The mainstream (or “liberal”) U.S. left generally favors more restrictions to civilian gun ownership, but some parts of the more grassroots left—including those who live or were raised outside expensive cities—don’t share Democrats’ squeamishness about firearms.
Anyone who’s experienced racialized police violence and terror knows how foolish it would be to allow the state a monopoly on weapons. The Deacons for Defense and Justice, to cite one regional example, were an armed Black group started in rural Louisiana in 1964 to defend Black communities from police and Klan persecution. Cops and Klan have always gone hand-in-hand; we see this anew in the attitudes of local police towards street-fighting far-right groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. In Spring 2017, this dynamic was visible locally in the form of pro-slavery neo-Confederates being allowed to brandish firearms within school zones.
Witnessing these weapon-wavers moved some local leftists to found a New Orleans chapter of the John Brown Gun Club. The JBGC began in Lawrence, Kansas in 2004 as an effort to demystify guns within the anti-racist milieu, one component of a regional anarchist mutual-aid network, and re-emerged in 2016 as a militantly anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist organization with chapters across the U.S. It’s predominantly comprised of working-class whites, the same demographic from which many far-right groups draw their membership. John Brown himself is one of abolition’s white martyrs: years before the Civil War he both fomented and fought in armed insurrections against slavery.
The New Orleans chapter of the JBGC recently made ripples within social media, attracting attention from both the larger counterpower world and the murky cauldrons of the alt-right: a local firing range, MCTA (Mississippi Combat Training Academy), made a Facebook post “outing” and banning the JBGC, calling them terrorists and claiming to have handed off their personal information to local and federal law enforcement. In the aftermath of this drama I spoke with Russ and Jay, two of the chapter’s founders.
What’s the John Brown Gun Club about?
Jay: We call ourselves an aboveground militant community defense formation. Community defense is what the working class needs, first and foremost. We have people involved in all kinds of things—harm reduction, food distribution—all part of community defense.
Russ: Disaster preparedness, community health. But probably the primary thing is firearms training and security. The majority of our work is either training new people who want to join or are interested in learning about firearms; or we’re doing security, like street medic stuff for other groups during their events.
Jay: Yeah, we do firearms training and defense training, in addition to all these other things that fall under the community defense umbrella. And where there are already groups doing other things well, we always look for ways to support them, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
Russ: For example, Trystereo is a local radical harm reduction group, and one time they needed some Narcan—didn’t have their grant funding on time or something like that, so we donated from our dues to help them. However we can help existing organizations. The overall goal is building power, building institutions that are run by the working class. That way we can rely less on the state and the capitalist system.
Russ: Even if we still have to navigate through it, we don’t have to participate in it as much.
What sparked you founding a chapter here in New Orleans?
Russ: I think it was the Jeff Davis monument stuff, when we saw armed reactionaries out there harassing people and threatening people. And some of them did actually physically harm people, even though they didn’t use their guns on anybody, thankfully. Jay and I had been talking on his porch about how we need more of like an armed left in this city, and then also just in general, to defend ourselves against this kind of stuff. We had a lot of porch conversations around that time about our general desire for a leftist gun culture. Wanting a good gun culture, you know, not reactionary, toxic bullshit. And this organization seemed like the thing we needed to be doing. That’s the power of the porch beer.
Were y’all gun owners for a long time previous?
Jay: Yeah. It isn’t why we became comrades or friends or anything, but it was a shared interest, something we would talk about. I grew up here, and spent a lot of summers in Mississippi, you know, carrying around a .38 revolver at eight years-old. My grandpa didn’t give a shit; he trusted me. He knew that I wasn’t going to do anything stupid. So I began young—and I’m a veteran, which is part of it too.
Russ: I grew up in rural central Florida. I started out as a little kid with a little BB gun, then my dad moved me up to like a .22 Ruger, and from there a .410-gauge shotgun. Just until I got physically big enough to actually hold a real rifle. I’ve been shooting all my life.
Jay: He had a few guns, I had a few guns. We’ve got a lot more now.
Russ: We found a lot of the antifascist community here talks about trying to do defense, but no one seemed to take guns seriously as a component of that. Either a lack of interest or a lack of knowledge, or maybe even political stuff that kept people from wanting to go in that direction. But it was something we wanted to do, and eventually we got together with a couple other people. We started out as three or four people, and now we’re up to about, I think including the probation people, 12 to 14 members.
