo magazine arguing that “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be,” there was immediate, harsh backlash. According to the New York Times, “Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Death threats poured in by email. His television program was pulled from the air.” Metcalf was fired within days.
At the same time, most of the LGC members I interviewed report having strained or lost friendships among fellow liberals on account of their interest in guns. Some would speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing business, friendships, or both. Within Sara Robinson’s progressive circles, she says, “attempting to objectively explore the research that might lead to truly effective gun policy—the tack we would have taken with any other issue, and which I really wanted to pursue—just got me tagged as an apologist.”
Outside of the Liberal Gun Club circle, many left-leaning gun owners have found there’s not much room for their perspective in public gun discourse. Their arguments fall between the cracks. For example, Ed Gardner of the Boston LGC chapter dismisses the typical pro-gun line about “freedom from tyranny, stand[ing] up against the government.” But at the same time, he argues that guns offer an especially important measure of protection to minority groups usually identified with the left. “Our transgender, LGBT, African American members, they’ll talk about real oppression,” he says. “The police aren’t going to come. That’s meaningful defense.”
Given the incredibly wide cultural gulf that seems to yawn between pro- and anti-gun advocates, it can be easy to forget that there are many routes to gun ownership in America, for liberals as well as for conservatives. Some left-leaning Americans find themselves arming up in response to a specific threat. (One man I spoke to south of Detroit bought his firearms after his daughter was beaten and raped by her ex-husband. “The next day she had new door locks, a 12-gauge pump, and a .38 snub nose. That ended the assaults,” he told me.) Many, like Sara Robinson, started young, growing up with rifles in rural areas where firearms, hunting, and gun safety were an integral part of life. In my reporting, I spoke to a Denverite who grew up Buddhist but armed on his family’s homestead in the Colorado mountains; a Bostonian who spent his childhood on a Midwestern farm; and a Christian Texan therapist who got his first BB gun as a young child, but whose peers at his Unitarian church largely view guns as “instruments of death” rather than a “recreational hobby.” And some left-leaning Americans were simply taken to a gun range and had a good time.
But some liberals own firearms and defend gun rights for more political reasons—ones that are vaguely reminiscent of the left-wing cause that, in an oft-forgotten twist of modern American history, spearheaded the modern gun rights movement: The Black Panther Party’s opposition to gun control, and its belief in firearms as a measure of protection against the police. In my reporting, I spoke to a “militant leftist” in Portland who is considering opening a gun co-op. And I spoke to Marlene Hoeber, a transgender machinist living in West Oakland—not far from the original seat of the Black Panthers—who started her gun collection with a modern replica of a 19th-century black-powder revolver and is now “swimming” in firearms. She views her gun ownership as a political act.
Hoeber, who knows all too well what it’s like to suffer from prejudice, admits that her affinity for guns is an odd fit. "The gun is the symbol of violent power," she says. "And obviously it is the bully who fetishizes violent power. The gun is the symbol of the bad cop, the Klansman and the gangster, the people who the leftist impulse seeks to oppose." Yet she owns firearms in part because she is not sure she can count on—or trust—the police. As a trans person, she knows that hate crimes happen, that some people would wish to do her harm, and that it might be up to her to protect herself. Hoeber’s perspective on gun safety legislation echoes many within the LGC: “Changing whether someone has to wait 10 days or 11, or a magazine that holds 10 rounds or 11 has no impact on who’s going to get shot in West Oakland tomorrow. Giving people equality of education and opportunity, proper medical care, not isolating people in food deserts where basic nutrition is nearly impossible and groceries are limited to corner liquor stores—changes in gun laws aren’t going to impact any of that. It’s a sideshow, an excuse for not doing any of the things we know will actually make shit better.”
That liberal gun enthusiasts often feel forced to be quiet about their gun ownership is a symptom of what Hoeber sees as a failure on the part of the progressives she normally agrees with politically. Sara Robinson agrees: “As progressives, we’re certainly not supposed to be about driving people into closets and hiding pieces of their identity.”
For Robinson, her experience has been “devastating.” She’s pulled back from almost all of her online progressive circles. She stopped attending gatherings. She’s walked away from her blogging career, as well as most of those friends. “The change over the past year has been fairly dramatic,” she says. “It’s kind of incomprehensible to me. As a liberal, I tend to look toward deeper problems, not the guns, but the problems people have that makes them turn to guns.”