As Ed Gardner rides in his car on the way to the shooting range, the local NPR station blares over the radio. Gardner says he's "in the closet" at the range, having to hide from his gun-owning peers one of the most guarded secrets of his identity: He's a liberal.
"We try to avoid emotional topics when people are armed," he said.
Gardner is the executive director of the Liberal Gun Club, which was founded in 2008. Since Donald Trump's election, membership has been booming. Most new members come by way of simply searching for an alternative to the monolithically conservative gun enthusiast forums across the internet.
New members have been coming in droves: Enrollments are up over 10%, and across social media, blog posts about the potential need for a "gun culture on the left" are shared by thousands of people.
The "snowflakes" are grabbing their guns. Those who see the Trump agenda as an existential threat to safety are starting to rethink their position on gun ownership, taking self-defense classes and joining groups like Liberal Gun Club or Pink Pistols, an LGBTQ gun club. Waiting to receive these new gun owners are the Second Amendment leftists who have been advocating for a liberal gun culture for years, trying to convince fellow liberals that not only are many gun control measures a lost cause, but a divisive political tool that ignores the underlying causes of violence.
"Tyranny isn't the United States Army, necessarily," Gardner said in the car on the way to the range, having flipped off NPR to discuss the Liberal Gun Club with me. "Tyranny can be when a transgender kid or adult in Compton is actually afraid for her life because some people don't like queer people."
For some, it wasn't Trump. Piper Smith got to work building a San Diego chapter of the Pink Pistols after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. Smith said they've brought over 360 active local members into the chapter, and held self-defense trainings for dozens of paying participants. The group is planning to be present at San Diego's upcoming pride festivities. For Smith, it's a nonpartisan issue — it's about protecting LGBTQ lives.
"There are plenty of places in California where LGBT people don't feel safe, and with good reason," Smith said. "The police will come and take a report, or they'll come and pick up your body. But I'd much rather have LGBT individuals standing up for themselves, not living in fear and not staying home because it's dark and they're scared."
"Tyranny can be when a transgender kid or adult in Compton is actually afraid for her life because some people don't like queer people."
Liberal gun owners have been pleading with their lefty brethren for years. In op-eds, magazine stories, Facebook posts and closed-door conversations, they've begged their fellow liberals to understand that gun ownership is intertwined with their heritage, their families, their communities and their personal independence, that restricting access is more about scoring points in partisan politics than about solving the underlying causes of violence. Now, more people are starting to see logic in those arguments.
In Gardner's words: "You've got the chuckleheads like us on the sidelines saying, 'We told you so. Let us show you the way. Let me sing you the song of my people.'"
City guns, country guns
The Robinsons are typical liberal gun owners in that they belong to one particularly special slice of American Democrats: They grew up rural. Sara Robinson was raised in California on the Eastern Sierra, tumbleweed and cowboy country where you might find gun racks mounted on pickup trucks in the high school parking lot. Her husband, Evan, is from Eugene, Oregon, from a family of gun owners and hunters.
"Everyone had them, and it wasn't the big tribal totem it's become," Sara told me.
The Robinsons, like many gun owners, refer to guns as "tools" — devices you'd use to deal with rattlesnakes, coyotes, varmints and feral animals that wander over from a neighbor's land to terrorize livestock. The two have spent months out on the road, camping in remote areas surrounded by Trump voters.
And coming out as a gun enthusiast early in a conversation with a right-winger is, well, disarming.
"The first thing conservatives try to do is put you in a liberal box of an educated white lady from the city," Sara said. "The first thing I have to do is pull that rug out from under them. So I drop that code, and that throws them. They don't know what to do with me after that. The gun is really a useful way to put them on notice that I'm not the liberal they think I am."
In 1977, the National Rifle Association underwent a radical transformation when hardline conservatives seized power in the group nearly overnight, clearing out moderates from leadership positions. Since then, guns have been used by both parties to win easy points with their bases, while creating a sharp political divide based less on core values and more on the stereotype of gun-clinging hillbillies, in the case of liberals, and conservatives' paranoia about liberal elites coming to take the guns.
The split in attitudes in attitudes of urban and rural gun owners mirrors an important theme of the 2016 election: the presumption that coastal elites know what policies best suit rural people's needs.
The rural conservatives the Robinsons meet on their travels see the world as a more dangerous place than their liberal counterparts. When Evan's local gun instructor teaches classes, he invokes the horror of a lurking crack addict, and the racially tinged rhetoric is lost on no one. Sara often hears stories about bar fights, robberies and confrontations that take place an hour's drive away from the closest sheriff's deputy. She once chalked up a lot of that talk up to paranoia. Now, she tends to believe them.
