Thanks to everyone who joined in and contributed towards fighting Measure 114. Unfortunately this regressive law passed, though extremely narrowly. Because 114 was written vaguely and potential litigation may slow things down, it’s difficult to say how things will unfold next. However, some issues can be addressed:
1.The Race Factor It’s not just an empty slogan when people say “Gun Control is Racist.” This typically comes into play through implicit bias in policing, yet Oregon has already provided especially blatant examples of this. Sheriffs in several overwhelmingly white counties have declared they will not enforce the measure. Even if they eventually reverse themselves, it will be obvious to rank and file officers what is expected, making Measure 114 a functional law against self defense only where significant communities of color exist.
2. Manufactured Moral Panic One of the most sensational claims promoted by gun control advocates in Measure 114 propaganda is that firearms are now the leading cause of death among children. This is only technically accurate using skewed definitions of the word “children” in two ways. The first is eliminating infants under one years old, whose mortality rate from various causes are higher than gun related deaths. The second is including young adults aged eighteen and nineteen, which bumps the statistics enough to surpass other leading fatalities.
It’s an incredibly cynical scare tactic, considering this age group votes, serves in the military, and in many cases have kids of their own. Gun violence is real and affects too many actual children, but manufacturing data to create a moral panic only makes dialogue towards solutions more difficult.
3. Money Talks I subscribe to many gun control email lists and see how fundraising ploys profit from skewed arms industry caricatures. Their carefully crafted image portrays plucky grassroots activists opposing a powerful NRA who bribe politicians with money from shady weapons manufacturers. Yet the numbers don’t match this fantasy. Pro-114 groups raised 2.4 million dollars, while those opposing scraped together just a couple hundred thousand. 114 backers reaped massive donations from billionaire tech magnates and the wealthy financier Michael Bloomberg.
The embattled NRA only ponied up $25,700 and then bungled reporting it, earning an $8,000 fine for their incompetence. The reality is pro-gun groups possess cultural clout but nothing approaching the vast resources of other notorious lobbying groups, such as Amazon or Pfizer. The NRA is a trash fire of racism and greed and operates nowhere near the same level as arms manufacturing behemoths like Lockheed-Martin or Raytheon who have little interest in donating towards 2nd Amendment causes.
4. Delays Can be Dangerous On December 8th all legal gun sales in Oregon will halt, unless some last minute injunction delays the measure. It’s unclear when they will continue, placing anyone who might need emergency self defense in a precarious situation.
Many times people have approached me for gun training who never thought they needed a firearm until something dramatically changed in their life. Perhaps stalking and violence from an ex-partner, with subsequent dismissiveness from the police. Perhaps a sudden barrage of death threats from fascists and discovering their home address broadcast on the internet. People in immediate danger must either face it unarmed or potentially buy illegal guns on the black market, further placing themselves in legal jeopardy.
5. Unintended Consequences Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1982 and Democrats enjoy a lockdown on every statewide office yet this time their candidate Tina Kotek barely edged out her main opponent. Most analysis of this faults Betsy Johnson, a former Democrat running as an independent who possibly drew more votes away from Kotek than her Republican challenger.
Interestingly, Johnson was a very pro-firearm voice in the state senate who acknowledges owning a machine gun. In 2012 she spoke to the annual national meeting of the Liberal Gun Club in Portland, which I attended, and recounted hanging a pink bandoleer full of toy ammunition in the senate cloakroom to annoy anti-gun Democrats.
Laying blame on Johnson for denying Kotek a landslide victory is easy, yet left unexamined is how Measure 114 galvanized conservative voters. For example, Measure 111 guaranteeing affordable health care barely passed and even Measure 112 which removed slavery from the constitution only received a 55.6 majority. When gun control laws appear on the ballot, they endanger actual progressive issues by associated backlash and even Democratic candidates in ordinarily friendly territory.
1. I was asked by an indigenous activist in rural Oregon to help provide community defense training and organize security details for events. She lives under constant threat from local fascists who published her address on the internet and even the school her children attend, claiming they will kill her and the kids as well. Instead of investigating these threats, local police posted her photo on their websites as a warning to other activists, despite her never having been charged or convicted of any crime. In fear for her life, she passed a federal background check and was able to legally purchase a gun. If OR 114 was in effect, she would have also needed to obtain special permission from the police, the same ones colluding with fascists threatening to murder her family.
2. Just a couple months ago one of my close friends stopped a knife wielding man attempting a gay bashing attack in a grocery store parking lot. He drew his concealed carry pistol and pointed it at the man, immediately ending the assault. When police arrived, they questioned the attacker, and because my friend stopped him before anyone was injured, simply let him go. This is typical of most instances when a firearm is used for self defense and why statistics are so difficult to come by. Just as the cops were disinterested in an attempted gay bashing, nobody keeps files on cases where firearms ended conflicts nonviolently. The pistol my friend used had a capacity over ten rounds. If OE 114 were in effect, he might have been the one arrested.
