CONROE, Texas—On a recent Saturday, a 35-year-old Puerto Rican woman who grew up in Spanish Harlem, came out of the shadows. In front of two dozen strangers mopping up the last of their buffet lunch, Miriam O’Quinn revealed two details about herself that she rarely shares, at least not in the same sentence. She voted for Bernie Sanders. And she really likes to shoot guns.
The reason she had come here, to the banquet room of McKenzie’s Barbecue, was that the other two dozen people in the room were more or less just like her—
otherwise liberal Democrats who happen to feel just as passionately about the Second Amendment as they do about, say, universal health care. They are members of the Liberal Gun Club, perhaps the oddest crossbreed in American politics. (“The Jews for Jesus of politics,” one LGC member joked to me.) All of them had endured some version of the story that O’Quinn told about what had driven her to search the Internet for people who could understand the isolation she felt.
Three years earlier, after O’Quinn moved to Houston, she decided she wanted to get a concealed weapon permit. She signed up for a class that was taught in a garage in the Houston exurbs. When they arrived, she found a car parked outside with a bumper sticker that read, “Work: It’s the WHITE thing to do.” Inside, the instructor, a white woman in her late 40s, told the class she worried her church was an easy target for “Muslims” to attack because it was located near an expressway. The instructor later explained that concealed carry permits did not allow you to bring a gun to a polling place, joking that it was “too bad you can’t shoot Democrats on their way to vote.”
A lifelong liberal who had voted twice for Obama, O’Quinn absorbed the insults in silence. Despite her love of shooting—she owns a 12-gauge shotgun that she likes to take out for skeet shooting—she was wary of going to a gun range because she didn’t want to run into anyone like her instructor, people who would use the image of President Obama for target practice. Three weeks ago, she found the Liberal Gun Club on an Internet search, and realized it would be holding its annual meeting an hour from her house. “I was so uncomfortable,” she said to the group. “I’m so happy to be here.” The room gave her a round of applause.
Since its founding in 2007, the Liberal Gun Club, has served as a refuge for a group of people who occupy a lonely no man’s land in the middle of the nation’s gun wars. They wince at fellow liberals who seem to want to ban everything—guns, ammunition, bump stocks—but don’t know the first thing about how guns work. But they’re disgusted by the paranoid, left-baiting rhetoric pumped out by the NRA. Mostly, over the years, they’ve kept to themselves.
But in the wake of Trump’s election—and reports of traditional Democratic voters buying guns at higher rates—the group is discovering that it can be a platform as much as a safe space. The non-profit’s membership has doubled in the last year to 2,000 dues-paying members in nearly every state, with 7,500 people who actively post on its message boards and another 9,000 Facebook fans. The membership is minuscule compared to the 5 million who the NRA claims (55 million Americans own guns). But they have been interviewed recently by outlets from the BBC, Boston Magazine and the Associated Press. Even NRA TV invited members of the club to appear in a segment. They declined, which speaks to the question of how prominent a role the group can, or wants to take in the wider national discussion on gun law reform.
Still, an internal survey this year found members want the club to be more politically active. The LGC’s California chapter already has stepped up its lobbying efforts, while the group as a whole has considered jumpstarting a long-dormant PAC to support gun rights, but without resorting to the dark imagery and siege mentality of the NRA’s Dana Loesch videos. Knowing that 20 percent of Democrats own guns, could the LGC, some members wonder, provide a bridge between two implacably opposed camps—liberals and the NRA-led gun lobby?
“If we don’t get more active, then by default the NRA is speaking for us, as gun owners, which sucks,” Keith Ellis, a geotechnical engineer from Tampa and a member of the Green Party who hosts the LGC’s new podcast, told me. “Either we’re going to get our shit together and talk about legislation or we’re going to cap our membership.” And that, Ellis said, would be a missed opportunity.
The problem with this plan, of course, is that neither side might be all that interested in meeting in the middle of any bridge built by the LGC. Lara Smith, the LGC’s spokeswoman, told me that in California she has encountered representatives from Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. “They hate us more than the NRA!” she said.
And talking with the NRA? Well, let’s just say that’s a work in progress. A few hours before lunch at McKenzie’s, the LGC members had gathered at a shooting range to fire some of their favorite weapons, the fun stuff before the administrative agenda of the annual meeting. One of the range employees overheard a member of the Oregon chapter make a disparaging remark about the nation’s largest gun rights advocacy group. The employee cornered him, leaned in close and asked, “What do you have against the NRA?”
It occurred to me as I stood behind the firing line of the Blackwood Gun Club that it’s not easy to tell a liberal gun owner from a conservative one. If they’re clutching a 50-caliber Desert Eagle handgun, pumping holes in a target 30 yards down range, nothing indicates which lever they pulled last November. Trump voter or not, they’re there for pretty much the same reason—and with a lot of the same guns.
