December 6, 2016
A Saudi-born student is beaten to death on the streets of Wisconsin. A woman is punched in the face at a bistro in the very Blue haven of Brooklyn. Another young woman is told that, if she doesn’t remove her hijab, she will be set on fire. This is America after November 9, a nation of empowered bigots—or, perhaps, more aptly, a nation of more empowered bigots—who have rewarded Donald Trump for stamping his gold-plated name brand on white supremacy by voting him into the highest office in the land. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there were “201 incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation across the country as of Friday, November 11 at 5 p.m.” Street harassment and assaults, graffiti reading “Make America White Again” or “Heil Trump,” the destruction of homes and property belonging to LGBTQ people, and KKK victory marches are becoming so common that the CNN webpage devoted to tracking “hate speech and crimes post-election” now includes an editor’s note that reads, simply: “We are (regrettably) updating this page on a regular basis.” These daily bursts of domestic terrorism have put many liberals in the awkward, previously untenable position of owning—and being prepared, if necessary, to fire—a gun.
Gun sales spiked dramatically in the days leading up to the election, with FBI background checks increasing by 26 percent. This boon in boomsticks was attributable to the NRA crowd’s fears that, to quote a Fox News headline, “Hillary Clinton will work to end gun ownership as president.” Clinton’s campaign pledge to renew a federal ban on assault rifles—the kind of guns used by the Sandy Hook and Pulse nightclub killers, now dubbed as “mass shooters’ weapon of choice” by the Washington Post—was spun into Second Amendment Horror Story: They’re Takin’ Our Freedom, and drove these sales (presumably among people who forget that the federal government has drones and nukes). However, after the NRA-endorsed Trump won the electoral college, these sales stalled. The new uptick in gun purchases came from a previously unexpected demographic, though perhaps it shouldn’t be, given Trump’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric (if you can call it that—particularly women and people of color. One volunteer at a gun-training facility told his local news affiliate, “We have had a general increase in individuals that have been victims of violence against women. They have been looking for means to defend themselves.” And an NBC news piece about the rise of POC purchasing guns quotes Earl Curtis, the African-American owner of an arsenal in Virginia, said, “[Minorities] feel that racists now feel like they can attack ... just because the president is doing it.” Indeed, Trump has only responded to the acts of violence committed in his name with a tepid “stop it”—reserving his ire for the cast of Hamilton and Alec Baldwin.
So, many of the people who are most vulnerable under a Trump administration—not only from the Atwoodian horror show of his policies, but from the bootheels of his supporters—are exerting those Second Amendment rights the Right Wing is so enamored of. “I’ve never used a gun or any kind of weapon. I’m actually generally anti-violence and guns,” says Amanda*. Amanda grew up in an abusive home, and “my father used to a gun to kill birds and animals in front of me because it was a way to show power over myself and my mother.” However, the terror that she and her Jewish boyfriend feel toward Trump and his fan club of neo-Nazis is forcing her to rethink her personal aversion to violence and guns: “My boyfriend wants to purchase a gun before Trump is in office … I understand why he feels the need to arm himself and I agree with him,” she says. “We very much believe in sharing love, kindness, and empathy. But I’m not sure that the alt-right and those that are amassing power agree with that sentiment.”
Amanda’s boyfriend, Arthur* did a stint in a foreign military, so he has gun training. He’s alarmed that neither Trump, nor the mainstream media, is doing due diligence in speaking out against this rise of white supremacy. “My grandparents’ family were all murdered by Nazis, and I won’t let anyone repeat that on me, or any other group in this country, not without a fight,” he explains. “I plan on protesting and supporting groups and politicians [that oppose Trump], but if [white nationalists] bring the violence, I want to be armed.” This stance has a spiritual kinship with the Jewish resistance fighters who took up arms against their Nazi oppressors—the goal wasn’t so much to wholesale dismantle the government killing apparatus (that would have been impossible), but to disrupt the murders however temporarily, defend Jewish honor, and avenge the victims.
