A Liberal Democrat Who Loves Guns
Daniel Barnett, a liberal Democrat from Dallas, joins the battle against gun control.
WALKING TALL: Barnett is more interested in getting like-minded Democrats to speak up than converting non-believers.photography by Billy Surface
Daniel Barnett has a personal arsenal of one firearm: a 12-gauge break-action shotgun acquired sometime in the 1930s by his great-grandfather. He has never fired it and never intends to. “This gun’s had a long life,” he says. “I want it to enjoy its retirement.” Instead, when Barnett feels the urge to shoot something, he drives to the DFW Gun Range on Mockingbird Lane and spends a quality hour with his hand wrapped around the pistol grip of a rented AK-47.
On this Sunday afternoon at the range, Barnett stands at the sales counter amid clumps of would-be weapons owners maneuvering for better views of the merchandise, which includes a pink .22 for those preferring a rifle with that princess feel. Since the news that Democrats were taking over the White House, shops like this one have reported brisk business, driven largely by gun enthusiasts convinced that, given enough time and political leeway, Democrats will disarm the law-abiding public. Which makes Barnett a standout in this crowd, and not just because he’s a large man in suspenders. His Toyota Camry is the only vehicle in the parking lot sporting Obama bumper stickers, and he’s wearing a t-shirt that unapologetically proclaims himself loyal to the Party of Roosevelt. “Sometimes when I pull up in front of the building,” he says, “people look at me like I must be lost.”
Despite the fears of the right and the hopes of the left, guys like Barnett may be the ones who shape the future of gun control under a Democratic reign. He’s an unabashed liberal—Democratic precinct chair and state convention delegate—who just happens to have a fondness for the Second Amendment. In 2005, he launched a2dems.net (for “Amendment II Democrats”), trying to publicize the fact that Republicans and conservatives do not have a monopoly on the right to bear arms. At the time, the only requirement for membership (if you could even call it such) was a shared desire to liberate yourself as a gun-toting Dem. Within months, he started getting joyous, disbelieving e-mails. “I’m an oddball—or so I thought,” read one. Another man confessed, “I rarely mention the fact that I am a recreational shooter amongst my academic liberal friends.”
The group existed mostly as a band of sympathetic blogging buddies until June of last year, when Barnett oversaw the formation of the Gun Owners Caucus of the Texas Democratic Party. For the inaugural meeting at the state convention, he expected only a dozen or so die-hards. The event ended up standing room only, and news reports put the crowd at more than 75. State office candidates lined up to speak. Around the time Barnett ran out of handouts and convention swag, he thought, “My God. What have I gotten myself into?”
Perhaps, the future. So far, gun control in the Obama era looks almost nothing like the Clinton years, when a ban on semi-automatic weapons was instated in 1994. It was allowed to expire 10 years later under Republican leadership. Yet, to the dismay of many members of both parties, gun control efforts have largely misfired ever since Attorney General Eric Holder announced his intentions to revive the semi-automatics ban. Shortly after Holder’s announcement in February, 22 Senate Democrats joined forces with Republicans to pass a measure that would essentially forbid the District of Columbia from restricting gun ownership. In March, 65 Congressional Democrats signed a letter to Holder, saying they would “actively oppose any effort to reinstate the 1994 ban.” Then, in May, 27 Democrats sided with Republicans for a measure that would allow visitors to carry loaded weapons in national parks. In a matter of weeks, Barnett has gone from feeling like a wallflower to feeling almost invited to the party. “I’m more cautiously optimistic than I’ve been in a long time,” he says.
Barnett didn’t set out to be a poster boy for the Second Amendment—or even a Democrat for that matter. The 42-year-old health care administrator grew up in a household of conservatives in Garland. But during the 1990s, he began to realize most of his opinions leaned leftward. He soured on Republicans during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal—“I saw such a level of spite,” he says—and even married the woman who had been his best friend, a longtime left-winger, on April 1, 2000, in Las Vegas. Still, he didn’t embrace the Democratic Party with gusto until 2004. “It took Howard Dean to make me a full-fledged Democrat,” he says. “Here was a guy who reached out to the grass roots.”
Today, he displays the usual hallmarks of liberalism. Pro-choice? Absolutely. Gay marriage? No problem. Iraq? “We’re not leaving fast enough,” he says. Yet even with more Democrats around who think like he does, his views on firearms remain so radioactive among most members of his party that Barnett admits to feeling at times like he’s stepped into a political no-man’s land. “Sometimes,” he says, “people say, ‘Why don’t you hang with the Republicans?’” Truth is, he loves being a Democrat. He just has an interpretation of the Second Amendment more aligned with the National Rifle Association than the official platform of his own party. (And, no, he’s not a member.) “I don’t want AKs in the hands of criminals, either,” he says. But he chafes at the idea of bans. “We’ve already tried something like that with Prohibition.” Prohibition didn’t end drinking, he points out. It created an alcohol underground. In his view, better schools and improved economic opportunity in blighted neighborhoods would go further to reduce gun violence than more laws.
He concedes that he may never win over the majority of Democrats—including the one he is married to. “She’s actually more supportive of gun control than I am,” he says of his wife, Ginny. “Always has been.” She puts it another way: “I started out saying I want them all melted down. He’s tempered me a little on it.” A little. She believes the government has an obligation to keep certain weapons out of the hands of ordinary citizens, pointing out that you can’t own a nuclear bomb just because you feel like you need one for protection. She remains squarely in favor of reviving the semi-automatics ban, unmoved by her husband’s insistence that “they just look dangerous.”
The gun owners caucus among Texas Democrats is not the first attempt for liberals to politically lock and load. Barnett took his cues from a similar movement in Oregon. But the Texas group may have more muscle within the party, given the state’s size and culture, says Tracee Larson, a self-described Jewish liberal who was active in the Oregon group but now lives outside Houston. “I think here in the state of Texas, having a gun owners caucus is going to be a wake-up call for the party,” she says.
Could be, but Barnett is a pragmatist who knows he may never dilute the official party position, even if more pro-gun Democrats are feeling free to out themselves. He says no one can predict what might happen if President Obama gets fully behind stricter gun laws. And neither side is giving way. The appointment last January of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has a 100-percent approval rating from the NRA, was only hours old before Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a gun control activist from Long Island, threatened to challenge the new senator in the primary.
Mostly, Barnett spends a lot of time debating fellow liberals with web posts that often get a “Who is this guy?” kind of welcome. (To which he answers, “I’m just a guy who is doing whatever he can to help out the Democratic Party.”) This is, in the end, his motivation. He wants Democrats to agree that there are some issues on which they may never agree, but no one should be ostracized for speaking up.
Barnett is content for now to have found other liberals who share his fervor and who want to work for change they can believe in. He’s pleased that his brand of Democrat may be gaining more political ammunition in Washington. Back at the gun sales counter, he cradles the AK-47 and walks through practical features that make the weapon both despised and adored. He’s happy not taking one home. Just don’t tell him that he can’t.
Laura Beil is a Dallas freelancer who has written for the New York Times and Newsweek. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.