Jason Flynn | @dejasonflynn
Editor’s Note: some of the names in this story have been changed because sources requested anonymity and feared legal retaliation
At a gun range in the suburbs of Chicago Seth M. shows me an AR, or Armalite Rifle, that’s become infamous as a tool for mass shootings.
“There’s no reason why I can’t take this off and put it on a pistol AR,” Seth said, pointing to the butt of the rifle. “Well, there is a reason. It’s because it’s a felony.”
I don’t know if it’s this particular gun, but Seth said he has an unserialized, unregistered rifle that he machined the final parts for, which is currently legal.
“It’s enough of a gray area that people get really spooky when they’re talking about it,” Seth said in an earlier call. “As someone who leans pretty anarchist I think that getting more people able to manufacture their own firearms isn’t a bad thing.”
A very low percentage of gun owners identify as Democrats or liberals, just 15 and 20 percent respectively according to a Gallup poll from 2019, but for people farther left on the political spectrum like socialists, Marxists, anarchists and revolutionary separatists opinions on guns can get complicated.
Seth, Jack and Zane, who have all had their names changed, don’t think of gun ownership as an ordained right, but more of a practical choice in a country where so many people are armed and so many of the people armed belong to the political right.
“In Chicago, some of the weapons I own are considered illegal, right, because they’re, you know, assault-type weapons,” Jack said. “But I also believe in a healthy amount of detente.”
Jack, a 52 year-old who lives in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, said he grew up in a gun-owning, fundamentalist Christian family, but over time, strayed from his family’s conservatism.
“The more I listen to the teachings of Jesus the more I realize, like, well, this is fucking bullshit,”Jack said. “If we’re given this new covenant why the fuck are we still dealing with all this Old Testament bullshit, number one. Number two, where the fuck does it say don’t hang out with hookers and tr***ies and, you know and dope addicts? I mean, these are our people, right?”
Seth, a 27 year-old from Ohio living in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, described his family as very progressive, but never had guns in the house.
“Part of what brought me back into it, and made me really kind of embrace the hobby, but not the culture, is the thought that, like, in America the cat’s out of the bag,” Seth said. “We got a shitload of guns, and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Jack and Seth are buddies who bond over motorcycles and guns and both do volunteer work around their neighborhoods.
Neither sees their work with volunteer groups as being connected to their gun ownership.
“Being, you know, armed is different than my desire for mutual aid,” Jack said.
Mutual aid is a form of community assistance where participants pool resources and labor to make up for any shortfalls individual participants might experience.
The group Seth helps received threats on Facebook in response to a “free market” event distributing free stuff to the community, but Seth decided against his concealed weapon.
“It wouldn’t necessarily put them at ease,” Seth said. “Unless it’s explicitly a part of your organizing values, you know, that tends to get avoided.”
Zane, who also lives in Chicago, grew up in Jewish family in western Pennsylvania that also kept guns out of the home.
“That’s not really a big thing in the Jewish culture,” Zane said. “You don’t meet a lot of Jewish hunters which, you know, may be a stereotype, but that’s just how it was in my family.”
Zane took the plunge into gun ownership when he bought property in rural Pennsylvania, and the locals recommended he get a gun to fend off bears.
“Everybody carries guns in the middle of nowhere, and that’s, I think, universal.” Zane said. “It’s less of a gun culture and more of, like, everybody just has a gun as a tool.”
Zane said there are also a lot of militia members in the communities near his Pennsylvania property.
“Everybody tells you that they have a gun, and then they show you their gun upon meeting them, well into knowing them, you know, it’s not just the first time,” Zane said. “That was a surprise for my wife and I coming from Chicago.”
John Holt, a 77 -year-old southern Illinois native and Vietnam veteran, said he’s owned guns since he was 14 or 15.
“I was an Explorer Scout which is semi-grown up Boy Scouts,” Holt said. “We had an indoor, small bore range that we shot rifles in.”
Holt said his family had left-leaning politics when he was a kid, and he leaned further left when enrolled in school at SIU after his tour in Vietnam.
“We had a Vietnam Veterans Against the War chapter here and that kind of stuff,” Holt said. “The suspicions that I had harbored while I was in the service and subjected to a fair amount of propaganda was pretty much all true.”
Events like the riot in Carbondale in 1970, and the coordinated police shooting of a Black Panther Party office in Carbondale inflected his views on the dynamics of authority, race and class.
“I thought it was bullshit. I didn’t really like learning that that happened, but that’s one of the interesting things about Second Amendment people,” Holt said. “ Although they don’t say so openly they tend to be, you know, to view private gun ownership as being, you know, one of the privileges of white supremacy.”
Holt said addressing gun issues in the US would also require confronting core problems with police.
“It’s real hard for me to talk about the Second Amendment without talking about the class struggle and unionization of police and the fact that municipalities tend to get the kind of policing they want,” Holt said. “There is a class warfare that is being carried out everyday by cops who sit in their house and watch TV and think they’re not part of the problem.”
At the gun range, Seth stands out from the other patrons with the sides and back of his head shaved, dressed in slim fit blue jeans, Romeo work boots and a camo hoodie with a sketch of the “all seeing eye” or Eye of Providence found on the dollar bill.
With a salt-and-pepper beard, gray sweater, boot-cut blue jeans and black sneakers Jack looks more like the other suburban, white men chatting with the range staff about the display cases full of handguns as they wait for their reservation.
