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

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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.

click to enlarge 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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