Gun control is a hot-button issue in the US, with conservatives defending citizens’ “right to bear arms” and progressives opposing it. But some minority rights activists resist stringent gun regulations.
WASHINGTON — Viewed from the outside, the US gun control debate seems to make some kind of sense. White conservative Republicans want to keep their right to bear arms of practically any kind, arguing in favour of the Second Amendment, while a diverse array of liberals want nothing to do with firearms.
But the equation is not so simple. For some leftists, especially those who encounter the far right in public or face its threats online, carrying a weapon is essential to their survival.
The question of gun rights in the United States has become more pressing since the February 14 massacre in Florida of 17 students at a Parkland high school, which prompted marches and calls for action to restrict access to weapons. US President Donald Trump has taken conflicting stances on the issue, saying that the government should confiscate weapons from the mentally ill, but also that teachers should receive bonuses for being armed to protect schools.
For Daryle Jenkins, head of The One People's Project, a Philadelphia-based anti-racism activist group, the conservatives have hijacked the terms of the debate. Jenkins believes conservatives make it seem as though liberals' desire to confiscate weapons is a prelude to civil war
"The wrong people are speaking up for the right to keep and bear arms. The conservatives out there are calling out the Parkland shooting victims as Nazis and crisis actors [a conspiracy theory saying victims of gun tragedies are pretending] and basically trying to demonize these kids who just went through this tragedy. They always do this."
But why does Jenkins need a weapon?
"For me, I chase after neo-Nazis for a living. Neo-Nazis with guns. Neo-Nazis who have threatened to kill me. Who have wanted to bomb my parents’ house. So when they see me [a black man] in the street, they think they’re getting themselves a prize. And that’s happened before," Jenkins explained.
He says he doesn't want to live in a society where every right that isn't the right to bear arms is diminished. And today, Trump has emboldened those who think that they can use force and intimidation to silence anyone who disagrees, including black rights activists.
Jenkins left New Jersey because of its stricter gun laws, moving to nearby Philadelphia. Often Jenkins confronts right-wing groups in public, and says he has received numerous threats online.
"When you consider the kind of work that I do, and that I as a black man have to protect myself from the average NRA [National Rifle Association] member [anecdotally mostly white, historically Republican-voting US citizens who tend to be armed outside the home], they think that black people are a criminal class of some sort, I have a vested interest in maintaining my right to keep and bear arms. Having said that, I also understand how irresponsible people have caused people to be alarmed and concerned."
Jenkins says that black people also can't rely on American police forces to treat them fairly in comparison to the faces of mass shooters, who are usually white. Disarming men like Jenkins puts black activists at a disadvantage when it comes to self-defense.
Jenkins describes the debate over guns between people on the left as being more civil than the left-right divide.
"It’s more helping each other understand. Both sides know something has to be done. The one thing we try to stress overall, is that you can’t really disarm, entirely, at the very least. You can’t approach things as a pacifist all the time. Somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to put up your fists," he said.
Jenkins’ attitude towards gun ownership shows the practical realities of being an anti-racism activist in 2018 America. Carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense seems like a tragic necessity.
Gun rights in the United States have been touted as a means of self-defense, but deeper at the root of the question is the 'dignity' owning a gun confers. For people in Jenkins’ line of work, who confront other armed individuals in fraught protest settings, a weapon is a great equalizer.
Guns can never be completely safe. There's always a non-zero chance of one going off and killing or injuring the owner or a bystander. But that danger is the price gun-owning Americans pay for that dignity.
A parallel in American society for guns is the coal industry, whose workers face the risk of a violent or slow death from mine accidents or dust. But thousands of American miners clamor at the chance for the dignity that a job underground confers. Better be dead than unfed.
It's that kind of Stockholm syndrome Americans are grappling with. For some liberals, who attend rallies of like-minded folks who are unarmed, it might seem insane to want a weapon. But for men and women like Jenkins, carrying a firearm is an absolute necessity because the other side isn't going to disarm anytime soon.