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To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The "Progressive" Myth of Gun Control

Excellent article by Dave Kopel at Reason (via Hit & Run): "Brothers In Arms: How civil rights flowed from a rifle barrel." It's the second in a two-part series (first part here).

In the first part, Kopel described the prominent place of gun control in the so-called "Black Codes" of the post-Civil War period.

Another important example of gun control in the 19th century, which he didn't mention, was the firearm registration or confiscation measures promulgated by governors of states under martial law, during the Copper Wars out West. To see a more recent example of the important role armed self-defense played in the U.S. workers' movement, get your hands on a copy of Matewan, an excellent indie movie set in the 1920s during the West Virginia Coal Wars (it features some great hillbilly music in the soundtrack, if you're into that sort of thing). Of course, we know how important an armed citizenry was in Spain. In July 1936 Franco, bridling at the left-wing coalition that controlled the government and the number of factories coming under the control of workers' committees, attempted a coup d'etat. In roughly the south-eastern half of Spain, however, the workers' militias managed to drive Franco's forces into their barracks.

Anyway, the narrative of armed self-defense in the 20th century civil rights movement, as Kopel recounts it, is fascinating.

One of the more inspiring stories is that of the defense of the Monroe, NC chapter of the NAACP, organized by Robert Williams.

Civil rights volunteers, in groups of 50 a night, took turns standing guard at Albert Perry's house. They dug foxholes, piled up sandbags, and kept steel helmets and gas masks handy. They also stockpiled over 600 firearms.

On the night of October 5, 1957, a Klan motorcade approached the Perry house. The civil rights workers opened fire, having been told not to shoot unless necessary.

As you might expect, it became necessary. The outcome was described by Julian Mayfield:

The fire was blistering, disciplined and frightening. The motorcade of about eighty cars, which had begun in a spirit of good fellowship, disintegrated into chaos, with panicky, robed men fleeing in every direction. Some had to abandon their automobiles and continue on foot.

Robert Williams later wrote the book Negroes With Guns, and went on to figure prominently in the Black Panthers.


Blogger Beowulf said...

As a Brit, the idea of the population running round with guns kinda horrifies me(plus I feel I have more liberty knowing my fellow man cannot take my life from me or coerce me via an implied threat of violence. yet I see it a logical outcome of stateless society. So I am quite confliced about the whole idea of personal weaponry...

March 02, 2005 2:22 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Well, since you live in the UK you obviously know better than I do where the shoe pinches. But I've heard a lot of horror stories from Brits about houses robbed in broad daylight when the owners were at home, because the burglars knew they'd likely be unarmed. I've also heard some bad stuff about even non-firearm self-defense being virtually criminalized in such cases.

On the plus side, though, your cops haven't gone so far as ours in militarized thuggery and viewing the public as an occupied enemy.

March 02, 2005 3:18 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Yes an un-armed police force is a good thing, tho' that might be changing with all the anti-terror crap that's flying around here at the moment.

In terms of defending ones property I see no problem with using non-lethal force to do so, in fact the UK courts recognise this. Crime rates vary throughout the UK, where I live in Wiltshire it's less than 2% with property crime actually decreasing.

March 02, 2005 4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"On the plus side, though, your cops haven't gone so far as ours in militarized thuggery and viewing the public as an occupied enemy."

Kevin - are you confusing cause and effect? A country with an armed populace is one with a jittery and fearful police. It's also one where the police have a good alibi once the bullets start flying. "He had a gun." "Shots came from the compound first." Or, most alarming for those of us who aren't armed, "when he went for his wallet, I thought he was going for his gun".

I'd gladly exchange my opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory for a world where a cop is worried whether he'll be brought up on charges if he kills me.

Love the blog, btw. Weird and challenging for a classic liberal like myself.

- msw

March 02, 2005 4:46 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, msw. You may be right about police violence being aggravated by a fear the "bad guys" are armed.

But I think the biggest factor is the militarization of their culture through the drug war, SWAT teams, joint training with the military, etc. It's not just how they spontaneously treat people they encounter on the street, either; it's the lengths they go to, in cold blood, to harass and frame up those they regard as their "enemies," including political dissidents.

