Arming the Left

La Plata, Maryland - Shots ring out on firing range nestled in a wooded residential property in southern Maryland. A wide range of calibers are represented. Semi-automatic shotguns, handguns, AR-15s, and scoped bolt-action rifles lay scattered across a couple plastic fold-out tables, ready to be loaded and shot. The shooters gathered here today favor the older, more elegant, wood-clad guns of the Soviet Union. This is not the NRA, this is the Maryland chapter of the Socialist Rifle Association (SRA) - a national organization dedicated to teaching firearms safety in an inclusive environment.

Kwesi Andoh, Secretary of the Maryland chapter of the SRA, practices shooting his suppressed rifle at the organization's range in Southern Maryland. (Will Allen-DuPraw)

Leading the group today is Kwesi Andoh. He’s 34, a Maryland native of Ghanaian descent, and the son of a former Maryland State Assemblyman. As the Maryland SRA’s Secretary, and one of four members of the chapter’s steering committee, Andoh plays a pivotal role in leading this stereotype-defying gun club. Andoh is wearing a black long-sleeved shirt tucked into olive green work pants. Around his waist sits a utility belt that holds extra magazines, a multitool, a device for measuring draw and fire times for competitions, and his med kit, which is labeled “ouch pouch.” He begins this monthly range day with a red beret atop his head, perhaps the only visual cue indicating his socialist views; however, once the shooting begins he swaps it out for protective ear muffs adorned with cat ears. 

The SRA is most easily described as a leftist counterpart to the National Rifle Association, but in truth that comparison is inadequate and inaccurate. “The SRA exists as, not so much as an answer to existing structures like the NRA, but just to create a more welcoming presence in the gun community, for marginalized people of course, but literally everybody,” Andoh explains. “We take all types…we want it to be a welcoming space. We want it to be able to facilitate anybody who would want to come and learn about guns safely and without having to worry that their identity or anything along those lines would get in the way of that.”

From just a quick glance at the attendees of the October range day, it is clear that a wide variety of identities are present. Many are dressed casually, in shorts and a T-shirt. Some are bedecked in camouflage fatigues and red berets, invoking ideas of revolution. One member is dressed in a long black leather duster (which they never took off for the entire day) and another sports aesthetically tattered black jeans, a black hoodie, and a T-shirt bearing an embellished design of the tarot card of death. There is even a flash of leopard print here and there.

Members of the Maryland SRA socialize at their December range day at their private range in Southern Maryland. (Will Allen-DuPraw)

The group is politically diverse as well, at least more than you might expect from a group with “Socialist” in its name. It is not simply composed of hard-line socialists, but encompasses a wide spectrum of people and political views ranging from liberal to marxist and everywhere in between. The group includes queer people, people of color, women, trans people, and military veterans. Many of them come from marginalized communities that have been increasingly targeted by right-wing and white-nationalist violence, and all of them say they feel unwelcome in traditional American gun culture.

The makeup of the SRA is not just by happenstance - they see broad acceptance as part and parcel to their ideology. Rob Roys, another member of the SRA steering committee and a range safety officer alongside Andoh explains it this way: “Socialism is, by nature, about equality. It is about creating, or striving to create an egalitarian society free of prejudice, free of bigotry, free of sexism and homophobia and racism…So that would be the only kind of gun club I would join.” 

The conversation on firearms in the United States is typically portrayed as a debate between the gun-loving right and the gun-hating left. But the rise in violence from the far right, such as the attempted insurrection on January 6th, 2021, the murder and assault of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville in 2017, as well as the rise in violence against transgender individuals, Asian people, and other targeted identities has galvanized members of the left to buy guns.

These newly armed non-conservatives are generally disinclined to get their training from the traditional sources, which they perceive to be aligned with the right-wing factions that have perpetrated or applauded violence against their communities. Pew research from 2021 reports that 44 percent of gun owners identify as Republicans or lean to the Republican party, compared to 20 percent of gun owners who identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic party (the study did not differentiate between liberal and leftist). While there are surely plenty of gun stores, ranges, and trainers who operate apolitically, many left-leaning gun owners would rather not risk a sour encounter with hostile right-wing conservatives while dealing with deadly weapons. As such, new gun clubs such as the Latino Rifle Association, Yellow Peril Tactical (focused on violence against Asians), the John Brown Gun Club, and the SRA have activated in recent years.