These are just two of many circumstances that really drive home what a damaging law 114 would be and why I’m fighting back. My argument against it will appear in the Oregon voter pamphlet this November and I currently have a GOFUNDME set up to help with that expense. If you can contribute a few dollars, it really means a lot.
My brief article below will appear in the official Oregon voter pamphlet opposing Measure 114 during the upcoming elections this November. I currently have a GOFUNDME to help offset that considerable expense.
Rising Fascism Makes Community Defense Necessary
Between 2005-2010, I published a ‘zine called American Gun Culture Report. My writers were overwhelmingly folks of color, LGBTQ and others who owned firearms because they cared about community defense and knew the violent history of gun control being used to disarm persecuted populations.
Since those years, I have been contacted by countless individuals sharing stories about using guns to resolve dangerous situations. Typical were examples close to me. One friend pointed her shotgun at a man who broke into her house, scaring him away, and another friend recently drew his pistol on a knife wielding man attempting a gay bashing attack, holding him until police arrived. In none of these cases were shots fired and a firearm ended the confrontations peacefully.
Many people told me they kept such stories themselves, because there is such a harmful stigma connecting guns with conservative politics. There are easily available statistics about firearms being used for terrible acts, yet none documenting how often they save lives. However, just a brief look at American history demonstrates the important role armed defense has played, from the Appalachian Mining Wars to Mississippi Civil Rights struggle. In more recent times, I have provided firearms training out in rural parts of Oregon where immigrant communities exist under regular threat from Right wing groups and law enforcement is distrusted or simply unavailable.
But gun violence finally touched my life. Last February, a dear friend was shot and almost killed at the hands of a fascist mass shooter who opened fire on a peaceful police accountability protest at a Portland park. One woman died and several others were wounded before antifascist security used their AR-15 to quickly stop him. If Measure 114 were in effect, my friend and many others would surely be dead.
Before voting, please consider all the consequences.
Thank you for your time.
I will write a more comprehensive article detailing problematic issues with Measure 114, but in brief they are:
Police issued permits – Currently any Oregonian who passes an extensive background check through the federal NICS database can purchase firearms. 114 gives cops complete power to create their own secondary system, keep files on individuals and deny applicants using their own criteria. Given abuses widely documented among law enforcement, this would create an environment ripe for further corruption. Police could easily restrict permits to preferred individuals and deny others without oversight to determine if people from particular racial or ethnic groups, religious backgrounds, LGBTQ status or political affiliations were being screened out. It’s particularly alarming given the open collusion often seen between cops and militant fascist groups, not to mention the high domestic violence rates among officers, making them even more suspect in determining who should be allowed self defense rights.
Magazine restrictions – 114 bans magazines over ten rounds, which eliminates those used in the majority of firearms. It allows those already owned, but as there is no realistic way to document when, perhaps decades old purchases took place, this further gives the police questionable power. To provide perspective, there are currently millions of magazines over the limit in Oregon . Most gun violence either involves suicides or under ten shots being fired, so this law makes very little practical sense, other than making community defense more difficult.
Debating gun politics is never smart while another mass shooting dominates the media. Rational discussions are rarely possible while emotions remain elevated and newsfeeds are awash in trauma. Heated arguments only make productive communication harder later on. There’s nothing wrong with walking away and saving serious conversations for later.
This is always important but even more so when being disrespectful appears callous towards victims. Posturing and snarky comments may feel good in the moment but only solidifies opposition. Consider actually reading articles by anti-gun activists and becoming familiar with their perspectives. Many people have very sincere personal reasons for disliking firearms and should be empathized with, even if their solutions are shortsighted.
Derail any debate about the 2nd Amendment by pointing out it was the most intrusive gun control measure in American history. Like every other freedom in the Bill of Rights, it was intended for whites only and used as justification for mass gun confiscations and disarming Black militias. Learn about the Cruikshank supreme court case which maintained this interpretation well into the 20th century. The 2nd Amendment only holds meaning once occupied and reclaimed as a means to keep all our communities secure.
Since 2004 I’ve written about gun politics and conducted defensive small arms training among threatened communities. This background provided much perspective on the escalation following Donald Trump’s election which energized domestic fascist movements and set loose waves of assaults against immigrants, minorities and others along the left political spectrum. Everyone knows how this newly respectable xenophobia amplified right wing violence. Mass shootings, vehicle attacks and death threats against groups organizing to protect themselves.