On the day I spent with the LGC, members had brought an impressive display of weapons with them—an AK-47 rifle and an AR-15 that one member had accessorized himself. Glocks, MAC-10’s, Berettas and antique pistols, including a 1915 Luger, were laid out for all to try. “Conservatives say we’re liberal so we must not be real shooters,” Ed Gardner, the group’s executive director who works as a security consultant in Boston, told me. “But look at this!”
No, what really differentiates the liberal gun owner from the conservative one is the self-consciousness.
Some of the two dozen LGC attendees, who had traveled from across the country to be here, were a little nervous about identifying themselves. There was Daniel, a sound engineer from the Bay Area, who didn’t want his last name printed because he worried about the fallout from his liberal co-workers; Mike Ross, a financial analyst from Corvallis, Oregon, started shooting because of three deaths in his family by gunfire—suicide, at the hands of police and a homicide. “You’re an NRA nut now?” his mother asked him. There was Kirk, a public school teacher from Chicago, and Don Leverty, a senior from Austin, who stumped for Bernie Sanders in Iowa last year. He was a member of the NRA when he was a kid. “Back then they were like the Boy Scouts,” he said. “Not anymore.”
Nearly to a person, the members I spoke to supported Bernie Sanders during the presidential election, which places them on the anti-establishment side by the standard of most Democrats. But on other issues they are squarely in the mainstream of the party: They favor environmental protection, progressive taxation and abortion rights. The only other break from liberal orthodoxy I detected was a slightly libertarian less-government-is-better preference around issues like affirmative action.
All of this is to say, group members often find themselves out of place at gun ranges. In the parking lot of the gun range at Blackwood, they ran into a man wearing a T-shirt that read, “I Will Defend My Gun Rights Against All Enemies Foreign and Obama.” Liberal gun owners would never dare wear something as politically ostentatious as that T-shirt. (No one was wearing rainbow flag pins, or Impeach Trump buttons, for example.) When they mix with other gun lovers, the First Amendment yields to the Second. In the past that has always seemed like the path of least resistance.
To hear the LGC members tell it, the gun world lurched hard to the right around the time of Barack Obama’s emergence as a presidential candidate. Internet gun message boards, never the friendliest places, filled with even more vitriol and shooting ranges became havens for anti-Obama political speech. The LGC website was launched in 2007 as little more than a safe space for shop talk about guns without having to endure the sulfurous barrage of birtherism and miscellaneous Democrat-bashing.
By design, the LGC’s website was, from the beginning, mostly apolitical. The group avoided endorsing candidates and didn’t encourage members to lobby Congress about proposed federal legislation. When James Holmes fired into a darkened movie theater in Aurora, the LGC tried hard not to wade into the debate over online purchases of ammunition. When Adam Lanza murdered 20 kids and six teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the LGC provided its own members information about gun policy, rather than publicly opposing a president most of them had voted for when he called for a ban on so-called assault weapons. (One group member left after Sandy Hook, convinced that guns should only be allowed for hunting and sport shooting.)
“Those are really hard times,” Gardner said. “And nobody needs that image of Charlton Heston screaming about prying a weapon from his cold, dead hands after Columbine. Our position is to stay quiet, and then as we get a look at the proposed solutions to say, ‘That probably won’t do what you want it to do.”
Mostly, the group sticks to a series talking points about regulation that highlight addressing the root causes of violence like anti-poverty programs and resources for the mentally ill, though they specifically note the group is against an assault weapons ban. (They aren’t official policy positions because, as Gardner said, “Getting liberals to agree on anything is like herding cats.”) Most of the members of the group are against gun bans of any kind, which includes bump stocks, the controversial accessory that Stephen Paddock used to fire more rapidly at the concert crowd in Las Vegas.
Recently, though, members of the group have begun testing the political waters more—and it has led to some soul searching about what the group is and what role it wants to play in a debate dominated by the NRA and those who ardently oppose it. Smith, the club’s spokeswoman and also a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area, was a vocal critic of a package of gun-control bills in California last year (it eventually passed) that included a limit on high-capacity magazines. It meant that for all her objections about the way the NRA presents itself, she was aligned fairly closely with it on the legislation.
As Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA’s law school and the author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, told me, the space the LGC is trying to occupy is a small one because gun control groups aren’t advocating for total gun bans like they once did. “The more there is a difference between some of the gun control groups and the Liberal Gun Club, the more the Liberal Gun Club starts to look like the NRA,” he said. “They can’t be afraid to take some positions that appeal to liberals.” (I reached out to the Brady Campaign, which declined to comment about the LGC, and Everytown, which said in a written statement: “We work with volunteers and lawmakers of all parties — gun owners and non-gun owners alike.”)