Rob Roys, a member of the Maryland chapter's steering committee and its liaison to the national organization, sits on his bed next to his cat, holding his Romanian PSL rifle. (Will Allen-DuPraw)

Andoh and Roys are naturals when it comes to creating that environment. Between Andoh’s boisterous laugh and encouraging feedback for first-time shooters, and Roys’s soft-spoken, confident manner, it’s hard not to feel welcome among this group. And not only are they pleasant to hang out with, but they’ve also both recently become state-licensed firearms instructors capable of administering both the 4-hour and 16-hour training courses necessary in Maryland to receive a handgun qualification license and wear-and-carry permit, respectively.

While previously, SRA members could train with Andoh and Roys informally, they still needed to go through more traditional and often conservative/NRA-affiliated routes to jump through the bureaucratic hoops legislated by the state. Another member of the Maryland SRA, Shira (who wishes to only use her first name for fear of targeted violence), describes having received her Handgun Qualification License (HQL) training in a class where “right-wing propaganda was being injected into the lesson plan.” As she recalls, the instructor would say things such as “Nancy Pelosi wants to take this away from you,” while teaching what should be an apolitical safety course.

Shira, who is Jewish, previously worked as a home energy auditor. This profession brought her into many homes throughout Maryland, and she began noticing an alarming number of Confederate flags and swastikas. “Mostly [I] saw swastika tattoos but…some people had their homes just decorated in swastikas on the inside.” Shira didn’t grow up in a gun-owning household, but experiences like these contributed to her decision to buy a gun and learn to shoot. Now she and her husband own four guns and are training for their wear-and-carry permits with Andoh and Roys.

The safe space created by the SRA is not just energetic - it’s a physical place too. Instead of shooting at existing public ranges, or ranges operated by gun stores likely to lean to the right, the Maryland SRA prefers to use a shooting range they built on a private residential property where they feel they can be themselves. Turnout at their October range day is good - around 20 of the chapter’s more than 150 members show up. Many members are simply less active or prefer to interact online via the group’s Discord server, an online communication channel, rather than in person.

An SRA member who goes by the pseudonym "Wax" grills some chicken for his fellow leftists at a picnic held by the group at a local park. No guns were part of this event, it was held solely for the purposes of socializing. (Will Allen-DuPraw)

The range itself is a narrow corridor, about 100 yards long, cut through the woods on this semi-rural property. Each range day begins with the group circling up and introducing themselves, some using pseudonyms and others using their real names and adding “but I go by X on the Discord” since so much of the group’s interaction is online. They also make sure to include their pronouns, which is an important point of inclusion for the group’s trans and non-binary members.

After introductions, Andoh walks through a safety orientation, explaining the rules for calling cease-fires (anyone can call one) and how to carry your gun (barrel up in the air, not down at the ground), and what to do if your gun malfunctions (ask for help). Once that’s over with, he gives the all-clear for the guns to come out. The air is filled with the sounds of zippers unzipping and clasps unclasping, followed by the clatter of metal on plastic as SRA shooters place a couple dozen rifles, handguns, and shotguns on the range tables.

While the members of the SRA vehemently eschew the culture of the NRA, many of them do share an absolute enthusiasm for the machinery and craftsmanship of firearms, and are eager to show off their guns to their comrades. At times, the collections border on ironic, as they seem to be indicative of a material indulgence that the members themselves admit is an element of the capitalistic firearms industry. Andoh himself owns eight guns and says that he is working on getting rid of a few of them. “You only have two hands,” he says with a laugh.

It’s clear that “comm-bloc” guns - that is, guns designed and manufactured in the former Soviet Union, get extra social credit in this scene. In addition to his Romanian PSL (an adaptation of the Russian Draganov), Roys owns not one, but three Mosin-Nagants - a Russian-designed rifle that’s been manufactured since 1891 and has been used in countless conflicts including the Bolshevik Revolution, WWI, WWII, the Soviet Union’s various late 20th century conflicts, and is still in use in the current war in Ukraine.