Previously, most conservatives I encountered appreciated my efforts expanding gun culture outside it’s unfairly stereotyped niche of Republicans, rednecks and hillbillies. Now even mentioning that I do such work often draws comments that I should be killed. It’s a real shift. Over recent years protecting groups marching against state sanctioned terror, I’ve lost count of the times big trucks adorned with American flags and Trump banners revved their engines and raced toward pedestrians, only swerving away at the last minute.
The many victims at Charlottesville, El Paso, Charleston, Pittsburgh and the Portland MAX attack, to name only a few, were less fortunate. I know others beaten by fascists or severely injured from crowd control munitions during anti-Trump or Black Lives Matter protests, but always returned home safe myself. Most people close to me also came away relatively unharmed.
That grace period ended last weekend when a Portland man opened fire on activists peacefully demanding police accountability in a local park. He murdered a sixty year old disabled woman and wounded four others, several critically. One of the survivors is a dear friend of mine. She is likely only alive today because a nearby security volunteer shot back and disabled the man before his rampage continued.
Details are still emerging about this individual, but some things are clear. He was a fan of right wing figures and groups, from Alex Jones and Andy Ngo to the Proud Boys, plus idolized Kyle Rittenhouse, another armed man who went out looking to fight anti-fascists. His own longtime roommate has since spoken out, describing a trajectory of increased racism and misogyny that made her fearful, stating she believed the person who shot him “saved my life.”
Most who nurture imagined grievances, like the presidential election being stolen or Covid vaccines containing microchips, or that organized pedophiles are responsible for their woes, don’t engage in physical violence, yet still enable a toxic conspiracy culture. It took purely insidious motivation to convince someone that a sixty year old walking with a cane presented some threat requiring gunfire to solve.
I have much more to say about that, but at least there is one concrete thing we can do. The survivors here in Portland need financial assistance and if anyone can spare some dollars, I’ve verified that their GoFundMe account is active and going directly to help those affected. Thanks to everyone who can pitch in and help.
I’ve written before about the old time radio program Dr. Sixgun, which stands out as remarkable amidst the Western genre for its compassionate depiction of typically disparaged groups, such as immigrants and Indians. Instead of sanitized history, the story lines unflinchingly portray cruelty by American settlers and the human cost of colonization is on full display.
Because Dr. Sixgun presents such a contrary narrative among stereotypical Westerns and doesn’t shirk from social issues, it wasn’t surprising that the episode No Guns Ordinance touched on gun control. This one began with Dr. Grey Matson, the famed Dr. Sixgun himself, entering a town called Rail End. He became surprised upon discovering open carry was recently banned by order of the local sheriff, Marshall Anders. Despite his proficient reputation with a revolver, Dr. Matson remained a thoughtful physician who frequently treated shooting victims. He checked his six-gun without argument and then sought out Anders, curious to learn more about this experiment.
The marshall explained: “I can tell ya, if I had my choice, once I get hold of a crazy drunk on the way to the pokey on a Saturday night, I’d just as soon I was the only one totin’ a gun.” He elaborated as having been inspired by the iconic lawman Wyatt Earp. With this reference, Dr. Sixgun writers knew their history. Back in the day, even such classic frontier locations as Deadwood and Dodge City were known for strict gun control ordinances. In fact, Wyatt Earp’s famous shootout at the O.K. Coral involved his opponents violating firearms regulations in Tombstone, Arizona.
It’s no exaggeration that modern Arizona gun control laws are far more permissive than during Dr. Sixgun’s era. For example, I personally possess an out-of-state permit issued by Arizona which lets me carry concealed firearms there, plus several other states, despite my residence in Oregon. Highlighting this is important, as so much right-wing propaganda builds upon skewed pictures of the past, falsely mythologizing the Old West as a place where Americans lived more freely and that some slow decline in liberty has progressed since then. It’s all complete lies, of course. Frontier times were far more restrictive on individual lives than any conservative today would admit tolerating.
As the story continued, Marshall Anders boasted his policy had successfully reduced murders and Dr. Matson left the town feeling quite inspired, remarking: “That ordinance, that must be the answer . . . . .take the guns away and they won’t be so quick to fight…. I get awful tired of probing for bullets and sewing up wounds. I got more important things to do.”
Dr. Matson subsequently attempted persuading others that gun control could work yet only met with derision from others in the territory. Ranchers and bartenders and even his own local sheriff showed complete disinterest or open contempt for such a scheme, several calling it “against nature.” Faced with overwhelming opposition, he finally gave up promoting the idea. Some time later, Matson’s travels led him back to Rail End where he turned over his revolver to a new sheriff named Marshall Benson. It soon became apparent things were not well, despite surface tranquility. Sinister armed men lurked about, closely monitoring conversations between citizens and keeping tabs on everyone. Each wore an official lawman’s badge
It turned out months before, Benson and a gang of corrupt deputies had pushed Marshall Anders out of power and began running the place as their own personal fiefdom. With everyone else disarmed, no one could oppose them. Whereas most episodes of Dr. Sixgun resolve conflicts, this one concluded on a tragic note. Fearing for his life, Dr. Matson fled the town which remained in the grip of unaccountable cops, maintained through fear, and of course, a firearms monopoly.