"Trump-land tends to be a rougher place than most liberals live in," Sara said. "Most of us are urban and fairly well educated, we live in denser areas, we're more open and less fearful, so the way we think about strangers is very different."
"The gun is really a useful way to put them on notice that I'm not the liberal they think I am."
The Robinsons said they can't deny there's plenty of rhetoric to fuel the myth that leftists want to come and take all of the guns away, and that the party line evokes a world without guns. Evan recalled Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) saying in 1995, "Mr. and Mrs. America, turn them all in."
"It's an unthoughtful response that, at best, is designed to work on the base with no regard to the relative stupidity of it," Evan said. "The idea that [there could be] no guns in America is magical thinking. They're just not going to disappear, no matter what we do."
Being a liberal gun owner can often mean being a pariah in both worlds. Evan's been blacklisted from several online liberal groups for his position on gun ownership, and gun owners who vote blue can be seen as traitors to the cause of gun ownership in the enthusiast community.
Sara said, "You just learn to keep it quiet."
The guns are here to stay.
When I called Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, to ask him whether gun rights have been a losing political issue for Democrats, he responded, "You needed a Second Amendment leftist to tell you that?"
President Bill Clinton fought so hard for his 1994 ban on assault weapons that he is credited with helping Republicans take back Congress in the midterm elections that year. In 2004, the ban expired, having had no conclusive effect on gun violence.
"Many Democrats who have lost elections have cited gun control as an issue," Winkler said. "On the other hand, there's [the] core base that wants it. It's hard for the party to ignore important members of its base and coalition."
Many left-leaning gun owners support existing regulations, as well as accurate reporting for states for the sake of background checks and minimum safety standards for concealed carry permits.
"The idea that if we had no guns in America is magical thinking. They're just not going to disappear, no matter what we do."
But they have a deeper vision for addressing gun violence than reducing access: a hard look at its root causes. About two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States are suicides. An analysis from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, a pro-gun-reform advocacy group, found that "more than half of all women killed by intimate partners in the U.S. are killed with guns." The analysis also found that over half of all victims of gun homicides are black Americans.
Nearly every damning statistic that indicts guns also indicates a deeper cause.
"We should be looking at suicide prevention, health care, systemic poverty and racism, the war on drugs," Lara Smith, the president of the California chapter of the Liberal Gun Club, said in a phone interview. "These are the real problems, and when you focus on the guns you don't focus on the underlying issues."
The Guardian recently mapped gun homicides down to the census tract level, reportedly for the first time in U.S. history. The analysis found that, regardless of the hype around isolated mass shooting incidents and famously dangerous inner cities, gun violence often correlates with pockets of extreme destitution. The authors described the violence as a "regressive tax that falls heaviest on neighborhoods already struggling with poverty, unemployment and failing schools."
The Liberal Gun Club felt vindicated. Because of a ban on funding for research that could advance the cause of gun control at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — thanks to NRA lobbying — very little data that can speak to the root causes of gun violence actually exist. Progressives of all stripes have been fighting to lift that amendment for years: anti-gun liberals because they think the research will prove the need to remove guns from public life, and pro-gun liberals because they think the research will light the path for more sophisticated, effective solutions.
"For me, this underscores the need for deeper research," one person posted to the Liberal Gun Club's Facebook page in the wake of the Guardian's story. "Fund the CDC to do it. Don't be afraid of it. Follow the data where it takes us."
On the range
One of the first things that comes up when talking to a gun owner is whether or not you've actually fired a gun — a necessary litmus test for whether or not you get it. So when Liberal Gun Club honcho Ed Gardner and I arrived at the range, he put a whole series of weapons in my hands and walked me through how to fire each one.
"We should be looking at suicide prevention, health care, systemic poverty and racism, the war on drugs. These are the real problems."
The one I was drawn to most was a Smith & Wesson M&P, loaded with powerful bullets called by their caliber: .40s. The M&P is compact and light. It sent empty shells ricocheting across the range, often smacking me sharply across the head. My nerves never died down: A .40-caliber handgun kicks hard and blows much larger holes than a more manageable rifle loaded with thinner .22s. It's blunt and concussive. Gardner later informed me it's one of the weapons of choice for many American police officers.
Gardner, too, harped on the root causes of violence. He spoke eloquently about the overall project of Second Amendment leftists: to address violence at its root by drawing attention away from guns and toward mental health, poverty and inequality.
"Yes, guns are deadly," Gardner said when we sat down at an Irish pub after leaving the range, the smell of gun smoke and lead still in my nose. "Yes, guns are weapons. Should everyone have them? Probably not. But maybe instead of worrying about what people are using to kill each other, we ask why people are killing each other."