An interview with an organizer from the Socialist Rifle Association
The conversation around guns is a heated one in the United States.
It’s true that it hasn’t always been. In fact, until 2008, as a result of the Supreme Court ruling in DC v Keller, case law didn’t even recognize an individual’s right to own a gun. However, that ruling was a sort of epoch for a gun rights movement that began in the 1960s with the politicization of the National Rifle Association.
Until the takeover, as it’s called, the NRA was really not much more than a sports group. There was some lobbying, but that was a minority of the group’s purpose. Afterward, though, nearly the entire purpose of the organization became lobbying and opposing any gun control measures. They’ve fought and killed law after law, making purchasing a gun in America easier than almost any Western country. We have more guns per capita than nearly any other Western country, more people own guns, and more people die from guns.
Some have said, we have a gun problem.
Another contentious topic, especially in this political moment, following Bernie Sanders’ movement-building campaign for president in 2016 and his second go at it now, is socialism.
The word has been part of American political discourse for more than a century now. Only recently, however, has it again become a moniker people will proudly apply to themselves rather than an insult hurled at an opponent.
At the intersection of these two contentious topics sits the Socialist Rifle Association (SRA). They are a firearms advocacy and community group made up of, as the title suggests, socialists. To the layperson, this may seem a contradiction – aren’t socialists the ones who want to take our guns? The more familiar one is with movements of the radical left though, the less contradictory it seems. Indeed, the person most folks immediately think of when thinking of the genesis of the socialist movement, Karl Marx, (although the degree to which he is credited with creating socialism is widely overstated) said in an address to the Communist League:
Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.
So I sat down and spoke with the organizer for the Northeast Alabama Chapter of the SRA (who requested to be referred to simply as Eugene) about socialism, guns, where they view themselves in the political landscape of 2020, and what their goals are.
This interview has been edited for clarity and took place before the recent Virginia gun law controversy, so that was unfortunately not a topic of our conversation.
What brought you to the SRA?
Well, I’ve been involved in leftist movements for about 20 years, and I never really thought much about guns, or anything related to guns. I grew up around guns as a child because I grew up on a farm. I grew up with the whole “we have the right to bear arms, Second Amendment” culture. Growing up in the south, everybody had guns – it just seemed like a normal thing to me. Then I moved to Korea, about 11 years ago, and nobody there has guns. Even the police hardly ever use them. I worked with a lot of non-American, non-English speaking people, and they always were just amazed – in a negative way – by how much I thought it was totally normal to have guns. So for a while when I saw mass shootings I thought “okay, well, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.” “This” being prolific gun ownership.
Then I moved back to the United States in 2017, and Charlottesville happened. I saw how bold the far right, the alt-right, these sort of proto-fascist, even explicitly fascist movements were becoming, that they weren’t really holding back anymore. And I thought, I need to be able to defend myself, we need to be able to defend ourselves. Around that time the SRA really started picking up speed, and it sounded good to me. They’re all about education, teaching about guns, community defense, that type of thing and that’s what I’m going for, you know, learning about how to defend myself and my community. That’s what initially brought me to them.
From your organization’s literature, SRA seems to be much more focused on firearm advocacy than on socialism. Is that a fair read?
I’d say so. I know it’s in the name – Socialist Rifle Association – and we do have leftists from all over. We’re a big tent kind of organization for the left, but we’re not necessarily super political as in the sense that, similar to the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], we don’t take part in electoral politics, we’re not partisan at all. We don’t work with political parties.
We believe in education around firearms and community defense, mutual aid, disaster relief, things like those are the big things we focus on. One of the main reasons actually that we wanted to do that was the fact that modern gun culture in America has been very toxic and masculine. It’s associated with machismo and ideas like “minorities shouldn’t be able to use weapons” and “women’s place is in the house and not with guns,” that kind of thing. So we wanted to make a safe space for leftists who are interested in guns, interested in defending themselves, interested in defending their communities, to have a place to go and work together. The word socialist is just a big umbrella word that a lot of leftists can use and relate to.
You mentioned something there that I thought was interesting and I actually wasn’t aware of, in fact, totally it was totally contrary to what my assumptions were. You said that the SRA is not involved in capital P politics, as in, they don’t work in the electoral system, they’re not interested in working with campaigns, they’re not interested in endorsing candidates.
I’d like for you to talk about why that is because that’s contra the National Rifle Association which is, as I understood it, kind of yall’s mirror image or what people might imagine being the mirror image of the SRA on the right. The NRA is heavily involved in capital P politics. They’re heavily involved in endorsing candidates, they release legislator scorecards, they endorse politicians, they donate money to campaigns. So I guess my initial assumption was that the SRA would be something similar on the left. Why is it that the SRA has taken a different route?
Well, there are a couple of things to address.
The first is we understand that from an outsider’s perspective it might look like we’re the left version of the NRA, but we don’t really do anything to try to cultivate that image because we don’t necessarily think of ourselves in that way. It’s just unfortunate that we both have similar acronyms I guess and similar names, but we have a different focus than the NRA. I think the NRA found that the way to get what they want is through electoral politics. The way for us to get what we want is through community organizing. We have different goals, I believe.
If we tried to put efforts into going after candidates in supporting parties, issuing scorecards, that kind of thing, it would take away resources, time, effort, money, that we could use on stuff that would be way more useful. The second amendment isn’t going away anytime soon. We still have a right to bear arms. And, by the way, we don’t necessarily look at gun ownership as a second amendment issue, we believe that the working class must be armed in order to protect ourselves whether there’s a second amendment or not. So it’s more like it almost would be a waste of our time. And besides that, where we are as an organization, I’m not sure we would be effective in that regard. There are plenty of other organizations already out there doing that kind of work now. If we wanted to be part of a campaign or put our name on something endorsing a certain bill or against a certain bill that would be up to the organization as a whole, but so far the attitude inside of our organization has been that we want to stay away from politics because it would just be a drain on our resources. It isn’t really close to what our mission is. That kind of work wouldn’t benefit us in any way whatsoever, and it may even tarnish our name with the kind of people that we’re trying to get involved in our organization.
