What’s Behind America’s Gun Violence Problem?
As Marxists, what can we make from America's gun violence problem? Should we support calls for gun control?
February 25, 2018
Gun control rally; Photo Credit: Charlie Nye / AP
In the aftermath of yet another horrific massacre, this time at a Parkland, Florida high school, a passionate outcry has erupted, demanding solutions to America’s now-commonplace mass shootings. Survivors of the Parkland tragedy have organized walk-outs and rallies, calling for a March For Our Lives Movement next month. Those of us who aim to radically reshape society on a socialist basis must respond to this issue and consider the ways in which violence permeates our society.
There is a passionate debate today over guns: “Armed teachers” could save lives, says Trump, contemplating a policy many see as anathema to the type of gun reform needed. Students have taken to the streets and to social media, calling for general reforms like a ban on semi-automatic weapons and increased background checks for gun purchases.
The students’ desire to end mass shootings is entirely understandable. Where millions wonder if they too will be the next victim of the Colt AR-15’s wrath, something is deeply wrong. The protests so far, however, have focused almost exclusively on the issues of gun violence, gun ownership, and the need for some type of gun reform. While the easy access to and prevalence of guns in the United States does make it easier for would-be killers to turn their homicidal fantasies into reality, focusing attention on gun laws can distract from a more complicated question: Why does American society produce such homicidal rage in the first place?
A Society Rooted in Violence
Patriotic calls for bipartisan action to confront the crisis have been made, but America’s violence problem is not new. Today’s young activists, if they are to truly grapple with the reality of American violence, must take a sober look at this nation’s history, its policies, and how violence is culturally reproduced.
Most young people today have at least a general sense that the U.S., and the 13 Colonies before it, was founded on the extermination of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. While the horrors of slavery ended after the Civil War, state and institutional violence continues to be normalized and perpetuated. Society as a whole witnesses Black and Brown people daily brutalized and often killed by police officers who are rarely punished. Hundreds of thousands more are locked up in violent, often overcrowded prisons. In addition, the U.S. government long ago normalized the killing of foreign-born people, whether in the form of George Bush Jr.’s “Shock and Awe” bombing and invasion of Iraq or Obama’s Orwellian drone strikes.
Domestic mass shootings have in fact become more frequent, but they must be understood in the broader context of a culture permeated by structural, state-sanctioned violence that most Americans don’t bat an eyelash over.
The Parties of Mass Murder Can’t Solve the Problem
Emma Gonzalez, one of the Florida shooting survivors who has come to prominence in her call for gun reform, rightly denounced politicians who have accepted NRA financial contributions. She has argued that students’ lives are treated like nothing more than financial calculation by big segments of the political establishment. Indeed, the political establishment, Republicans and Democrats alike, don’t give a damn about young people — especially not Black and Brown, working-class youth. The essence of Gonzalez’s rebuke of Trump — that he and his ilk care more about money than human life — is accurate.
The Democrats would like to ride the anti-gun backlash all the way to office in 2018, claiming to be the “sane,” practical, uncorrupted voice of American politics. NRA financial contributions provide an easy boogeyman for Democrats to try to discredit their Republican counterparts as being responsible for needless gun violence. The gun control debate also allows Democratic politicians to distract people from a hard look at what the party has stood for throughout history and how it acts today.
The Democratic Party has been responsible for many of the worst episodes of violence in human history, having supported the nuclear bombing of Japan, the leveling of Korea, the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, and in recent times, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continued “war on terror.” Even “progressive” Democrats like Elizabeth Warren voted for war funding while all of Congress, including Bernie Sanders, has given support to Israel’s brutal wars against Lebanon and Gaza. Today’s youth who are looking to politicians for answers to violence should ask these politicians: How many imperialist wars have you supported? Photo Credit: Rolling Stone
Domestically, too, both parties have allowed more subtle forms of structural violence to be perpetuated through the embrace of neo-liberalism and the erosion of social welfare, attacks that have left millions impoverished, anxious, and angry. It is correct to chastise the Republicans for being tools of vested interests, but a consistent analysis must go much further to include the Democrats.
Alienation, Inequality, Bottled Rage
The rise in mass shootings is a complex issue that does not yield itself to simple explanation. Many factors are simultaneously at play. But it is not impossible to draw a rough sketch of those aspects of society that likely contribute to the problem. We noted above that violence is normalized and reproduced in diverse forms in American society. There are also many factors that lead sizable segments of the population to feel deeply alienated and angry.
In 2018 America, millions of people “fall through the cracks” of society in various ways. Homelessness, opioid and other addictions, depression, bleak economic prospects for workers (40 million people in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), the rise of social media as a primary form of human connection, historic levels of wealth inequality — factors like these contribute to a scenario where millions do harm to themselves, and many lash out. The state refuses to offer a safety net to those hardest hit by economic crisis, while at the same time promoting policies of mass incarceration.