Appropriately, the first scene Dr. Matson encountered after leaving Rail End, with its chilling calm, was a boisterous crowd of drunken cowboys waving revolvers and firing off shots willy-nilly. He regretfully acknowledged this as a preferable trade off against the police state tyranny so recently experienced. Wrap up narration dismally recounted that Rail End residents eventually placed hope in electing a new sheriff, though Benson’s leading opponent was murdered before this could take place.
It sounds reasonable at first, yet Matson’s observation presents a false choice. Banning firearms simply isn’t required for an oppressive government to exist, as examples from the Colfax Massacre to Black Wall Street demonstrate. In more recent times, Black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri were no less armed than other Americans, yet knew shooting back against police terror, as their ancestors sometimes had, would be futile. Just as it’s foolish to imagine eliminating firearms automatically creates peace, the reverse is also true. Well armed societies are often rampant with injustice. Gun control might be one factor in maintaining systems of tyranny, but not necessarily constitute the main ingredient.
Old time militias enforcing government sanctioned gun control? That’s certainly an image contrary to the one cultivated by many 2nd Amendment supporters. But while some harken back to a selective version of America’s past, in her recent book The Second, historian Carol Anderson carefully examines what purpose that amendment actually signified in practice. It’s a far cry from what modern day patriotic propaganda would have people believe.
Anderson’s work parallels one of the most exciting genres in American historical scholarship, which has seen increasing numbers of academics researching Black resistance movements that mobilized against post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow era persecution. While most white-washed histories of the Civil Rights struggle spin redemptive tales about noble suffering and non-violent tactics winning victories toward greater social equality, these new explorations grasp gut level human realities, often less appealing than earlier sanitized versions.
In just one sensational example, the historian Akinyele Umoja looked at a Mississippi region where KKK influence waned in the early 1960s, allowing establishment of successful voter registration drives. Yet digging deeper, he discovered this power vacuum only developed after Black militia members successfully repelled invading nightriders, before posting the decapitated head of one fallen Klansman on a bridge as warning. This act so horrified nearby white militants that they simply gave up control of the area. (1)
Anderson wrestles with issues no less intense, but from a different angle. She begins scrutinizing how gun control affected Black populations in the Americas under various colonial powers. During British rule, each of the original thirteen colonies enacted stringent laws forbidding enslaved population’s arms, plus highly regulating their ownership by any free people of color. (2) But even these small privileges were curtailed once the War of Independence began. North Carolina offered rewards to those who successfully confiscated guns from Black communities and other states clamped down harder as well. (3) No wonder they were fearful. Martha Washington was perhaps the first to use the phrase “contagion of liberty” (4) describing the terror herself and others whose wealth originated in human bondage felt after realizing so much lofty talk about Liberty, Inalienable Rights, and All Men Being Created Equal might spark similar aspirations among African-Americans, free or enslaved.
Indeed, many people of color were thrilled hearing these values so openly praised, yet in most states, militia membership and firearms had long been exclusively for whites only. Only after US forces suffered repeated defeats did several states begin recruiting Black men, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Then, when British forces began moving against South Carolina, US military officers begged state officials to let Black soldiers serve and bolster the ranks of exhausted militias. Incredibly, this American legislature deliberated and finally decided they preferred surrender to the British than allow non-whites arms. (5)
Still, some free Black militias had existed for decades who trained with their own rifles and earned exceptionally brave reputations. This was not under United States law however, but allowed by Spanish and French colonial administrations, especially in Louisiana. As soon as these areas fell under American annexation, the 2nd Amendment provided no protection and gun control laws enforced by white militias disarmed these populations as well. (6) It actually became an embarrassing point during the War of 1812 after British regular soldiers smashed through ineffective militia forces and captured the US capitol. Their next target was New Orleans, where the governor of Louisiana recognized state militia troops were greatly insufficient. Faced with dire circumstances, he offered rifles to Black militia veterans and begged for help. Six-hundred volunteered and joined with a multi-racial force that contributed one of America’s few military victories in the entire war. General Andrew Jackson (of all people) even commended them for special valor. Yet instead of medals, these courageous men were afterward awarded heavy labor details in swamps and the Black militias forcibly disbanded once more. (7)
Anderson’s study exposes a familiar repetition marching forward. While it’s not uncommon for modern pro-2nd Amendment advocates to reference what became known as Black Codes, when denouncing firearms regulations as racist, more rarely do they acknowledge the enforcement role militias played. In the case of Georgia, white men were required to own guns, but specifically in legal reference to the militia’s need for self protection while searching the homes of Black families for weapons. (8) Moving deeper into the nineteenth-century, numerous other states passed strict laws, from Virginia, where free Black people found with firearms received thirty-nine lashes, to Florida, where white militias could search the homes of Black families for arms whenever they pleased, and the more lenient North Carolina, which allowed free Black people to apply for yearly permits before owning anything from shotguns to knives. (9)
The list of draconian gun control measures considered legal under the 2nd Amendment, even long after slavery was abolished, stretches on. Time and again, it provided no protection for Black communities who defended themselves against organized violent attacks, from the Colfax Massacre of 1873, to the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, and the destruction of Black Wall Street in 1921. Courts and judges routinely dismissed the Constitution, Bill of Rights and 2nd Amendment included, as legal grounds for non-whites to enjoy their full human existence as Americans.