Are there any bills that have come to the attention of the organization that they’re extremely opposed to or in favor of? The conversation around gun control runs the gamut from universal background checks all the way to a total assault weapons ban and mandatory buyback of assault weapons. Is there any kind of consensus on those topics in the organization, or is that something that’s just so far off the radar they don’t even talk about it?
It’s definitely not off our radar. I think the consensus in the organization is that “gun control” in the sense of universal background checks, we would support it, although I’m not speaking officially on behalf of the national organization. I know that there’s somewhere that we have this written down I think on our website saying how we feel about gun control, but as long as it doesn’t affect our ability to possess firearms and defend ourselves, then we wouldn’t necessarily be against it, but that’s a tough question to answer without looking at specific bills and enforcement measures prescribed.
Socialism and gun control are some of the more contentious topics in America today. As a part of the Socialist Rifle Association, how do you feel those issues intersect?
Something that the right-wing in America especially seems to misunderstand is, they think that socialists want to take their guns. Marx himself said “under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered. Any attempts to disarm the workers must be frustrated by force if necessary.” And so the idea that socialists want to take away guns is ridiculous. It’s the exact opposite of what leftists throughout history have advocated, including the anarchist thinker Kropotkin. So something that we’re trying to make people aware of is that socialists are pro-gun, pro-self-defense, pro-community defense.
We understand that having the means to defend ourselves is one of the tactics for positive change in this country. A society that can’t defend itself is just going to be rolled over by other violent forces, either from the government or from within a society.
So, gun control, of course, it’s becoming a big issue. There’s, unfortunately, a lot of tragedy – school shootings and other types of mass shootings. I would say that what people need to look at is over the last few years, nearly all of those mass shootings have been perpetrated by right-wing, white nationalist types. There haven’t been any mass shootings, as far as I’m aware of, by left-wing type people. I think there was an incident at a baseball game where somebody who claimed to be a liberal or leftist was shooting at a Republican politician, but that’s the only one that I’m aware of.
And how socialism and gun control intersect: I think just the fact that the working class is starting to feel more threatened with the way the economy seems to be going, the fact that we have a president who doesn’t really seem to understand how economics works, he’s promoting trade wars and putting high tariffs on goods which means that American consumers will be paying more money and not keeping his promise of bringing jobs back to America. You have people who are paying higher prices for goods while not making enough money to pay for those goods, prices for health insurance and healthcare are going up. Homeownership is increasingly out of reach for a lot of folks, home prices are starting to become inflated again, which is a bad sign for the economy. So you see people who are, you know, becoming more desperate. They’re gaining class consciousness in a way, they’re finally understanding that they don’t have anything in common with those who are in control of the economy.
When I was living in Korea, Korea is a very stratified, Confucian based society. Class roles are instilled from birth, and everybody understands their place. I always explained to my students there that my friends here in America, we all believe that we’re equal to one another. That has been something that we’ve always tried to instill here and it’s only now that people are finally starting to realize that that’s not necessarily the case. The people who are in control, the people who do have the power, they want to hold on to that power, and the people at the bottom are starting to realize that the only way to get that power back is having the means to defend themselves from the attacks that are coming from above. And I think gun control has come up because it’s a way to, and I don’t want to sound conspiratorial, but it seems like it might be a way to, in advance, disarm the working class.
So I think these issues do kind of intersect in that way. That’s one way to read it.
What does socialism mean to you?
To me, the definition of socialism is workers controlling the means of production, distribution of goods, and community control of consumption. There are three parts of the economy: production, distribution, and consumption. Socialism means a democratic process in the workplace, by the workers. They decide how the workplace is run, and the community democratically decides what’s needed so there’s no overproduction or underproduction or wasting resources, it’s distribution in a way that’s fair and democratic. If people need something, they get what they need. Socialism to me is just democracy all around when it pertains to the economy. The economic aspect of our lives is the most important, that decides how we live. So we should all get a say.
I’m hoping for our branch to begin branching out into more aid in addition to range days and firearm education. I’m hoping to become certified to train and certify people in CPR. That way if we happen to be attending some sort of event and something bad happens we can be ready to administer first aid. We also want to become more involved in the national organization’s disaster relief efforts, especially after hurricanes, and I know Alabama is prone to tornadoes so we want to be able to respond to that as quickly as possible.
The SRA is dedicated to the working class and very open to marginalized groups. If you join you’ll notice there are a lot of folks from marginalized communities – we have a very high number of LGBTQ members. The president and vice president are both trans. So that’s exactly what we want, we don’t want it to just be a white boys’ club. So we want it to be representative of all marginalized communities, since those are the groups that are suffering the most in the country, and those are the ones that are hit hard by gun control laws.
Where can people find you online, and how can you become a member?
You can go to the website – socialistra.org and sign up. There is a $25 a year membership fee, and that gets you a membership card and access to the members-only Slack. You can join your local chapter. If you do live in Northeast Alabama (the TN border to Montgomery and the GA border to Birmingham) you can join our chapter and come to one of our range days. You can email me at [email protected], and I would meet up with you, get to know you a little bit and then take you to our next range day. Even if you’ve never even touched or seen a gun before you can come and learn how we’ll teach you all about firearm safety and proper use.