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

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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.)

click to enlarge 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."

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