This should be a sharp wake up call to anyone still viewing the 2nd Amendment as some wise, holy governance handed down through time. It’s own authors supported the most invasive firearms confiscations in US history. Like the title of my weblog has long declared, the 2nd Amendment must be occupied and reformed… into a tool for seizing gun culture back from what the founders originally intended. Simply another way for maintaining white supremacy and upper class dominion. Liberty may be a contagion… and Martha Washington meant that as an insult- but we can still take pride spreading it far and wide.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja. We Will Shoot Back. New York University Press, New York. 2013. 58-9.
Carol Anderson. The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York. 2021. 18.
I currently work for a low-income housing non profit. While being part of an industry that helps people in our community is rewarding, this regularly puts myself and my co-workers in contact with individuals experiencing crisis, whether mental health or substance abuse related. Despite occasional tense moments, we do our best de-escalating confrontations and negotiating solutions as best we can. Very rarely does anyone get hurt.
One exception took place several years ago at an apartment complex in our portfolio. A male resident barged into the leasing office with a baseball bat and struck the building manager over the head, knocking her unconscious. He then ran out and began assaulting other people nearby. Amidst this chaos, the manager recovered enough to retrieve a can of mace from her purse. She bravely intercepted the assailant and sprayed him down, incapacitating the man until police arrived.
Once she returned from a brief hospital stay, co-workers and residents congratulated this woman for quick thinking and resourcefulness that certainly prevented more serious injuries. Yet, our official corporate response was more subdued. An all-staff email reminded everyone that our employee agreement prohibited self defense instruments on company property. As one might imagine, this included firearms, but also pepper spray and electric tasers.
At the time, this sparked consternation, with several building managers openly declaring they would rather be fired than leave themselves defenseless. They pointed out how violent abusers stalk victims in many locations, workplaces included. Some women mentioned personally surviving domestic assault and how keeping a taser or pepper spray nearby was simply how they lived their lives now. Leaving self defense tools at home would create huge gaps in their personal safety… not just on site, but during commutes, plus any side trips or appointments along the way.
A damage control email quickly made the rounds, promising all field offices would soon have panic buttons installed under the desks. Some employees grumbled, pointing out any response would still be delayed, but in general, this declaration calmed things. After a couple months, I checked in with some managers, asking if their offices were set up yet. They grimly reported no. Perplexed, I questioned the head of maintenance, inquiring about progress. He responded vaguely, reporting that details were still being ironed out and assured me I’d be kept in the loop. More months went by…then years, and that was the last anyone heard about panic buttons as far as I’m aware.
So, what does this have to do with gun politics? Well, laws ostensibly regulating firearms sometimes reach much further than expected, just like workplace rules. Oregon Senate Bill 554, recently passed by the legislature reads:
166.370. (1)(a) Any person who intentionally possesses a loaded or unloaded firearm or any other instrument used as a dangerous weapon, while in or on a public building, shall upon conviction be guilty of a Class C felony.
The term “weapon” is defined by listing an array of objects including:
(c) Mace, tear gas, pepper mace or any similar deleterious agent as defined in ORS 163.211; (d) An electrical stun gun or any similar instrument;
Now, as everyone should be well aware, laws are not enforced equally. Regarding my earlier example, during an all-staff meeting following that incident, the head of HR reminded everyone about our policy against self defense items. I glanced over at one of the building managers who earlier voiced disagreement and sure enough, sitting on the table in front of her glinted a can of pepper spray clipped onto her key ring. Nobody said a damn thing.
It seemed moderately hilarious at the time, but looking back, highlights how privilege and bias play out. This building manager was a white woman, well regarded at our nonprofit after years of service, and clearly felt little concern over breaking a major company regulation while preserving her own sense of security. I absolutely support her in doing so, but also wonder about my other co-workers, Black and Brown women with similar safety concerns, yet less confident in their employment, who make personal risk equations every day. Which is more endangered right now? Their life or their job?