The staff takes my ID, and Jack and Seth’s FOID cards and directs us to the shooting galleries.
The rooms are sparse and undecorated, except for signs that read “FIVE STAR RANGE” and “IN AN EMERGENCY DIAL 911.”
Jack and Seth explain the range rules and go over the safety information, as that’s apparently not a part of the staff’s responsibility.
In one firing lane Seth laid out a shotgun, a Glock-style pistol and an AR.
Jack laid out his own AR, which he points out is honey badger theme and has a “don’t give a shit” setting, a Glock-style pistol and an SKS, a rifle developed in the Soviet Union that was phased out after the development of the AK-47.
“It’s the CR-ADR dirtbike of rifles,” Jack said.
Though they’re extremely critical about the history and direction of the country, neither Jack, Seth nor Zane said they’re preparing for the armed overthrow of the government.
“Me having a gun is much more about, you know, being able to get to the country and provide food for my family,” Zane said.
John said he prefers to keep his guns and protests against the government separate.
“I have a much more Martin Luther King, put my fucking body in the way, strategy when it comes to that,” Jack said.
Seth said the government and military are just too powerful to confront in that way, though he’s open to the possibility of making guns part of direct actions.
“CPD wants to fuck me over for any political reasons I’m screwed,” Seth said. “But you know that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about, like, I have a few like minded friends in my neighborhood and if we showed up in front of, you know, an eviction with our rifles, and had enough people there filming it, you know, maybe that would work.”
Following the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D. C., which included many members of Oathkeeper and other right-wing militias, gun purchases shot up, as they often do after violent national events.
“I’m still friends with a bunch of right wing assholes, and they are completely fucking confounded, when I described people like Seth and myself going to the range and shooting,” Jack said. “It gives them pause. Oh, well, you mean that all lefties, aren’t, you know, tree hugging, anti-gun, you know, pussies?”
Jack and Seth took part in the summer 2020 protests against police violence in Chicago, and despite confronting a variety of police forces and the national guard, the people they’re most worried about confrontations with are those conservative radicals.
“Obviously the state does not like us, but they’re probably not going to shoot us because that’s a really bad look,” Seth said. “Some of these guys playing dress up, you know […] that’s also a concern”
Jack said he took his dirt bike out around the neighborhood to check on reports of break-ins and fires nearby on the second day of Chicago protests in response to the murder of George Floyd.
“There was a bus on fire in the parking lot at the Aldi at Kedzie and Chicago. Madison was just up for fucking grabs, right, and the cops are just like we’re gonna contain this, they’re going to take everything, and we’re not going to shoot anybody. It’s going to work great,” Jack said. “All that didn’t scare me. It was the fucking Boogaloo boys in the suburban with no license plate, you know, in camo with face masks and fuckin rifles.”
Jack turned his bike around, and on the way home told a cop what he’d seen to no effect.
“That’s June first,” Jack said.
Despite their enthusiasm for firearms all the men believed there should be legal restrictions to gun ownership.
“My tendency would be to say anybody who is actually temperamentally and mentally and morally capable of serving in the militia under good orderly direction is in this class of people who have a right to keep and bear arms,” Holt said. “But fucking nut jobs don’t have that right, and the state has an obligation to make sure that the nut jobs don’t pretend to exercise that right.”
Zane and Jack said they’d even be open to a program to get rid of most of the guns in the country, as long as it was administered fairly and included disarming the police.
“If the word came down on high they were going to offer us our market rate, and they were going to chop our guns up I would probably go and turn mine in,” Jack said. “I would have to think about maybe burying them in the yard first, but, you know, I would probably turn them in.”
Though they don’t all necessarily agree on what rules should be in place, they all said current models in Illinois and the US aren’t helping people.
Seth said the current gun laws in Chicago are especially onerous for people of color because the system is administered by the Illinois State Police, who minority populations are to reticent interact with, requires a car to get out of the city for training and hundreds of dollars in fees to be legally permitted to carry a weapon around the city.
“It’s inherently racist,” Seth said. “Once you actually get your CCL [Concealed Carry License], you’re essentially paying the state to fuck off and to leave you alone.”
They all said the system is set up to punish poor people of color in the city, instead of trying to improve public safety.
Sixty nine percent of people arrested in Illinois for illegal possession of a firearm from 2009 to 2019 were Black, though Black people make up less than a tenth of the state’s population according to a study by Loyola University.
Sixty one percent of arrests were in Cook County, according to the same study.
“Chicago’s gun laws are so ambiguous, and any ambiguous law is set up in a way so that they can pick and choose who they enforce it against,” Zane said. “If you over-police a Black neighborhood they can be following along and doing the same exact shit that I’m doing with a gun, but a cop could decide that the way that they’re doing it is illegal.”
Jack said the city should be doing public outreach to bring people through the legal steps, instead of taking punitive measures.
“More people are armed than not in my neighborhood, but how they acquired that weapon is I think the question that government wants to know,” Jack said. “If there was a way to approach that, and bring them into the fold meaning make them legal gun owners I would be more for that.”
Jack said combining outreach with training and safety programming would go a long way to curbing gun violence and excess deaths.
“Most of these kids out here that are shooting guns, you know, they’ve never been taught anything,” Jack said. “I worked in housing for years […] I replaced more windows on the second floor of the building than I ever did on the first floor.”
Staff reporter Jason Flynn can be reached at email@example.com, by phone at 872-222-7821 or on Twitter at @dejasonflynn. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.