In addition, there is also a strongly gendered element to the recent mass shootings. U.S. culture does psychological harm to men from a young age, teaching them that the (rather fragile) masculine identity they must take on requires them to be “tough.” Whereas society provides a certain space for women to process and express emotion, the masculine ideal exerts a pressure on men to internalize their feelings, to not show weakness, resulting in the “bottled rage” that the recent mass shooters may well have been prone to.
Marxist Attitude Toward Gun Ownership
For the vast majority of today’s gun control advocates, reducing the deadliness of mass shootings requires new policies that restrict which guns can be purchased, where they can be purchased, and by whom. The youth taking the streets to demand gun reform simply want to stay alive and not live in fear, and who can blame them. But this begs the question of what criteria we use to decide who should and should not possess Americans’ most cherished killing device? If gun ownership establishes a certain form of power, where do we want that power to lie?
The idea of a universally armed citizenry was a tradition imported, at least in part, from 17th and 18th century revolutionary traditions in Europe, and had some progressive elements. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, disenfranchised plebeians rose up numerous times, particularly in Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. The attempts to concentrate military power in the hands of the state have served reactionary ends throughout history — aiming to prevent uprisings of the poor and the workers, slave rebellions, or indigenous peoples’ struggles. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Marxists understand the U.S. as a class-divided society, with the majority of the population part of the working class, and a minority of the population embodying the ruling capitalist class. American history is full of bloody examples of class struggle. Often workers have organized peacefully, staged protests, sit-ins, strikes, only to be met with violence from thugs hired by the boss, or from the police. Sometimes the workers armed themselves in defense and repelled attacks by company thugs or the police to the best of their ability. In a society based on class conflict, guns represents an important element of an ongoing power struggle.
When we view society in historical context and analyze social conflict, gun control must be seen as a measure that strengthens the power of the capitalist state — the same reactionary state that wages war, criminalizes social movements, and gives impunity to a police force that kills in an attempt to keep oppressed communities and the working class disarmed and defenseless. Calls to ban assault weapons and increased background checks, for instance, enable the capitalist state (the police, the army, the courts) to further monopolize its control over weapons.
At the same time, the National Rifle Association (NRA) promotes an individualistic, white supremacist vision of gun ownership, one completely antagonistic to the rights of working-class people, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, and other sectors of the population that face victimization. In general, the organizations most active in “gun rights” are part of the anti-immigrant, anti-Black, political Right.
American Gun Control is Rooted in Racism
On the other side, however, the history of American “gun control” is inextricably tied to the racist determination to subjugate Black and Brown communities. After the U.S. Civil War, there was a movement to encourage Black families to buy rifles to protect themselves from roving bands of Klansmen. In Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, journalist Ida B. Wells wrote: “... a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
However, one of the early measures of gun control was a Florida state law, passed almost immediately after a lynching that was thwarted by armed Black people. In response, the Florida legislature passed a new law in 1893, which required a license to possess guns. A Florida Supreme Court judge would later state that “the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers” and “was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”
This was a pattern that occurred repeatedly all over the country; gun control laws were passed in order to keep Black people from defending themselves and were therefore enforced only against Black families with a blind eye to the violence visited on them by right-wing groups and the government.
This oppression intensified over the years, culminating in strict gun laws when groups like the Black Panthers engaged in armed self-defense of their communities against the brutal oppression of the police force. In response to the Panthers’ challenge to the system of racist oppression, laws, such as California’s Mulford Act of 1967, were immediately passed, restricting the right to open carry. At the time, NRA actually supported these legal measures, revealing their racism and hypocrisy. Photo Credit: Bruno Barbey, 1969
While the youth of Florida and elsewhere who demand increased gun control certainly do not hold these racist motivations, it must be acknowledged that the primary purpose of gun control has never, in this country’s history, been to keep people safe. The double standard is that while Black self-defense groups have been criminalized and subjected to repression by the state, right-wing militias have been allowed to hide behind the “right to bear arms.”
No Easy Solution in Capitalist America
Some of the survivors of the Parkland shooting have called for an increase in school counselors and psychologists, in addition to gun reform. The demand for greater funding and personnel for mental health points more in the direction of a solution, though on a small scale. But this would still not address the deeply felt alienation, loneliness, anger, and oppression among large sectors of society.
A society premised on human need, not profit, could take drastic steps to improve the mental health and personal fulfillment of all people. But unfortunately, there are no easy fixes within a system rooted for centuries in the violent subjugation of Black and indigenous people and a nation which continues, in the words of Martin Luther King, to be “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”