Likewise, as more locations adopt policies prohibiting many people’s self defense options, already marginalized populations necessarily feel the pressure more. Several years ago I received a tearful phone call from a friend in another city. She was sheltering in a public library after running from a man who had sexually assaulted her nearby. It seemed like an easy decision, but what if she had a mace canister buried in her backpack? Under SB 554, instead of finding sanctuary, she could now be a felon for violating laws promoted to the public as reducing gun violence. While my white co-worker might feel secure in authorities giving her a pass on that, in this case my friend hiding from her assailant was a Black woman, too afraid of the police to call 911.
None of these complications are discussed in major media accounts of SB 554. Instead it’s described only as a bill to mandate safe storage of firearms and allow greater restrictions on where guns can be carried. It’s understandable why people are concerned about these issues. Firearms remain a hot commodity for theft, and while hindering access in emergency situations is problematic, greater numbers locked up securely will hopefully reduce unauthorized access. Likewise, as someone who has faced down armed fascist groups on the streets many times, I understand more than most the knee-jerk impulse to ban firearms from public places.
Being a butch white man, personal safety is rarely a concern for me. Potential predators detect a hard target and cops see a buddy they’d probably enjoy some beers with. Yet among many women- or any less physically intimidating individuals, daily life often resembles an anxiety ridden obstacle course… taking inconvenient routes around dark streets, staying alert for signs an abusive ex is back in town or checking in with friends during dates. Large numbers of people I know habitually carry self defense spray. It’s unlikely anyone would support limiting their ability in doing so, yet SB 554 has done this with virtually no discussion. We can argue about gun control… but when the safety of our most vulnerable neighbors is compromised as a byproduct, only dangerous abusers benefit.
-Nicholas Kristof, New York Times editorial headline, January 12, 2011
“In the US we have more federal regulations over toy guns than real ones”
-Senator Cory Booker, tweeted May 7, 2019
“Everyone knows that teddy bears aren’t as dangerous as firearms. But these classic toys have to satisfy a wide range of safety standards before they make their way into a store, much less a child’s hands. Guns, on the other hand, face few such requirements.”
-Patrick Coffee, Adweek, March 31, 2017
Too many such false generalizations and emotional platitudes dominate firearm debates. It’s absurd, of course, as guns in the US are highly controlled, far beyond most consumer products. Particularly frustrating is how capricious and arbitrary many gun regulations are. For one, the difference between a rifle and pistol is defined by barrel length. Anything over sixteen inches is a rifle. Anything under that is technically a pistol, unless it has a stock for shouldering which makes it a short barreled rifle (SBR). An SBR requires registration, more background checks and additional taxation. This becomes more bizarre upon observing that barrels on US military standard issue M4 carbines are 14.5 inches, making semi-auto civilian versions without stocks technically handguns.
Even more obtuse is that SBRs are supposedly regulated out of fear that short rifles represent a special hazard as concealable for use in crime. This dates from the National Firearms Act of 1934, a legislative backlash against prohibition fueled violence during the ‘20s, sensationalized by gangsters wielding legal, full-auto Tommy guns. But much changed between then and now. Rifles with folding stocks or bullpup designs were unusual in the early 20th century, but later became much more common. Yet as long as their barrel remained over 16 inches, or entire length over 26 inches, no NFA violation occurred.
Such rifles were untypical among criminals, therefore, no reason was seen to close any alleged “bullpup or folding stock loophole” in the NFA. Gun violence in the US is essentially handgun violence. Pistols are small, easily concealed or disposed if needed, and because most armed exchanges involve only a few shots at very close range, best suited for most illegal endeavors.*
Now, the particular design of an M4, just like its more famous relations, the AR-15/M-16, involves a buffer tube that extends behind the hand grip, much like a rudimentary stock itself. Many shooters over the years saved time and money by simply buying short barreled AR pistols and bracing against the buffer tubes for steadiness while firing. Others used slings for the same purpose with stockless AK or other large pistol variations.
Eventually, a creative Iraq war veteran noticed some disabled vets, who formerly enjoyed sport shooting, might continue if a way existed to strap pistol carbine variants around their forearms. He began modifying the AR platform, which most obviously lent itself toward the effort, as it’s buffer tube already formed an anchor point. In 2013, a company named SB Tactical began producing arm braces for this purpose, with a letter from the ATF certifying them as legal pistol attachments. These became very popular, not only among disabled persons, but anyone who appreciated better controlability. Beside the benefit created using these braces as advertised, it soon became obvious they made shouldering possible. Internet gun culture quickly filled up with articles and videos discussing the potential legality of this practice, and cautioning against posting photos with pistols unstrapped and shouldered, lest regulators find an excuse to ban the devices.
