ATLANTA — When I met Oso, a trash collector from rural Georgia in his late 30s, he was wearing dark shades and a black T-shirt with a silhouette of an assault rifle and the words “Piece Now.” A tall and burly white man, he had a sleeve of tattoos on one arm, stubble on his shaved head, and a bushy gray beard. He looked, at first glance, like the sort of intimidating figure who’d fit in at a far-right rally.
In fact, you might see him at such a rally — among the counterprotesters. “There shouldn’t be any question in anybody’s mind in this country that fascism is here,” he said. “It’s alive and well and marching us all towards somewhere that we don’t want to be.” That’s part of the reason, he said, that he’s into guns: “I wear a pistol every day because I’m a Jewish person in the South.”
It was the Sunday after the terror-filled week that culminated in the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. Oso was sitting with a handful of other members of the North Georgia branch of the Socialist Rifle Association, a new, swiftly growing left-wing gun group, in the backyard of an Italian restaurant in a gentrifying Atlanta neighborhood. (None of them wanted their last names used; Oso, Spanish for “bear,” is a nickname.)
The mission of the S.R.A. is “to arm and train the working class for self-defense.”
It launched in its current form this spring — before that there was a Facebook group of the same name — and now has several hundred dues-paying members and over 30 chapters. This Monday, 28 new people joined, the group said.
Brad, a 36-year-old math professor, is a founder of the S.R.A.’s North Georgia chapter and a member of the S.R.A.’s central committee. “Some people are scared with what’s going on in the country right now,” he told me. He only recently started carrying a gun, after getting death threats for the socialist organizing he was doing in his small town. “People want to be able to protect themselves,” he said.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, parts of the radical left fetishized firearms. Back then, some conservatives supported gun control as a way to disarm African-American militants; Ronald Reagan signed a bill banning open carry of loaded weapons when he was governor of California. “The Black Panthers and other extremists of the 1960s inspired some of the strictest gun control laws in American history,” the U.C.L.A. law professor Adam Winkler wrote in his book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
Since then, however, gun culture has become virtually synonymous with American conservatism. The National Rifle Association is now perhaps the most powerful Republican lobby in the country, and its rhetoric increasingly echoes that of the apocalyptic far right. Over the last 20 or 30 years, Winkler told me, “not only has the N.R.A. become more and more associated with the right, but there’s an increasingly militaristic, rebellious tone to the N.R.A. and the gun rights movement.” It’s become, he said, “all about arming up to fight the tyranny that’s coming.”
Meanwhile, most of the left has embraced gun control, something that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But it was probably inevitable that, as our politics have become more polarized and violent, a nascent left-wing gun culture would emerge.
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“These are some trying times, so I do believe more black men and women are arming up,” Maitreya Ahsekh, chairman of the Houston chapter of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, told me. His group, named after the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, started in 2014. In 2016, members faced off against armed anti-Muslim demonstrators outside a Nation of Islam mosque in South Dallas. (One of the group’s founders was later arrested in an F.B.I. campaign against “black identity extremists.” He was imprisoned for five months before the charges against him were dismissed.)
In addition to Ahsekh’s group and the Socialist Rifle Association, there are the gun-toting anti-fascists of Redneck Revolt, an organization founded in Kansas in 2009 that now has chapters all over the country, and the queer and trans gun group Trigger Warning, started last year. Left-wing gun culture has already grown enough to produce defectors; in March The New Republic published an essay titled, “Confessions of a Former Left-Wing Gun Nut.”
“Everybody’s afraid. Everybody’s scared. They don’t know what to do,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, founder of the One People’s Project, an antifa organization. “They’re looking at this crowd that brags about how they have all the guns and they’re going to start a second civil war and all this nonsense.” Jenkins carried a gun when he went to face off against white-nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., last year. He understands why most on the left still support gun restrictions, but said, “The bigger concern for me is not being protected when a threat comes your way.”
As a squishy liberal, I generally find the idea of adding more guns to our febrile politics frightening and dangerous. But sometimes a small desperate part of me thinks that if our country is going to be awash in firearms, maybe it behooves the left to learn how to use them. If nothing else, an armed left might once again create a bipartisan impetus for gun control.
The members of the S.R.A. I met were more sober and responsible than I might have inferred from the group’s bullet-strewn Twitter feed. Far from being cosplay revolutionaries, they’ve adopted bylaws banning members from advocating violence, and they have strict rules about carrying weapons at protests. As their bylaws say, they don’t want to be seen as a “militia or anti-fascist action group.”
Brad said they try to screen the people who are invited to their monthly range days, weeding out those who seem like “adventurers.” “We don’t want the John Wayne of the left showing up to our range,” he said. Indeed, the S.R.A. comes off more like a wholesome civic organization than a revolutionary underground. It recently became a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and its members spend a lot of time on mutual aid projects like collecting funds and supplies for hurricane relief.
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Part of the group’s mission is to simply provide a home for people who want to shoot, or to learn about shooting, but who recoil at the right-wing trappings of mainstream gun culture. “This seems to be the antithesis of what happens at most Georgia gun ranges,” said Steve, a 66-year-old paramedic and certified marksmanship instructor who recently joined the S.R.A. “Mine had a Brian Kemp day last Saturday,” he added, referring to Georgia’s right-wing gubernatorial candidate. “I go in there, shoot, and leave.”
But even if the S.R.A. is surprisingly nonthreatening up close, much of its growth is still a response to a widespread sense of terror and vulnerability. This week, the group released a video interspersing clips of Donald Trump denouncing “globalists” with images of Nazism, anti-Semitic propaganda and anti-Semitic tweets. It ends with pictures of people firing guns, and the words, “We Keep Us Safe.” In this combustible moment, some have come to feel that no one else will.
More on guns and the N.R.A.