There is some serious firepower present - and while some members are content to simply learn how to operate a pistol, others are gearing up for a potential civil war. “Before 2016 I didn’t think I wanted to own a gun…now I own a small arsenal,” said one SRA member, a Black man brandishing an AK-74 and wearing a faded red t-shirt bearing the hammer and sickle of the USSR. While predictions regarding pending civil war vary among SRA members, they all share the sense that guns are everywhere in America, and ignoring them is only likely to leave you unprepared in a dire situation.

Today, Andoh is teaching KB, who prefers to use only their initials, how to use a handgun. KB grew up in Michigan where they were surrounded by hunting culture. They handled a firearm once in a while in high school, but mostly “just shooting crap in the garage.” Their area would even get the first week of hunting season off from school, but they were one of the few kids who would stay in class.

KB’s wearing a blue jean jacket and a red beret - an apropos mix of Americana and Soviet style. They are a member of the Communist Party, and found out about the SRA through a fellow party member who is also in the Maryland SRA.

Standing at the plastic folding tables in the woods, Andoh first teaches KB to run through the motions of loading the gun and making it safe, all without any live ammunition. Once they’ve got the basics down, they load a single round into a magazine and KB  takes a shot at a paper target maybe 10 yards away. It’s a hit - Andoh claps them on the back, applauds their shooting, and instructs them to load up another magazine.

The SRA began to coalesce in the form of various online communities in 2017 but was formally incorporated (initially as an LLC) in 2018. They are explicitly not a direct action organization, which means they are not a militia, they don’t endorse political candidates, and they don’t organize or attend protests - at least not in an official capacity as representatives of the SRA. But it’s clear from talking to their members that direct action, community support, and mutual aid are pillars of the ideology the organization embodies. Recently, Maryland SRA members acted as escorts to women seeking abortions, helping them navigate crowds of anti-abortion protesters. Members of the Maryland chapter also regularly attended drag queen story hours as a protective countermeasure against members of the Proud Boys, a group which the Southern Poverty Law Center labels as a Hate Group, who have recently begun a campaign of disrupting such events.

Not only do these activities align with the Socialist philosophy, but they also strike home for many members of the SRA, not all of whom even identify as full-on Socialists. Many of them are people who simply do not feel safe learning and shooting at regular ranges. “I joined the SRA because I didn’t have a range to go to. I don’t really want to go to a range where people want to kill me,” said one trans member, who wants to remain anonymous. They explained how, when they have gone to gun ranges in the past, the other patrons there reminded them of the people who had previously threatened them with violence. Another trans member, who also wishes to remain anonymous said “I got into guns because of all the violence against trans people right now…and they’re pretty fucking fun to shoot.”

The enthusiasm that some SRA members have for firearms, along with the presence among their ranks of military garb or “black bloc” - a tactic used by leftists and anarchists in which they appear at protests wearing all black clothing and often concealing their faces - may incline some to compare them with far right paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the 3 Percenters. Some might also point to incidents such as the Summer 2020 protests in places like Portland and Seattle, which had a heavy presence of leftists, anarchists, and antifascists, to say that the far left is as guilty of inciting violence as the far right. During an online policy forum hosted by the Libertarian think-tank, The Cato Institute, Christopher Vials, associate professor of English and director of American Studies of the University of Connecticut, sought to dispel this myth. “Just because two sides wear helmets and have guns doesn’t mean they’re the same,” he said.

While far-right and far-left groups may at times appear visually similar, and may be involved in violence in public places, there are fundamentally different mentalities and histories between the two sides which cannot be ignored. Vials went on to explain how fascism and violence go hand-in-hand in a way that is not true of the left, especially when it comes to paramilitarism. 

At the same forum, Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and a former FBI agent who worked undercover within white nationalist groups, highlighted the link between far right extremist groups and the police. Referencing the significant number of law enforcement-affiliated people present at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, among many other far-right groups and protesters, he noted “police disproportionately target communities of color. So when they are seen openly collaborating with these groups that are committing illegal violence against these same communities, it raises the problem of ‘what do these communities do?”

This phenomenon is exactly why leftist gun clubs have been sprouting up all over the country. Groups like these are also those which the police have historically neglected to protect, experts say. Now they have had enough and are moving to rely not on the state for community defense, but on themselves. The right-wing chants of “Come and Take Them!” will soon be met by the left responding with the slogan, “Under No Pretext” - a nod to Karl Marx, who said, “Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.” 

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