US Socialist Worker writer Danny Katch asks how the US left should respond to the new debate about gun violence.
“Enough is enough.” “The time for change is now.” “Never again.”
These are some of the signs that have appeared at the protests that erupted since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Their gut-wrenching urgency shows how deeply this nightmare has affected American politics.
But do what?
Socialists have traditionally been wary about many of the policies that are labelled gun control measures. For one thing, many anti-gun measures implemented in cities like New York City and Chicago have further criminalised entire Black and Brown communities, while exacerbating the social conditions that breed violent crime.
We also know from the history of Prohibition and the “war on drugs” – and it’s clear that guns are very much a drug for some Americans – that government crackdowns on individual activities, even when they are deemed harmful, don’t work so well.
Moreover, we recognise the right to self-defence in a violent, oppressive society, in which one in three women suffers domestic violence and hate crimes are rising against Muslims, immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
The American left has always had to organise its own protection from the Ku Klux Klan and other far right groups, knowing that police and the FBI certainly won’t do it for us – and that’s as true today as it’s ever been.
And finally, in this recent era of mass shootings, there’s a recurring pattern that is extremely frustrating: After each tragedy, politicians loudly debate gun laws – and nothing else.
This has had the effect of obscuring the many other contributors to violence in America – the most obvious one being that we live in a state of permanent war, and a generation of young men has been bombarded their entire lives by commercials, movies and halftime celebrations that celebrate young men using assault rifles to murder people.
All the above reasons for scepticism remain true. But they have also come to seem incomplete as a response, as right wing gun fundamentalism has become a central ideological and organisational component in the rise to power of the most reactionary wings of the Republican Party.
After the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, National Rifle Association (NRA) leader Wayne LaPierre decried the shooting, but then warned about new gun laws with the same conspiratorial frenzy that seems to animate some mass shooters.
“They want more government control”, he fumed. “Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms, so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”
For the NRA, wrote Patrick Blanchfield for n+1, “gun ownership isn’t just a civil right: it is the civil right upon which all other rights depend. Constructing barriers around it is unacceptable, striking at the heart of the polity and infringing on core individual rights”.
This gun fundamentalism that views all regulations as tyranny is an important glue that helps attach at least some rural white gun owners to Koch Brothers-funded economic libertarianism and its holy war on all labour and environmental protections.
The politics of radical individualism on display in these cases are inevitably about the rights of some individuals to dominate others. And for gun fundamentalists, those categories are colour-coded: The NRA and Republicans have been notably silent about African Americans like Philando Castile and Marissa Alexander, who were victimised for lawfully possessing and/or using their guns.
The NRA isn’t just the main player in the gun movement. With 5 million dues-paying members, it is the most important right wing organisation in the country.
Despite its vast influence, the NRA doesn’t come close to speaking for a majority of Americans, who support many gun control measures to varying degrees. Nevertheless, the NRA is a central player in the Republican Party and therefore the entire US political system.
Consequently, gun politics are emblematic of the larger democratic crisis of this country, where political power is disproportionately in the hands of an unrepresentative, hard right minority.
This failure of the US political system was what fuelled the student walkouts that broke out unexpectedly after the Parkland shooting.
And in turn, this emergence of anti-NRA protest as a vibrant new wing of the anti-Trump resistance should encourage socialists to accelerate our reckoning with modern gun politics and figure out our contribution to this moment.
This is a very violent country, and our widespread access to guns is both a symptom and a further cause of the violence, although the exact causal relationship is less clear than people think.
If you compare gun violence between the US and other countries, it seems obvious that more guns lead to more deaths. If you compare the numbers of guns and gun deaths within the US in 1968 and today, the truth is that there are fewer gun deaths proportionally in a current-day America with proportionally more guns.
In many ways, the fact that the current gun debate is driven by mass shootings is distorting because most gun homicides don’t take place in suburban high schools, and the measures specific to that setting will do nothing for Black youth ghettoised across the country inside heavily policed poverty zones.
But at the same time, mass shootings obviously represent something very real about our world.
Just as miserable young men who commit murder in the name of ISIS are a sign that the US empire can’t keep the violence of its wars from coming home, miserable young men who massacre under the influence of white supremacy, misogyny and other currents of American reaction are a sign that the gun fundamentalists are creating a world where nobody is safe.
