SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Northern California liberals are said to be “up in arms,” it usually means they’re marching down San Francisco’s Market Street or rallying at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza – not toting guns and actively defending their right to do so.
But Marlene Hoeber, president of the Northern California chapter of the Liberal Gun Club, wants the world to know that lefty politics and a love for guns and gun rights aren’t mutually exclusive.
“If the conversation about gun policy in the United States is limited to what the National Rifle Association has to say, the conversation is over, because not enough people want to listen to that,” said Hoeber, 43, of Oakland, Calif. “Hell, I’m a gun person, and I don’t want to listen to that.”
Founded six months ago while California was grappling with a heap of gun-control bills introduced after the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the Northern California chapter has a few dozen members from San Luis Obispo up to the Oregon border.
They hold monthly meetings and sometimes go shooting together. The national club, formed in 2009, has about 1,000 members from coast to coast, but it is concentrated mostly in California and Texas. Many more take part in the club’s online discussion forums.
Like any gun group, its members’ reasons vary. Most, Hoeber said, are “gun geeks” who love the mechanical tinkering that goes with collecting, maintaining and sometimes customizing their guns. “Guns are fun to play with,” she said.
Some are hunters, some target shooters, some more concerned with self-defense. But all seem to seek rational space between the competing rhetoric – from the NRA’s “from my cold, dead hands” style to the “ban ’em all” mantra of some gun-control advocates. That, club members say, does little more than keep both sides in business.
Felix Hunziker, a Richmond, Calif., architect and registered Democrat, says he’s “an independent-minded guy whose values range across the political spectrum” who was happy to join the club recently.
“All too often, the mere mention of firearms turns otherwise normal people into polarized zealots,” said Hunziker, 48. “I’ve been a member of many gun organizations, and the Liberal Gun Club is the first one that seems to straddle the great divide. For me, that’s like discovering my long-lost tribe.”
Hoeber, who has described herself online as “a longtime queer, kink, trans, sex-positive, feminist, social justice activist and a devout pervert,” said political engagement is one of the chapter’s goals, though members aren’t pressured to reach a consensus on everything.
“We are a really big tent,” said chapter vice president Eric Wooten, 44, of Atascadero, Calif. A former lobbyist for left-leaning causes, Wooten said the club has everyone from libertarian-leaning Eisenhower Republican types to “full-on socialists who can quote Lenin and Marx.”
What unites them is the idea that gun control too often is offered as a placebo for society’s real problems. When a Democratic lawmaker calls for taxing ammunition or banning high-capacity magazines – which club members think will affect only law-abiding citizens and have no effect on violent crime – all Hoeber hears is, “I’m not going to do anything to actually get anyone in West Oakland a job.”
“It’s a big dodge,” she said, “a way of not doing all the things that are supposed to be the liberal ways to solve these problems” – things such as more money for schools, “real socialized medicine” and urban policies focused less on attracting or retaining sports teams and more on creating jobs.
Dallas Stout, president of the California chapters of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, said he’s glad people are crossing partisan lines on gun issues because “any time people talk about these things, something good can come of it.”
However, Stout said, “Clearly, we have a gun problem in this country and people are dying because of it.” Gun restrictions “have halved the firearm death rate in California,” he said, so when someone liberal or conservative claims such laws don’t work “that’s like bumper-sticker logic, more of the same old rhetoric that makes this debate so difficult to have.”
Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of “Gunfight,” a history of America’s gun-rights battles, noted that gun control wasn’t always a partisan divide. He cited Republican California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s 1967 statement that “there’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
But as poverty and gang violence led to more gun crimes in U.S. cities, Democrats representing such areas rallied around gun control, Winkler said. At the same time, the reborn conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s saw rural, white voters as key supporters.
“Appealing to their sense of outrage about gun control was a handy way for the Republican coalition to solidify its base,” he said.
Traditional gun-rights groups don’t know what to make of the Liberal Gun Club.
“The gun issue is not wholly and solely for conservatives – it is for anybody who believes in liberty and freedom, no matter what persuasion they are or perspective they have,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California.
However, those beliefs must be uncompromising, he said. Some gun lovers would rather negotiate new gun-control measures, he explained. “We will be scrupulously observant to watch for any tendencies like that from this group or any other.”
If the Liberal Gun Club is absolute in its Second Amendment beliefs, “we can fight shoulder to shoulder,” Paredes said. Then, when gun rights are safely enshrined, “we can shake hands and then draw swords on other issues.”
Hoeber, who cut her activist teeth in the AIDS and gay politics of the 1980s, recalls conservatives who staunchly opposed public health measures such as condom distribution, even as her community was dying around her.
“These are the same people who are the loudest pro-gun voices in American politics. If that was my understanding of who gun owners are, I’d probably want to take their guns away, too,” she said. “Those fundamentalist, queer-baiting people who I see as monsters and may be coming for me someday. But they’re the only people fighting for my right to have a gun on the day that they come for me.”