The Rifle on the Wall: A Left Argument for Gun Rights 1

The Polemicist

An essay in seven sections.

The Fundamental Political
Principle

“That rifle on the wall of the
labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.”
— George Orwell

Let’s start with this: The citizen’s right to possess firearms is a fundamental political right. The political principle at stake is quite simple: to deny the state the monopoly of armed force. This should perhaps be stated in the obverse: to empower the citizenry, to distribute the power of armed force among the citizenry as a whole. The history of arguments and struggles over this principle, throughout the world, is long and clear. Instituted in the context of a revolutionary struggle based on the most democratic concepts of its day, the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is perhaps the clearest legal/constitutional expression of this principle, and as such, I think, is one of the most radical statutes in the world.

The question of gun rights is a political question, in the broad sense that it touches on the distribution of power in a polity. Thus, although it incorporates all these perfectly legitimate “sub-political” activities, it is not fundamentally about hunting, or collecting, or target practice; it is about empowering the citizen relative to the state. Denying the importance of, or even refusing to understand, this fundamental point of the Second Amendment right, and sneering at people who do, symptomizes a politics of paternalist statism – not (actually the opposite of) a politics of revolutionary liberation.

I’ll pause right here. For me, and for most supporters of gun rights, however inartfully they may put it, this is the core issue. To have an honest discussion of what’s at stake when we talk about “gun rights,” “gun control,” etc., everyone has to know, and acknowledge, his/her position on this fundamental political principle. Do you hold that the right to possess firearms is a fundamental political right?

If you do, then you are ascribing it a strong positive value, you will be predisposed to favor its extension to all citizens, you will consider whatever “regulations” you think are necessary (because some might be) with the greatest circumspection (because those “regulations” are limitations on a right, and rights, though never as absolute as we may like, are to be cherished), you will never seek, overtly or surreptitiously, to eliminate that right entirely – and your discourse will reflect all of that. If you understand gun ownership as a political right, then, for you, if there weren’t a second amendment, there should be.

If, on the other hand, you do not hold that the right to possess firearms is a fundamental political right, if you think it is some kind of luxury or peculiarity or special prerogative, then, of course, you really won’t give a damn about how restricted that non-right is, or whether it is ignored or eliminated altogether. If you reject, or don’t understand, gun ownership as a political right, then you probably think the Second Amendment should never have been.

It is my perception, based on public evidence, as well as countless conversations on the subject, that the latter position is that of most self-identified American liberals. However they may occasionally, tactically, craft their discourse to pretend, for an audience that does value the right of citizens to arm themselves, that they too value that right, most American liberals just do not. They do not even understand why it should be considered a right at all, in the sense elaborated above. They would love to restrict it as much as possible, and they would just as soon be done with the American constitutional guarantee of that right, the Second Amendment, which they see as some kind of embarrassing anachronism.

I think we should have this discussion honestly. If the latter is your position, say it. If you want to eliminate the Second Amendment right, mount a forthright political campaign to do so. Do not pussy-foot around with “I am not against the Second Amendment. I do not want to take your hunting rifles and your shotguns, and your antique muskets,” when you really don’t like the Second Amendment at all, would love to see it repealed, and wouldn’t mind if everybody was forced to turn in every weapon that they owned.

‘Cause, guess what: You’re not fooling anybody. When your discourse reeks with intellectual and moral disdain for gun-rights and gun-rights advocates, when it never endorses, and indeed at best studiously avoids, the issue of gun ownership as a fundamental political right, it shows. And it certainly shows when you say outright that you’d love to confiscate all guns, no matter how you try to waffle on that later. Despite what’s implied in the ever-present disdain, gun rights advocates are not, ipso facto, stupid (or violent, or crazy), and certainly not too stupid to see where you’re heading. So let’s stop gaslighting gun-rights supporters as paranoid when they state what they see:

Continued….

One comment

  1. I’ve had some difficulty in establishing the exact provenance of that Orwell quote, widely used by US pro-gun advocates and right wing libertarians, but without citing where in Orwell’s prolific writings it comes from.

    I’ve now tracked down its precise source, which is of particular relevance when taking on those who conveniently ignore the Second Amendment requirement for the right to bear arms to be as part of “a well regulated militia”: it’s from Orwell’s ww2 journalism, and specifically about the Home Guard.

    Bernard Crick in his book “George Orwell A Life” has the following quote in Chapter 12 The Challenge and Frustration of war (1939-41).

    “Even as it stands, the Home Guard could only exist in a country where men feel themselves free. The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER’S COTTAGE, IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE THAT IT STAYS THERE.”

    Crick correctly attributes the quote to an 8 January 1941 article Orwell wrote for Evening Standard. The article was titled “Don’t Let Colonel Blimp Ruin the Home Guard”

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