So how should socialists use our political framework – which opposes increasing police powers and sees violence as rooted in the social conditions created by inequality, oppression and the alienation of capitalism – to contribute to what may become a new protest movement against the NRA and gun fundamentalism?
Among the many proposals and demands being put forward, we need to disentangle those that would lead to increased repression and surveillance and those that would reduce the power of weapons manufacturers and the gun fundamentalists.
The fact that guns are a commodity uniquely exempt from health and safety regulations is simply absurd. We should join calls to end – believe it or not, both of these are real – gun industry immunity from lawsuits and the gag order on public health research into gun violence.
Proposals for licences, waiting periods and safety and age requirements all have to be weighed on their specific merits. But in general, there’s no reason why guns shouldn’t be subject to the same level of oversight as automobiles. If a government agency were to take over gun training and licensing, that would also greatly undermine the primary recruiting tool of the NRA.
By contrast, we have to make the sometimes unpopular argument that background checks, though they may be proposed in the hope of blocking people likely to cause harm from getting guns, are generally regressive.
Such laws wouldn’t have kept a gun out of the hands of Nikolas Cruz or most other mass shooters. But given the undisputedly racist nature of the criminal justice system, people of colour would be disproportionately barred.
Socialists can – and I think should – also support prohibiting the manufacture of weapons like the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, although we should be clear that this would be more of a cultural victory than a measure to actually reduce the number of guns, at least in the short term. The immediate effect of an assault rifle ban being taken up and passed would surely be millions more AR-15s purchased before the ban takes effect.
We also must oppose what will surely be an attempt to turn the suffering and anger of the Parkland students into increased police powers. As Blanchfield wrote for n+1:
Many commentators who should know better conveniently forget that the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was a mere subsection of the Biden-authored and Clinton-approved Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That legislation allocated $9.7 billion to new prison construction and gave money to states to pursue harsher sentencing guidelines while eliminating prison education programs – effectively writing a check for the New Jim Crow to leap into the 21st century.
Not only do we need to argue that government criminalisation and repression aren’t the solution to gun violence – we must argue that they are part of that violence, and that the movement should fight for undoing mass incarceration and the militarisation of police departments.
Of course, there are many other demands that socialists should contribute to this discussion – from reducing military spending in order to fund public health programs, to ending the NRA’s school security program. But ultimately, the demands that take hold in this movement will reflect the strength of the social forces inside it.
Thousands of ordinary people have spent many years fighting gun violence, but for most of that time, the politics of gun control were dominated by people like billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who used his time as New York City mayor to promote gun control, even as his police force used the threat of their guns to stop and frisk thousands of young people of colour every day.
If people like Bloomberg and big city police chiefs continue to be the dominant voices about gun violence, then we will continue the same frustrating cycle.
The debate will remain polarised between a hard right wing of gun fundamentalists on the one hand, and elite centrists on the other, whose answer to every question is more policing, and who are determined to prevent a deeper questioning of the roots of violence.
Among these latter voices, the NRA will be continually denounced, while the Pentagon is never mentioned. Opinion pieces will declare that assault rifles belong on the battlefield, not the homeland – while ignoring the fact that the increasingly powerful guns in our communities are merely domestic versions of the models requested by generals to inflict maximum casualties on people in Afghanistan.
Instead, we should push for rallies against gun violence to be led – or at least include – those who know the most about the American violence, and the role of law enforcement in not preventing it but perpetuating it. That means activists in the Movement for Black Lives, the water protectors at Standing Rock, and anti-rape and domestic violence activists, to name a few.
If a genuine grassroots movement against gun worship develops in this country, it will take time for many of these debates to unfold. Socialists should recognise that while we discuss our approach, we need to listen to and learn from our fellow protesters.
The good news is the reaction from the classmates of the victims in Parkland, and from students across the country. The school walkouts are showing that a new generation – one whose teenage lives have been filled with active-shooter lockdown drills – is correctly holding school and political leaders accountable for the epidemic of mass shootings.
First published at www.SocialistWorker.org. Edited for length.