For a couple years, braced pistols flew under the mainstream radar. I regularly read anti-gun newsletters and only once or twice saw brief mention. The apparent absence of these pistols (or even proper SBRs with stocks) among violent incidents weakened arguments for greater restriction, so in an odd unspoken truce, both gun control groups and shooting enthusiasts largely kept silent about braces, though for quite different reasons.
Eventually, as more manufacturers began selling braces, the original intent became muddied. From any observers standpoint, it was obvious SB Tactical’s brace was built to be strapped around the users forearm. By contrast, the later Shockwave brace looked more like an actual stock and didn’t even come with straps, though featuring slots they could fit through. The question of what made stocks and braces different revolved more around length of pull than anything else. This refers to the measure between a trigger and the end of a rifle stock, under the idea that a short brace is uncomfortable to shoulder, clearly making it a byproduct of design, not the primary intent. However, every person is different and while someone with long arms might find shouldering a brace problematic, smaller framed individuals could do so with ease.
As more braces became available, the ATF received increased queries for clarification. It’s understandable why companies desired individual affirmation, as nobody wants a product that is legal one day and a felony the next. In 2015, what many gun owners feared finally happened. A new ruling came out stating that shouldering braces transformed them into an unauthorized SBR. For two years, this firearms accessory actually made people criminals the instant they assumed a particular stance holding it. Then, in 2017 a reversal was issued maintaining braces were legal, no matter how an individual used them.
It took until 2019 before any notable crime involved a braced pistol, the Dayton, Ohio mass shooting which killed nine victims. This tragedy illustrates why cracking down on pistol braces makes little sense. The supposed reason SBRs were originally so heavily regulated is that smaller rifles are somewhat concealable. However, as decades of criminal activity demonstrate, rifles simply aren’t part of most gun violence, no matter their size. In this instance, concealment wasn’t even attempted. The perpetrator suited up with tactical gear from his vehicle before rushing across a parking lot and opening fire on a crowd. While the brace made his 10.5 inch barrel AR style pistol easier to handle, the increased velocity provided by a 16 inch rifle barrel would have actually been deadlier and a proper stock made it even more controllable. It’s obviously small consolation to survivors, but the fact a braced pistol was used likely prevented increased casualties.
This horrifying event was almost precisely replicated in March of 2021 during the Boulder, Colorado shooting which took ten lives. Again, a 10.5 inch AR style pistol wasn’t concealed by the shooter who wore blatant tactical gear and opened fire across a parking lot. Just as before, a more orthodox rifle would have only raised the body count. However, this took place following the 2020 elections which put Democrats in political majorities and after four years of Trump’s cozy relationship with the NRA, anti-gun supporters were hungry for anything, no matter how symbolic.
Therefore, the fact pistol braces wafted for years amidst a regulatory grey area suddenly became brandished as if they formed significant aspects of mass shootings. Just as Trump banned bump stocks with a simple executive action, President Biden could do the same, and while courts might eventually strike it down, a short term win would be achieved. That’s why anti-gun activists rejoiced when Biden asked the ATF to once more clarify if pistol braces create SBR rifles, with a statement that they “can make a firearm more stable and accurate, while still being concealable.” All this despite the estimated 3-4 million braced pistols already sold, yet which appear in few crimes and none known where concealability played a role.
What’s truly heartbreaking is America actually suffers from significant social violence. Structural racism. The failed war on drugs. Domestic assaults. Rising fascist movements with alarming support inside the police and military. Even within firearm related statistics, the overwhelming majority of deaths are suicides. None of these issues even slightly involve the the tedious minutia regarding how many quarter inches differentiate a brace from a stock.
Banning braces simply means widespread illegal materials abruptly in circulation, more opportunity for biased law enforcement ruining lives, and while many urban liberals likely envision White rural rednecks being persecuted, the reality is always more prisoners of color locked away. Democrats still have time to veer away from squandering political capital in a post-Trump era where real change is possible, not on pointless distraction from real problems.
*The actual number of shots fired during armed encounters is very difficult to determine. Police reports are typically unhelpful and so most estimations are based on anecdotal evidence. However, these tend to agree on the basic elements: that such exchanges are brief, close and with only a few shots fired. In my own experience of interviewing many persons who used firearms for self defense over the years, this bears up, except that in every time related, the mere presence of a gun was sufficient to defuse situations nonviolently.
“You’re family men, decent enough people. But you’ve got a lot of frustration and hate in you, so you get together and do things that make you feel big and brave, only they aren’t so big and they aren’t so brave when you stop to think about it . . . you’re all sort of ashamed and nobody looks much like a brave hero . . . You men are guilty of murdering your own souls… what’s decent and good in you!”