Jay: Yeah, we’re growing. And the last few members, I wouldn’t say were exclusively because of this MCTA [firing range] thing, but we have gotten a lot of interest from that.
You mentioned that the founding of this chapter was inspired in part by those armed pro-slavery folks at the Jeff Davis Memorial. But at that May Day event where the community routed them, I definitely wasn’t thinking, “Damn, I wish more people had guns.” You think adding more guns to that situation would have helped?
Russ: It equalizes the situation. Speaking from experience, at events we’ve been to around the country, when the right-wingers see that there’s also people on the other side armed, they become a lot more polite. And the police become a lot more polite, too. It makes them think. It takes them from being in a position of power.
Jay: I see it like: you’ve got these guns? So do we. This isn’t going to send us back to our houses to talk about our feelings on Facebook or whatever. We have the same knowledge and the same tools. So often it’s a few of them with guns and then a whole bunch of unarmed leftists. When we have some of the guns, too, that equals the playing field. It’s a different dynamic.
Russ: But we generally do things at the bidding of the community. We show up because we’ve been asked to. At a general march or whatever, we aren’t going to come there in any kind of fashion that’s not agreed upon by the organizers. Like, we wouldn’t go to a Take ‘Em Down event open-carrying if they didn’t want us to.
Jay: To use a recent example—a group like Congreso [De Jornaleros/Congress of Day Laborers, an immigrants’ rights organization] you know, these are at-risk people, and they don’t want any extra attention. So we aren’t going to go out there in full battle rattle, running around with rifles and whatever other bullshit.
In the case of Congreso, that’s obviously true. But when I hear the phrase “at-risk people” in a protest environment, it’s almost always from liberals or authoritarians trying to compel passivity. I’d imagine you get that a lot, that your presence somehow imperils this paternalistically mythified “other.”
Russ: Well, a situation like when the League of the South and all these bona fide Klansmen and Nazis came to Lee Circle, and some of these activist groups don’t like the “optics” of open carrying… that gets into kind of like, factional politics stuff. We’re flexible depending on the situation. Some of our members have permits for concealed carry, so we can still be armed, just more low-key.
Jay: In a Charlottesville-level scenario where there’s definitely a credible threat, known violent people coming in from out of town, we’ll be out there regardless of what the different political factions think, whether people think it’s good optics or not. We’re here to protect the community and that comes before all else.
As an above-ground far-left gun organization, you must know you’re under tremendous scrutiny.
Russ: We do everything legally. We’re very careful.
Jay: Yeah, you know, there’s one law for the right-wingers, there’s another law for the left. Like just the other day, the mayor of Portland was told by the cops that Patriot Prayer had caches of weapons on rooftops in advance of one of their events where they come terrorize Portland. And of course they get all their guns back and don’t go to jail. Imagine if that had been us on the rooftops? I mean, at best we would be locked up, and they definitely would confiscate our guns and not give them back. And at worst, we would have been shot by the cops.
Russ: Probably labeled as terrorists and charged under all kinds of weird, crazy tribunal shit with special enhancements.
Jay: You’ve really got to know your local laws if you’re going to do this kind of shit. In New Orleans there’s this whole thing with the semantics of the word “parade” and how that’s defined legally. There’s a statute that says you can’t have a weapon at a parade in the city, but then the state law says in a parade. And if a parade is defined by having a permit, then if you don’t have a permit, is it even a parade?
Russ: We do everything legally, but at times some of the legal stuff is gray area. There’s definitely risk involved, and we have to understand the risk.
Jay: We do what we do knowing there may be a time where we become the case law.
I’m opposed to the state or anyone else taking away people’s guns, but if the goal is to protect the community, it’s not clear to me how helpful a prevalence of firearms is for communities. In most New Orleans neighborhoods, do you think firearm access has been empowering? Has it helped materially? I feel like more guns mostly means more kids shooting each other.
Jay: This becomes a question of culture, you know? Kids shooting each other—or school shootings, if you want to talk about that. That isn’t guns, that’s toxic masculinity. That isn’t guns, that’s capitalism. Kids with guns—where do these kids get the guns? They get them from adult gun owners, and if you look at the culture around gun ownership it’s often very right-wing, very macho.
