Olympia, Washington — The Republican-allied National Rifle Association has long been a household name in the world of gun rights advocacy, but it doesn’t represent the views of all gun owners. Only around one in five Americans who own firearms are members of the organization, and they are largely more conservative than non-member gun owners, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Recently, progressive gun enthusiasts irked by the NRA’s politics have mobilized to create alternative groups where leftist beliefs and an appreciation for guns can go hand in hand.
“I want more leftists and even just plain (democratic socialists) open to the idea that guns are not inherently evil,” Alex Tackett, the 22-year-old president of the newly formed Socialist Rifle Association (SRA), said in a recent Reddit AMA.
Founded last year, the SRA says it aims to help members of the working class effectively defend themselves and their communities. “Defense” is defined broadly: the group’s 52 chapters around the country have organized disaster relief efforts and litter clean-ups along with firearm safety classes and gun range days. The group exists in part to be a leftist alternative to the NRA, which Tackett considers a “reactionary, capitalist institution.”
“We poll our membership to see what people want to do and do that, within reason,” Tackett told YR Media. “The majority of our advocacy is through education.”
The organization believes marginalized groups, including people of color and LGBTQ people, should have a space where they can learn how to use firearms to defend themselves. The group’s vice president, Faye Ecklar, a transgender socialist, says that it’s about creating “a culture in which guns are a small part of a much larger revolutionary project to build communities that don’t need to rely on the state for protection.”
"The ABCs of Socialism" and "The Communist Manifesto" are available on the group’s website right below titles like "Rifles for Rookies: A Firearm Manual for the Completely New" and "Introduction to Reloading Ammunition." This might seem strange at a time when the political left in the United States has become increasingly pro gun-control in the wake of mass shootings in Parkland, Orlando, and more than 50 other cities in the last 7 years — the most recent making national headlines in Dayton, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, and Gilroy, Calif.
According to a July poll by The Economist and YouGov, 71% of Democratic voters say that gun control is a “very important” issue. Democratic presidential candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris have come out in favor of various assault weapon bans, which the SRA doesn’t support. Tackett said in the Reddit AMA that these policies “severely [limit] self defense options, where you may need to fire multiple shots to actually hit something.” Ecklar said she might consider supporting a federal gun license under the right circumstances.
Groups that mix socialism and armed community defense aren’t a new phenomenon in the United States. During the civil rights era in the 1960s and 1970s, young members of the working class channeled their dissatisfaction with social and economic inequality by forming armed radical groups like the Black Panthers, the predominantly white Young Patriots Organization and the predominantly Puerto Rican Young Lords, which formed the original “Rainbow Coalition.”
The Black Panthers were particularly well known for their relationship with guns. They posed with firearms for photos and open-carried them around their communities with the intent of providing checks on police power. They also encouraged African-Americans to purchase guns for their own self defense.
“The cool factor of the guns helped get people through the doors, but it was the coalitions built with other groups that were the real power behind these movements,” said James Tracy, co-author of the book "Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times."
These groups also had a socialist bent inspired by various revolutions happening at the time across Africa and Latin America, Tracy says. Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton’s doctoral dissertation explains that the party embraced a “explicitly socialist ideology” from the beginning, though it had some differences from Karl Marx’s ideas.
Like the SRA today, Tracy says, these groups were responding to the conditions around them. They felt that the government wasn’t working in their interest and that fascism was on the rise.
“No one is really debating anymore whether fascism is a real political force in America,” Tracy said. “Today’s debate is about how much fascism do we have? What’s its relationship with the state? It’s a massive and notable political presence.”
Though the SRA has no partnerships at the national level, Tackett told YR Media that individual chapters have connections with other organizations and co-host events both related and unrelated to guns. Many SRA members are also part of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has around 60,000 members and has ballooned in popularity since the 2016 election.
The SRA isn’t the only left-leaning firearm organization. A group called Redneck Revolt attracted attention in 2017 by open carrying guns at demonstrations against Nazis and white supremacists, typically with the aim of protecting progressive protestors who were not armed. In contrast, the SRA doesn’t allow members to carry firearms at protests while representing the group, Ecklar says.
The SRA has over 2,000 dues-paying members and 52 chapters spanning 31 states, according to its website. Its leaders hope to see this expand to 10,000 members in the next five years, with chapters in all 50 states. The group also aims to train people to become concealed carry instructors and form partnerships with gun ranges to create more inclusive, harassment-free spaces for its members.
Though the nascent SRA is miniscule in comparison to the nearly 5-million-member NRA, its leaders envision the organization becoming a political force.
“If we still have some kind of recognizable government in 2024, I want some Congressperson's clerk to go into their office and say ‘the SRA is here to see you,’” Tackett said in the Reddit AMA. “Basically, I want us to be around, to keep growing, and to keep doing what we’re doing and more.”