The last half-decade of American protest has given rise to a predictable, but disturbing trend: Odds are, in a clash between right-wingers and leftists, there are guns in the midst.
This is explicit and obvious at protests where people are openly armed, including at the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally, where groups of fascists in beige-hued tactical gear open-carried rifles, acting as a sort of paramilitary for the various extremists, far-right militias and neo-Nazis who had gathered in Charlottesville. Yet it’s also dangerous when loaded firearms are kept hidden in similar situations, the threat of gun violence simmering but invisible at all times. To that end, we’ve seen shootouts in downtown Portland for seemingly no reason, as well as the killing of a Patriot Prayer supporter and the shooting of prominent Proud Boy Tiny Toese in Olympia as he and a group of fellow right-wingers chased black-clad antifascists through the suburbs.
Gun culture in America has long been defined by the conservative right, which has been a major driver of the pro-gun policies in the country that have made the U.S. the most heavily armed citizenry in the world. But now it’s clear that the protests of 2020 kicked off a formative era for young leftists to seek their first firearms and find community, both around responsible gun use and an ideology of communal defense, says Joshua Farrell-Molloy, a researcher who dove into the world of left-wing gun supporters on Instagram for a special report at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue.
I recently spoke to Farrell-Molloy to understand what narratives he saw in the Instagram accounts he tracked, how leftist gun culture differs from that of the right and whether the adoption of more firearms is brewing more violence in America.
How did you first get interested in this phenomenon?
Trump happened, and Brexit happened, and there was obviously a lot of division. I felt interested in what was changing, especially when I saw what had happened in Berkeley and Portland. These kinds of street battles weren’t really taking place earlier in the decade, and I got interested in political extremism while studying international relations.
Then, after the protests around [George Floyd] in 2020, I paid very close attention to what was happening. Toward the end of the summer, I started to see more of these leftist gun groups emerge and a growing network of like-minded people from the left talking about the need for firearms and training, and so on.
Are these people who are new to guns, or just new to sharing them online?
Generally, what I’ve seen nearly across the board is the narrative of 2019 and 2020 being the moment when they first purchased a firearm. It’s a response to far-right violence — the founder of the Latino Rifle Association, for example, mentioned the 2019 El Paso shooting as a formative moment for the organization. Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about rising violence toward the trans community and Asian Americans. So it’s clear that 2019 and 2020 is a big moment in time.
Of course, there’s overlap with leftists who have been armed for much longer, and there’s overlap with long-established groups like the Socialist Rifle Association, John Brown Gun Club, Redneck Revolt and so on. But for the most part, I saw a lot of first-time gun owners trying to navigate a world of firearms training in a meaningful way.
On that note, getting a gun is easy, but getting people to train isn’t. What’s the case with the accounts you tracked?
It’s a lot of people stressing how to use firearms safely, but also the importance of de-escalation when using it. It’s not really the idea of buying a gun to use it. In terms of training, I thought it was interesting that several voices in the community are really pushing for people [to consider] more advanced training and tactics — working in a group, shooting at multiple targets, bounding forward in formation. There were mentions of medical training, radio training, really trying to establish a diversity of skills.
Despite that approach, there didn’t seem to me like there was a fantasy element of wanting to enact violence. It’s more about a last resort, emphasizing that leftists have situational awareness and do everything they can with that.
Should we be concerned about how this might fuel political violence in America, given that more guns could escalate clashes between armed right-wing groups and leftist counter protesters?
There are a lot of “Civil War” narratives, given what’s happened in the last year or two, but there’s no one I saw talking about actively going out and targeting far-right people. I think what we’ve seen with the shootings in downtown Portland and the shooting of Tiny Toese in Washington is that in street clashes, there’s always going to be a risk [of gun violence].
To stress the point, none of the accounts on Instagram I looked at were related to those incidents. But I would note that, as a report from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project puts it, events with armed protesters are six times more likely to end in violence than protests with unarmed participants.
The context of leftist gun groups really does seem to focus on the threat of the armed far-right getting more and more comfortable organizing and acting in public, whether it’s extremists rallying with guns at a capitol building or neo-Nazis gathering with rifles in public parks. What kind of similarities and, more importantly, differences do you see in the gun culture of these two opposing forces?
You know, the political lines are very clear. It’s as simple as the fact that some of the groups that make tactical equipment for leftists are also making and selling face masks, to make a point. But there’s a lot of overlap in expressing a support of Second Amendment rights, and there’s commonality in the kinds of pictures being shared on Instagram. It’s patches showing [group affiliation], pictures of the weapon and all the accessories spread out on the ground and so on. It’s hard to tell an overt difference based on just the aesthetic.
But overall, it’s interesting how ideas like community defense are stressed by the left, while on the right, we generally see the sharing of scenarios where it’s one man by himself — a worst-case scenario where you have to defend yourself and your family. Leftists, meanwhile, spend a lot more time talking about how firearm training is about being with like-minded people and connecting with your local community. And there’s a sense of very real network building, with leftists meeting off the range to discuss mutual aid and other projects within a community. It’s definitely a niche that’s continuing to grow.