Russ: And it’s that current gun culture that’s the problem. The fear of your own neighbors, the bravado, and guns become a symbol of masculinity. You know—you’ve got to be a man.
Jay: So if a kid is bullied—which doesn’t justify shooting anybody, I don’t mean that—but let’s say they’re bullied or an outcast or someone’s hurt them, they go get this symbol of masculinity, whether it’s from their own dad’s gun cabinet or somewhere else, and try to use it to solve the problem. But it’s a social alienation problem, and that social alienation is created by capitalism and patriarchy and oppressive forces like white supremacy. And that alienation and oppression are what we’re trying to organize against.
Russ: I want to plug another group that we support: BARC, which is Brothers Against Racist Cops. They have a chapter in Dallas and some elsewhere. They’re a Black-led community-defense group who talk to their neighbors and community members, including those in gangs, about police brutality, and try to make sure people aren’t pointing their guns in the wrong direction. They do firearm trainings, community patrols. I think that kind of stuff—coming from the community, about and for the community—is tremendously important.
“When the right-wingers see that there’s also people on the other side armed, they become a lot more polite. And the police become a lot more polite, too. It makes them think. It takes them from being in a position of power.”
Do you find yourself in dialogue with other gun groups who hold different positions?
Russ: At actions? Not so much.
Jay: Actions are a bad place to talk, you know? But other chapters have actually crossed the barricade, so to speak, and talked to some people on the other side and came to a bit of a mutual understanding, getting to a point where like, they talk the militia out of going out to harass Black Lives Matter or whatever. Counter-recruitment stuff is a huge part of other branches’ praxis. But here, you know, by being a patron of that range [MCTA], I thought we were kind of starting to open that up a little bit. And obviously I was very wrong about that.
Russ: Even talking to those range guys, they always mention Hillary Clinton. They think we’re some kind of liberals.
Jay: And it’s like—we really don’t like Hillary Clinton.
Russ: But it’s also not that we don’t like her because she’s a woman. Same as we don’t dislike Obama because he’s Black, or because we think he’s Muslim. We don’t like them because they’re capitalists and warmongers.
When I first heard about the [militia group] Oath Keepers in maybe 2010 or ’11, I liked a lot of what they were saying about defending against tyranny, resisting government oppression—
Jay: Some of it sounds good, right? When I was coming out of the military I delved into some of that more libertarian shit for a brief period of time because, you know, I’d been in the service for the previous eight years and the government had been telling me what to do for every little fucking thing. And here’s this group of people saying “Government is bad.”
Yeah! But I’ve been so disappointed to see the role the Oath Keepers have played in recent years. They turned out to be total bootlickers.
Jay: The whole unfettered-capitalism thing turned me off once I did some analysis on that. Specifically, there was about a 50/50 split of support for private prisons. I just can’t stomach a private prison, right? So that’s what started turning me off, got me going to more leftist type shit. But there again, there was no left gun groups either, so it was like, where do I belong? That’s why a group like the John Brown Gun Club is perfect for me, personally.
Russ: Yeah, one of our mottos is: if you go far enough left, you get your guns back.
The New Orleans John Brown Gun Club got unexpectedly high-profile attention lately; you went viral after being controversially banned from MCTA for being left-wing. Can you talk about that?
Jay: Yeah. MCTA is basically a shooting range out in the middle of the woods, just across the state line. You can go there and they offer classes. It’s owned by an ex-Navy SEAL. He’s the owner, and then there’s a guy that works out there. He’s like the range officer, though he doesn’t do anything… I’ve been going out there for probably like a year, right? I’ve taken some of the other members out there. I bought a membership actually, because I like the hands-off approach. You can go when it’s not open to the public and do drills and that kind of stuff. It’s for people who don’t just want to sit at a bench and shoot at a piece of paper, you know? You can get a little bit more out of it. So we started going there and doing a little bit of training there. All of us had been there a few times before we had the Redneck Revolt/John Brown Gun Club national conference in New Orleans.
Russ: Our conference started [on a] Friday, and the range day was Sunday, the last day.