March 03, 2005 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Aster said...


If I may ask, have you any idea how to sell weapon rights ideas to European or (in my case) Kiwi liberals? Here everyone is instinctually frightened by the idea of an armed society, and I confess I share that fear.

Nevertheless, weapons are perennial poetic props, and one cannot prohibit weapons without doing violence to a symbolic language of self-assertiveness. Video games, RPGs, hunting, blockbuster movies, genre fiction, fencing, and heroic epics all depend upon the freedom to make nonviolent use of an intense human response to violence. Owning weapons does the same, and weapon control laws are among other things a censorship of self-expression.

Many liberals support bans on firearms and other weapons because their afraid to engage with the philosophical consequences of the reality that human beings have an inextricable emotional involvement with their ability to do harm. They don't trust others to handle this capacity because they themselves can't handle it, and thus support restrictive laws as a means to externalise their fears about themselves and preemptively control a human nature which they won't admit they consider too dangerous to be let loose. The psychology is not all that different from that of a sexually repressed Christian who is terrified of sexual liberation primarily because he is too damaged and ignorant to deal with his own sexuality by any means more intelligent than brute repression, in himself and, by a destructively pathetic act of symbolic magic, in others. In both cases the desire for control is largely a practice of denial, of hiding from the world.

A friend of mine has very sensibly suggested that one way to overcome a fear of guns is to personally take a gun apart and put it back together oneself, thus removing the ignorance and irrational fear which engenders bigotry. I like this approach, but it doesn't work in a country where it's difficult to get a gun to dismantle, or where the initial panic response to weapons runs so deep in an individual or society that the conversation could never be allowed to get this far. The background contrast of an America with a relatively greater respect for gun rights, and which indeed does have the high levels of violence progressives would expect as a result, doesn't help.

I also don't know where to draw the line on the slippery slope here. Legal private ownership of nuclear weapons refuses to pass my common sense test. But once that is admitted, the question becomes a very arbitrary and subjective negotiation over where to draw the line, and I can't see a logical reason to draw the line below automatic weapons rather than below boards with nails in them.

Some Randians have suggested one standard in a minarchist monopolisation of a public right to use force combined with legally institutionalised tolerance of those weapons appropriate to first-response self defense, but I've never seen this standard applied in a way which functions as significantly more that a rationalisation of American centre-right cultural intuition. One could just as well argue, as David Neiwert does, that in a modern technological context the unrestricted ownership of firearms is an unacceptable standing threat to maintained a civilised social peace; once again, we seem to be back to drawing arbitrary lines and replacing philosophy with convention.

September 18, 2009 6:51 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Aster: A lot of it probably depends on cultural context. In a society like New Zealand, it might bethat the unarmed status of the majority of the population has become a sort of cultural norm, aside from the law. And if a majority of people are unarmed and not interested in carrying personal firearms, an armed individual might put off a completely different cultural vibe.

Although I adamantly oppose legal restrictions on guns, I can imagine all sorts of contexts in which an armed individual seems threatening. Take the case of that guy at the Obama speech. This occurred in the context of a widespread movement of quasi-brownshirtish activity organized by business interests, to shout down and disrupt town hall meetings--IOW, deliberate intimidation. That someone who seems sympathetic to the screamers should show up packing--well, it seems quite natural to interpret that, not merely as an attempt to intimidate the government, but to intimidate those of differing opinions at the rally itself. For a particular political faction to engage in intimidating behavior at public events, and for that intimidating behavior to include the open display of weapons, reminds me a bit of the political atmosphere in Germany in the early '30s. It seems to dovetail with the kind of eliminationism Neiwert talks about.

But aside from the legalization issue, it seems unfair to me to focus, as progressives do, on the unsavory right-wing associations of firearm ownership. You might stress to your Kiwi friends the progressive history of gun ownership and the authoritarian history of gun control: the gun control provisions in the black codes, the use of gun control in martial law regimes during the Copper Wars, the class motivations of gun control in the UK, Robert Williams and the Monroe NAACP, etc.

September 18, 2009 10:26 PM  

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