Over the past few weeks, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has been rolling out task forces, policy platforms and all manner of other legislative bells and whistles as he ramps up his bid to unseat President Donald Trump. Predictably, none of his proposals have hit with the same force as progressive blockbusters such as “Medicare for All” or the “Green New Deal” (neither of which he supports). But Biden did shake the table in a different way in 2019 when he debuted his gun control platform. Later that year, when he bumbled into a heated exchange with a Detroit factory worker, who accused him of trying to “take away our guns,” right-wingers and gun rights groups gloated over the spectacle. But even now, after the world has changed several times over, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that that worker was right. To the dismay of firearm enthusiasts on the left, Biden is still coming for some people’s guns. It’s now just a matter of who’s going to have them snatched — and who isn’t.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, may have pulled the most attention with his brash anti-gun rhetoric during the primaries, but Biden’s less ambitious plan still offers plenty of cause for alarm for firearm owners. Alongside a raft of more common-sense measures (and a confusing aside about “smart gun technology”), its centerpiece is a ban on the manufacture and sale of what are known as “assault weapons,” with a proposal to bring their regulation under the National Firearms Act. This 1934 law currently applies to “machine guns” (i.e., fully automatic firearms), silencers and short-barreled rifles, but Biden’s plan would extend it to apply to what he characterizes as “assault weapons,” meaning semiautomatic rifles, pistols and shotguns with interchangeable magazines that fire intermediate cartridges (the most notorious of which is the AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle) as well as “high capacity magazines” (generally understood under the 1994 bill to be those that can hold more than 10 bullets). Individuals who already own these items would be required to either participate in a federal buyback program or register each of their qualifying firearms and magazines under the NFA — which comes with a $200 price tag (on top of extra fees incurred during the registration process). When it was first enacted in 1934, that $200 fee was intended to be prohibitively expensive; now, inflation aside, it still is for many people.
Given how costly some firearms can be, that registration fee may not sound like too much of an added burden, but for a person who has already bought and paid for multiple qualifying firearms and magazines (or inherited them), that amount will add up quickly. Those who violate the NFA will also face up to 10 years in federal prison, and a potential $10,000 fine. Biden also wants to end the online sale of firearms and ammunition, including gun parts and parts kits that some people use to manufacture their own low-cost DIY firearms (known as ghost guns) further limiting accessibility.
Regardless of one’s opinion on guns and gun control, it is obvious that this proposal will disproportionately affect poor and working-class communities. Those within those communities who already own firearms would be robbed of their ability to protect themselves and their loved ones, while their wealthier counterparts would skate by on their ready piles of cash. Stephen Paddock perpetrated one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history and could afford dozens of high-powered weapons and a plush Las Vegas hotel suite; this plan would have no effect on someone like him. In effect, Biden’s plan sets in motion a “war on guns,” the same way his predecessors declared wars on “poverty,” “crime” and “terror” — wars in which it was inevitably black and brown people who were the real targets.
Although acknowledging that the fact may be uncomfortable for Biden, millions of people in this country own firearms, and not all of them fit into the stereotype of the right-wing gun nut. Armed community defense is a timeworn activist tradition that has once again entered the spotlight as the Black Lives Matter movement has continued to build across the nation. Protesters in various cities have been met with violence from self-proclaimed white supremacists, militias and assorted right-wing malcontents with money to burn on the biggest guns they can find. In some cases, armed community members have stepped up to serve as a barrier between the people and those who seek to cause them harm. Whether anyone “needs” an AR-15 is beside the point; simply put, heavily armed right-wing militia members have threatened protesters, and others on the right have even shot at them. With that in mind, some folks don’t want to be left empty-handed when self-proclaimed white supremacists or other right-wing extremists come marching into their community. And it is those community defenders and other regular working people who will bear the brunt of this proposed legislative switch.
Biden’s plan falls into a long line of government efforts to disarm the working class while keeping the lanes clear for the privileged who can afford whatever legal curveballs are thrown their way. A crystallizing moment in the history of the U.S. gun control movement came in 1967, when the Black Panthers held an armed protest on the steps of the California Capitol; at the time, hoping to keep guns out of the hands of black people, the National Rifle Association pushed hard in favor of gun control, and strict legislation soon followed. The NRA’s stance on gun control has taken a hard right turn since then, but as was shown by its silence when Philando Castile, a black gun owner, was killed by police, some things haven’t changed much at all.
On the most generous reading, the goal of Biden’s plan is to ensure that there are fewer guns in the world and in the streets. But even in that spirit, we still have to think about who’s going to end up with the guns that remain in private hands. People such Mark McCloskey, the lawyer made infamous for brandishing his AR-15 at Black Lives Matter protesters as they walked past his sprawling St. Louis mansion, will be able to pay whatever fees Biden throws at them, and will thus be able to hold onto as many weapons as they like. But territorial weekend warriors who feel no accountability to the community, and show little regard for gun safety, are exactly the kind of people who shouldn’t have guns. By contrast, leftist community firearm clubs invest serious time into training and safety education, carefully vet their memberships and work arm-in-arm with the marginalized communities they are invited to protect.
And yet under Biden’s plan, the former are who will be able to afford to hold onto as much firepower as they so desire, while the people they want to hurt will be left high and dry. Simply depriving poorer people access to firearms will not rectify the structural issues such as poverty, inequality and lack of economic mobility that are correlated with gun violence. The plan says nothing about handguns, which are responsible for far more deaths than other kinds of guns, or about expanding mental health services, or disarming the police who are responsible for an unconscionable amount of gun deaths. Nor does it do anything about the networks of right-wing radicalism that have inspired the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorist attacks or the media pundits and politicians (including Trump himself) whose rhetoric exacerbates the problem. It just focuses on the big, scary guns. If cutting down on gun violence is the end goal here, what good could it possibly do to disarm the working class and ensure that only the well-heeled (and the agents of the state who defend them) will be able to hoard stockpiles of highly efficient weaponry? Gun sales have already skyrocketed during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and political tensions throughout the country are incredibly high. This divisive plan would do little to curb gun violence, and would instead hammer home the vast inequalities still dividing this nation.
Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and labor organizer based in Brooklyn who writes about labor, radical politics and culture.