Jay: I’d contacted the range’s owner back in May and, granted, I didn’t say, like, “Hey, we’re the John Brown Gun Club.” But two members were getting married that weekend. So I told him there were going to be some people in town for a wedding and we’d like to know the feasibility of renting out part of the range for a private event. We made all the arrangements. Day of, the only thing is that it was hard to coordinate dozens of people in multiple vehicles, so we were pretty late relative to when we said we’d get there. But overall there were no problems. Some of us had our t-shirts on, and there were a couple of people there who asked us: Hey, what’s this John Brown Gun Club? Who was John Brown? You know, they had some questions. So we talked about him, how he was an abolitionist and all that. Overall we felt like it was positively received.
Russ: We were polite to everybody; everybody was polite to us.
Jay: Yeah, there were no altercations or anything like that at all. The next day, the conference is over. Those of us here go to work, everybody else goes back to Florida or California or wherever they’re from. Then this Facebook post shows up. It turns out Tom, the range guy, was sneaking photos of us. He posted this photo of everybody, and it said “NOT WELCOME” written across it and calling us terrorists of course, and communists, and the armed faction of antifa. So that post blew the fuck up.
Russ: It blew up overnight.
Jay: So you know, we made our statement below that post, which you can read. It was straight to the point, like: we apologize for being late, and that was the only thing we were really guilty of. Obviously people really showed their true colors with the comments that they were making.
Yeah, I saw all kinds of wild stuff. It wasn’t Mississippi good ol’ boys, but more like vaporwave avatars, memes about Augusto Pinochet.
Jay: Yeah, the alt-right got ahold of it pretty quick. But there were some right-wingers who were supporting us too. They said they didn’t agree with our politics, but that since we were paying customers who didn’t do anything wrong, why would Tom dox us and try to get the government after us?
Russ: People were saying, you guys like guns, so you’re alright. One militia guy was sending us photos of his AK.
Jay: It was a beautiful AK.
Russ: Yeah, all matching parts, a Russian AK with really nice finished wood furniture. It was a beautiful gun. He sent it to us and he was like: I don’t agree with you, but check this out; you’ll probably like this because y’all are communists or whatever.
Jay: We all shoot AR-15s.
Russ: Yeah, we don’t even have one AK in the group. But I like them, personally. So I told him yeah, it’s a beautiful gun. A lot of the comments on the post were starting to get more critical of MCTA because they felt like the range was infringing upon second-amendment rights. For a lot of right-wing people, everything’s about that. They just love their guns.
Jay: As this happened, their stars on Google and Facebook were plummeting, because both the second-amendment crowd and antifascists were leaving them one-star reviews. When all this started happening, Tom suddenly wanted to talk to us. Sadly, the phone call didn’t really amount to much. He’s like: Look, you guys can come back, just don’t wear your stuff, you know? You want to go out there and shoot, go out there and shoot. Just don’t wear the bandanas or the shirts or anything. And I’m like, “OK, why would I come back when you called us all terrorists?” He’s like: Well, you know, I just kind of call it like I see it. We think extremism on both sides is terrorism… blah, blah, blah. He was bitching to me about the reviews plummeting, and the owner’s wife has people calling her saying she’s a Nazi sympathizer and all this. And I’m like, “Well, you need to change that post or take it down, because we’re not fucking terrorists.” That personally pissed me off really bad. Some fucking right-winger goes and mows down a left-wing activist in a car, you know, and they’re not terrorists. But we just happen to be commies and anarchists who like to shoot, you know what I mean? I really did like that fucking range. It’s disappointing. I mean, we’re working on our own, so it’s fine. It just further solidifies that the left is going to need their own gun ranges and their own spaces to do this kind of stuff. We just want to be able to defend ourselves. That’s it. We’re not plotting a coup, we’re just trying to get people conscious about how to defend themselves, how to defend their communities, maybe change the narrative of the typical left.
Russ: I think especially with all this shit that’s popping off in Portland and the Proud Boys in New York and everything, people who don’t get it are going to start to see the need for what we’re trying to do. They’re going to realize you can’t rely on the state to help you in these situations. We can only rely on each other.
Jay: Something we always try and preach is that we shouldn’t wait until the brownshirts are literally killing people in the streets to start trying to learn how to defend ourselves. But people are reactive instead of proactive. We can’t force anybody to do it. We just try to be an available resource, you know? Because it is getting worse.