Trump’s avowed desire to institute mass deportations and registration lists for Muslims and immigrants; his violent taunts of jailing and killing his opponent, the first woman to secure a major party nomination; his Cabinet picks, who have supported waterboarding, and were considered too racist for judicial confirmation even in the Reagan era; and his embrace of notorious anti-Semite and white supremacist Stephen Bannon as his political consigliere, conjure shadow images of Berlin in 1933 and Reconstruction-era South, silhouettes of monsters in black boots and white robes lingering outside of the front door, holding a length of rope and a torch. This history frightens even the most pacific liberals I spoke to into considering the possibility of an armed resistance. “I always said that, if I have children, I’d be that parent who calls the other parent before a playdate to ask a bunch of questions, including whether there is a gun in the house,” says Kate*, a “peace begins on your plate” vegan. And yet, her experiences of street harassment, both alone and with her wife, have magnified her fears about her safety, and the safety of marginalized people, in Trumplandia. “Now I worry, and we all quite clearly see, that certain people now feel entitled to engage in these aggression actions as if they were given a clear mandate with the outcome of this election.” Though Kate is hardly in the primary demographic for gun ownership, which remains Right-leaning white men with a high-school education or a few years of college, she says that, “If you told me a year ago that the thought of owning a gun or even learning how to shoot one was going to be on my mind, I'd laugh and say, ‘not me, not ever.’ Now, I can completely see why people may feel the need.”
Many of the buyers who rushed to the gun shops like November 7 was a prequel to Black Friday were anticipating a spectral hand of “the government” reaching into their gun safes. Yet these typical buyers are never the people whose lives and liberties are consistently at risk—from fellow citizen and agent of the government alike. As writers like Edward Wycoff Williams, have pointed out, “It is ironic that the modern-day argument for citizens to arm themselves against unwarranted government oppression—dominated, as it is, by angry white men—has its roots in the foundation of the 1960s Black Panther movement.” In his 2011 book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler examines how certain aspects of the modern day gun control movement, “like many other laws, used to oppress African Americans.” He describes how, in the Reconstruction South, “One common provision barred Blacks from possessing firearms. To enforce the gun ban, white men riding in posses began terrorizing Black communities. In January 1866, Harper’s Weekly reported that in Mississippi, such groups had “seized every gun and pistol found in the hands of the (so called) freedmen” in parts of the state. The most infamous of these disarmament posses, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan.”
So it’s ironic then that the contingency who most vociferously, even neurotically, needs to express and affirm their rights, especially their second amendment rights, are the white men who have no real risk of losing them—and especially not under a Trump administration. And it’s particularly telling that everyone I interviewed for this piece requested a pseudonym, yet Edgar Maddison Welch, the man who walked into a popular family pizzeria in D.C. carrying an assault rifle because he’d read online that Democrats ran a child-sex ring out of its basement (a conspiracy theory that Michael Flynn, Jr., the son of Trump’s pick for security adviser, has helped to popularize), appears proudly brandishing said assault rifle in his social media profiles.
Josephine, who is married to a retired police officer, has been trained to use his Smith and Wesson 3913 9-mm. pistol and Ruger Mark II .22. She considers herself a “staunch gun control supporter” who thinks gun violence in this country is “epidemic and one of the worst things about our country,” and “financially supports Everytown for Gun Safety, The Brady Campaign, Sandy Hook Promise, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Moms Demand Action and several other groups.” Still, she knows several people who’ve been victimized since Donald Trump gave his victory speech—including a friend chased by four men who screamed “Hillary can’t help you now” at him; another friend beaten up and spat on by a group of men who called him a “fucking faggot;” yet another friend called a “Lesbo” by two men who followed up with a threat that “Trump’s going to take care of your sorry ass;” and yet another friend who was riding the N train in New York when a white man boarded, and starting ranting that “All you fags and spics and n*******s have to give me a seat now. We made America great again.” So, one can hardly blame her when she says: “I am glad we have guns. The people who hate us have guns. So, we have them, too. And we know how to use them. I guess it is that simple.”
Of course, it’s never quite that simple—and Josephine knows this too. As an experienced, responsible gun owner, she recommends that anyone is curious about guns really learn how to use and store them properly. “I have tremendous respect and awe for firearms and their devastating power,” she explains. Josephine has been thinking a lot about power these days; the power about to be bestowed upon a man who has committed serial assaults, and who has encouraged a profound emotional and cultural myopia in his followers: “They are the ones who made America great, and this Great White Past will now rise again. They have been fed a diet of lies and hatred and they are consuming it with relish.” And she’s also been thinking a lot about that famous Martin Niemöller poem, the one about the power in speaking out and fighting back against tyranny, and against the systematic erasure of vulnerable people. For many of us, there are no easy answers about what to do as inauguration day nears, only a sense in the preciousness of our beautifully diverse nation, a nation that seemed so close to actually becoming greater before it sank back into the bog of hatred and bigotry. There is grief, and fear, and a desire to resist all that is happening now, and all that is to come.
* Some names have been changed to protect privacy of the subjects.