When I asked members of the group if they were more against the style of the NRA’s politics than the substance of its gun positions, they assured me there was plenty of daylight between them on the issues. “We’re willing to talk about regulation and they aren’t,” Ellis told me. Part of the California package included funding for studying gun violence, which the LGC supported. “We’re not afraid of government data,” Smith said.
Gardner told me there were other big government initiatives he backed. Though he thinks the gunshow loophole, which exempts some private sales from background checks, is overblown by gun control advocates he is philosophically in favor of universal background checks. He wants more funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI to enforce background check laws and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used to vet gun buyers at the point of purchase (and should have kept Dylan Roof, who killed nine African Americans in a Charleston church in 2015, from buying a gun). He supports ramping up spending on Ceasefire, an on-the ground anti-violence program that has been used in cities, and cracking down on straw purchasers who buy guns for those prohibited by the law. “I want to know that the people I sell a gun to aren’t going to use it in a bad way,” he said.
On a more fundamental level, the LGC wants liberals to understand gun culture, separate from the NRA, and to understand the nuances of gun policy that they see. One member told me that liberals look at guns the way Republicans look at Islamic terrorism. And their knee-jerk reactions to the perceived problems were similarly extreme and close-minded: Ban the Muslims, ban the guns.
Gardner noted that the 59 victims in Las Vegas represented about a fifth of the people murdered by rifles of any kind in a given year. “I’m going to sound like an asshole,” he said. “But we’re going to spend an awful lot of time and money to pass a ban to save 300 people? There are more important things we can do.”
When the NRA gets together for its annual meeting, it’s a days-long extravaganza, a veritable Disneyland for gun owners. The LGC offered a decidedly more modest affair; they brought there own cooler of Sierra Nevada and Modelo to go along with the lunch buffet. There were presentations on the club’s growth—which they were proud of—and the press attention they’ve received, and some discussion about how to get more classes launched around the country so people could learn how to shoot without feeling like they were being recruited by the NRA.
Then Gardner addressed the group about politics; group members, he noted, had asked for more political activism in the membership survey. He said they were working to put more content on the website, but he warned that too much politics could betray their mission to focus on gun education. “One of the problems with the NRA is they don’t stay in their damn lane,” he said. “They used to be education and safety. They aren’t anymore. They are the de facto marketing arm of the Republican party.”
“The National Republican Auxiliary!” someone yelled.
One group member suggested the LGC could invest in white papers to publicize its views on gun legislation proposals and lobbying efforts, but Gardner reminded everyone that would be expensive and require more aggressive fundraising. Now, the group raises about $20,000 each year.
But, Gardner added, the leadership of the group should be receptive to what members want. “We have strong opinions, and there are people listening to us now,” Gardner said, nodding in my direction.
Ellis, one of the members who supports a stronger political bent, told the group that what was most important was growing the membership, which would give them the larger voice they wanted. More press meant more attention, more members and more state chapters (There are 11 official chapters now, with two more expected to come online soon). In addition, they could increase efforts to educate lawmakers, particularly Democratic politicians, who would be more inclined to listen to a group of like-minded liberals rather than the NRA about gun policy. Apart from that, given the vast differences in gun policy in different states, the national group would be best served offering resources to state chapters. There was plenty of agreement about that.
Smith, the group’s spokeswoman, couldn’t make the trip to Houston, but had participated through video conferencing. She struck me as the most politically active member of the LGC, having lobbied her Democratic senators in California against restrictive gun laws and made trips to visit lawmakers in D.C., too. At the same time, she is in the unique position of having been invited to the NRA’s annual women’s summit luncheon, though she did not attend.
She remains bullish on the political path forward for the LGC, sensing an opening for a new voice in the gun policy debate. We talked about polling that has found millennials hold favorable views of gun ownership, but are also deeply negative about the NRA (19 percent approval). To not engage in the politics would render their educational efforts pointless, she said. “We want to educate people—that’s critical,” she said. “But part of the education is the politics and we need to be aware of that.”
That made me think of the confrontation from earlier at the gun range.
Mike Ross, the Oregon-based group member who had been cornered by the range employee, told me what happened after the two had gotten nose to nose. Ross said he was proud he had stood his ground as the man had grilled him about why he’d vote for people who wanted to take away his guns.
Ross had pushed back. He wasn’t a single-issue voter, he said, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t as committed to the Second Amendment as anyone else at the range. In fact, he said, he and the other members of the LCG were doing their part to make sure more Americans understood guns, which would go a long way toward ensuring their Second Amendment rights. The man seemed to understand.
“We shook hands at the end,” Ross told me. “So that’s something.”
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