The libertarian says that a lot of people have told him it's "the dumbest idea I've ever heard.” But he's standing by it.
Left: Brian Ellison, courtesy of Facebook. Right: A gun shop in Virginia, photo via Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty
For years, the gun lobby, led by the NRA, has pushed the idea that more guns make the world safer. Most recently this has manifested in the argument (endorsed by Donald Trump) that the answer to school shootings is armed teachers. But Brian Ellison is taking it one step further. Ellison is a Libertarian running for US Senate in Michigan, and though his third-party run is obviously hopeless, he drew some media attention this week for his plan to, uh, hand out pump-action shotguns to Michigan’s homeless population.
To be fair, Ellison isn’t the first person to come up with this idea—19th-century revolutionary anarchist Lucy Parsons implored “tramps” to “learn the use of explosives” and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine famously wrote “Arm the Homeless” on his guitar. But Ellison (who has not yet gotten enough signatures to qualify for ballot access) seems to have thought very thoroughly about his idea. He even started a GoFundMe campaign to buy 20 shotguns for homeless people, though the platform shut down his campaign for violating the terms of service.
When I talked to him about it, the genesis of the idea seemed to have more to do with drawing attention to the plight of homeless people rather than a exaggerated version of an NRA talking point—though he is also a Second Amendment absolutist who had extremely harsh words for the Parkland shooting survivors. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our interview:
VICE: Let’s jump right into the idea of arming homeless people with pump-action shotguns. Why do that?
Brian Ellison: Sure! So, obviously gun control has become a big topic as of late. We have groups like the NRA who have convinced a significant portion of the population that they support gun rights. Some of us know better, that they're just aligning with the Republican Party. But we wanted to bring attention to the fact that the homeless are so disenfranchised and victimized and exploited. Not only are they the victims of violent criminals, they are victims of the state. It’s a shame when the state makes it a crime to ask for a handout or makes it illegal to occupy an unoccupied “public space.” There’s been a war on the homeless for a long time.
How does arming them come into play?
Well, the other side of it is the gun control debate. Personally, I don't support any restrictions on gun ownership. When people say, “We support the Second Amendment and we believe in gun ownership rights,” they want to turn around and say, “except for…” They want to pretend that the fundamental responsibility to protect yourself only applies to people that they want it to apply to. That’s hypocrisy that deserves to be exposed.
So do you have an actual plan?
Actually, it's unfortunate that we’re so restricted in what we're allowed to do. We’ve already had our GoFundMe campaign shut down and we had to start it back up again. (Note: As of now, it’s down again.) If we want to do this legally, these people need ID. And how many homeless people have IDs in the state of Michigan? You can't even get a driver's license unless you have an address. So the idea is to go around and pre-qualify people who we think will meet the criteria by simply having a conversation with them and trying to get a feeling of who they are, whether or not they seem like they’re stable, seeing if they have an ID and if they’d pass a background check.
Then, once we pre-qualify enough people, I will coordinate an event day where we will go get like a limo or a party bus and we'll take them to an outdoor range. We'll go through some basic fundamental safety training with some actual trainers. Then we’ll work through a firearms dealer and get the background checks done and get them outfitted with an inexpensive shotgun and a handful of shells.
Well, a handgun creates a lot more difficulties with the law. And in the context of defense, a shotgun with some buckshot is certainly not a very good offensive weapon. Plus, everybody knows the universal sign of “don't move” when you hear the racking of a pump-action shotgun. And if they can't get through the background check, the backup plan is to just outfit them with some pepper spray if they want it. Hopefully that'll help them from being a victim in the future.
How do you address the obvious arguments against your plan, like the potential increase in gun crime, or widespread issues with mental stability and drug abuse that tend to be a problem among homeless populations?
Well, how do we address that with the police and military populations? A third of police are domestic abusers, and obviously many of them have substance abuse problems. Nobody seem to have an issue with them being armed. I think it’s a cop-out argument. And also, I think if we started allowing the government to dictate who is mentally stable or unstable in order to meet the criteria to allow somebody to have their natural rights, how long is it before we're all deemed crazy? I just don't think that that's a fair argument intellectually. So, if we don't care about all of the police officers and all of the military members with PTSD who are doing the work of the state, I don't see why people want to concern themselves so much with citizens who may or may not have a mental illness.
What do you think of the current gun control push by activists since the Parkland shooting?
I hate using the word ignorant because it just sounds condescending, but the youth only know what they've had a chance to experience and I don't like the exploitation of them. You know what I mean? There's big, big money donors behind this and lobbying groups that organized it and politicians. Like, the school had 3,000 kids and there are only four or five of them that have become the spokespeople for this movement. I know at their age I was certainly not informed and I wouldn't have been able to make a fully informed choice on either side. So I think they're being used as pawns, and I really don't like it, frankly.
Is arming the homeless an actual, serious idea?
I’m serious from the aspect that it’s a worthy cause, and I guess we’ll let the potential donors decide how worthy it is. I mean, this isn’t a hill I’m going to die on, but I think there’s kind of a philosophical bent to it. It’s not enough just to say, “This is ridiculous,” or, “This is the dumbest idea I've ever heard,” which is all over my social media. I want people who are opposed to this to think about why they’re opposed. Is it because you are fundamentally opposed to the basic national right of self determination and self-defense? And if that's the case, then be intellectually honest with yourself about it. Or is it because you don't care about these disenfranchised people? And if that's the case just be honest with yourself about it. Is that a philosophy you would openly espouse?
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