-Grey Matson aka Doctor Sixgun, addressing a mob of nightriders
One doesn’t usually think of old time Western radio dramas as a resource for positive social awareness. These epics were traditionally tailored as nationalist mythology to assuage White guilt over genocide against native populations during the bloody conquest of North America. So it’s particularly interesting a vein of the genre, known as “adult Westerns” took a highly complex approach that stood apart from the more common “black hat / white hat” cowboy narratives that portrayed settlers and European colonialism optimistically, while glossing over their human cost.
The most successful of these was surely Gunsmoke, which aired on radio stations from 1952-62 and also in a popular television version until 1975. Yet another lesser known drama from that era remains well worth examining. This show, called Doctor Sixgun, lasted only a single season from 1954-55 and informed listeners through an intro that it’s protagonist was a “symbol of justice and mercy” perhaps warning away Western fans who preferred more macho gunplay and less introspection.
It followed the exploits of a frontier physician named Grey Matson (played by Karl Weber) known to locals as Doctor Sixgun, yet famed for solving problems through wit and compassion more often than his revolver. While falling for occasional problematic ethnic stereotypes, it’s remarkable how well the storylines hold up. Throughout multiple episodes, Dr. Matson presents sympathetic perspectives regarding nearby Indian tribes without sugarcoating the actions of White townspeople and military officers attempting to exploit or murder them.
During one especially wrenching episode, ”Atonement for Cowardice” (November 7, 1954) Dr. Matson intervened after an elderly alcoholic continually degraded himself in public for liquor. However, the man refused any assistance, choosing instead to wear a dog collar and entertain local roughnecks who kept whisky flowing in return. It concluded with the man’s death, but not before letting him share the tragic story he claims caused his condition, lending a final tone of dignity instead of mockery.
Most notable in today’s political environment is “The Immigrant Settler” (October 21, 1954). It began with an introduction from Dr. Matson’s frequent companion, a Romani peddler named Pablo, who declared: “There was the time when my good friend, Doctor Sixgun, had to cure an epidemic, a strange disease which infects men whose heart is filled with hatred.”
The first indication of this epidemic came when a crowd of masked men called “nightriders” assaulted the homestead of an immigrant family, in obvious allusion to the Ku Klux Klan, who were often known by the same term. Significantly, earlier in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation and brought about a major moment in the American Civil Rights struggle, alongside escalating Klan related political violence against it. Most Doctor Sixgun radio listeners would have immediately made the association with current events.
It’s important to note, while the KKK has since become synonymous with racist lynchings, bombings and other brutalities, this episode aired long before some of their most notorious acts. The 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, for example, wasn’t until 1963. It’s possible many White people tuning in would have only associated the KKK with it’s much more socially acceptable incarnation earlier in the 20th century when politicians openly posed for photo ops with hooded Klansmen and President Wilson lauded D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated them. In other words, painting the KKK as villains in a popular radio script that year was hardly easy virtue signaling.
What’s also interesting is the attacked family were Norwegian immigrants. Many today forget that the concept of White supremacy only recently evolved into an idealization of pan-European culture, often fixated upon Nordic peoples as pinnacles of racial purity. Years before, a strict hierarchy existed in the pseudo-science, which regarded Southern and Eastern Europeans as quite inferior, including the Irish and other western Celts. Scandinavians were sometimes singled out for persecution in America because so many of them became involved with union organizing.
Once Dr. Matson discovered members of his community were being terrorized, he approached the local sheriff, who suddenly showed little enthusiasm for law enforcement, stating: “I’m against this night ridin’ as much as any man, but it’s a thing you can’t fight! For one thing they wear pillowcases… you can’t identify them! . . . the boys are just gettin’ rid of a little steam!”
The reluctant sheriff only agreed he would take action if Dr. Matson could round up a posse of ten or fifteen men. Unfortunately, this attempt at playing Abraham to save the city of Sodom failed. Everyone Matson attempted recruiting either feared the vigilantes, or secretly counted among their ranks. However, his investigation did turn up one woman who informed on her deceitful husband and revealed their next target was Pablo.
Together, Dr. Matson and Pablo concocted a scheme that caught nine of the nightriders, including their ringleader, a leading sheriff’s deputy who immediately fled town. The remaining men were subjected to a tongue lashing from Matson who passionately decried their inhumanity, leaving them publicly unmasked and ashamed. Pablo then generously declined pressing charges, observing: “…they have harmed themselves enough.”
The whole story, despite being set one-hundred and fifty years in the past and broadcast almost seventy years ago, resonates deeply today. Waves of recent xenophobia would have saddened, but not shocked Doctor Sixgun. He spotlighted how common prejudices among ordinary people can be mobilized into violence, especially when law enforcement is actively complicit, like the guilty deputy- or simply looks away as the weak-willed sheriff preferred. There remains no simple vaccine against this epidemic, which still runs strong, turning infected hearts toward hatred and making immigrants targets. We can learn much from a well-intentioned physician who countered its spread, at least in his part of the West on old time radio waves.