First, we need fewer guns

March 5, 2018

Robin Horne contributes to the discussion about what we say about gun violence.

I WOULD like to thank Alex MacMillan and Danny Katch for wishing to open a space at Socialist Worker for debate and discussion over gun violence in the U.S.

In some ways, their recent article ("Resfusing to accept a society steeped in violence") is a step forward for understanding how the left should respond to gun violence--and a follow-up piece by Danny ("How do socialists take on gun fundamentalism?") took another step forward.

Namely, they are willing to put forward the possibility that the left should raise demands for gun control in the United States. However, I would like to raise some objections to the argument presented in Alex and Danny's piece, as well as some objections to Danny's follow up.


MY FIRST objection--one that I raised with Danny in response to his SW article ("When reaction grows out of the barrel of a gun") from November 2017--is to the argument that gun violence is not the result of guns per se, but deeper socioeconomic factors.

The conclusion that flows from this is that the left's primary response should be to point out how "imperialism, racism and oppression, exploitation and alienation" as the "root cause" of gun violence (more on this later).

Image from SocialistWorker.org

Of course, there is some truth to this idea. Guns--and attitudes about guns--in the United States have always been linked to racism and militarism. Guns were advertised in the early 19th century as being suitable for "hunting" Native Americans, and the government of Pennsylvania had to publicly shame blacksmiths for not producing guns for the fledgling American military.

It's also true that the post office shootings of the 1980s were in part the result of unbearable working conditions at the U.S. Postal Service under Ronald Reagan. Countless other connections could be made as well.

However, this downplays an absolutely central point: gun violence in the United States is so high due to the sheer number of guns in this country.

When one compares the United States to other countries, the pattern is very clear: the more private gun ownership in a given country, the more mass shootings. Unless one thinks that imperialism, militarism, racism, poverty, exploitation, social alienation, oppression, misogyny, etc., are uniquely American, one cannot have a discussion of the "root causes" of gun violence without centering the discussion on guns themselves.

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Furthermore, when socioeconomic factors are controlled for, areas of the United States that have more guns have more gun deaths. One study found that states that see increases in the number of guns see an almost one-to-one percentage increase in gun homicides. Access to a gun massively increases the likelihood that someone will be able to successfully suicide.

It is not a broadening of the scope to discuss the "root causes" in the way Alex and Danny put forward, but a distortion.


OF COURSE, that is not to say that the "root causes" that Alex and Danny cite are unimportant. Just as socioeconomic factors no doubt play into gun violence in countries like the Philippines and Mexico, surely they play a role in the gun violence of the United States.

I believe, in agreement with Alex and Danny, that the whole range of socioeconomic ills in our society should absolutely factor into our understanding of gun violence in the United States, and what our response should be.

However, downplaying the sheer number of guns in the U.S. in favor of vague "root causes" (What is "social alienation" anyway?) is, in addition to being empirically unsupported, an argument to turn away from addressing gun violence in its own right.

Alex and Danny are explicit about this when they say that "there are other demands which don't fall under the framework of 'gun control,' but might be more relevant to preventing future massacres." People who carry out mass shootings sometimes have psychological problems, so we need universal health care. People who carry out mass shootings are misogynists, so we need a feminist movement.

The implication here is that if we fix these other problems, the problem with guns will disappear, or at least diminish. I think this is a mistake, both because there is a clear, strong link between the number of guns and gun violence--and so it is far and away the most important "root cause"--and because the sheer scale of the problem of gun violence makes it a vital public health issue, which the left should care about confronting directly.

Alex and Danny's article is also not consistent with the history of guns in the U.S. They seem to believe that the gun culture is simply woven into the fabric of the U.S., and Americans' relationship with guns is due to some inevitable outgrowth of particular American features (features that are, of course, not uniquely American).

In this way, they mirror the arguments of both pro-gun control liberals as well as right-wing gun advocates: guns are simply part the American DNA.

According to Pamela Haag, author of the essential The Gunning of America: Business and the Making American Gun Culture, while the modern American gun industry did (and does) have a symbiotic relationship (at times an uneasy one) with the American military, it was because this relationship was so unreliable that the gun industry shifted toward domestic civilian markets.

Concepts associated with American gun culture--for example, guns as fetish-objects, as symbols of individuality and liberty, as bulwarks against workers and oppressed people demanding their rights, etc.--were forged in fires of marketing.

As Sean Larson notes in his recent article at SocialistWorker.org ("The political economy of 'gun culture'"), the gun manufacturers pitched guns to the American public by tapping into racism and militarism already present in our society. However, this did not take place until the 20th century.

The bottom line is that we became a "gun-loving country" because an industry had a product to sell, and was successful at selling it. Curiously, in Danny's follow-up piece at SocialistWorker.org, while the NRA rightly has a prominent place in his analysis, the discussion of the gun industry itself is almost completely absent.


MY SECOND objection to the argument in Danny and Alex's piece, which is related to the first, has to with the question of what the role of the left should be, now that there seems to be an emerging social movement to address gun violence (or at least mass shootings).

I share Danny and Alex's enthusiasm for the student response to the massacre at Parkland. They are right to point out that this movement could be an "important layer to the resistance to Donald Trump and the Republican right."

However, the contention that the role of the left is to point out the "root causes" and not "immediate legislative reforms" is misguided. Concerns over ineffective gun control measures and "law-and-order"-type responses are justified, but it is precisely for this reason that the left should put forward its own demands.

This means not "broadening the scope," but taking aim at the gun industry and its propaganda arms for drowning our society in guns, and profiting off the resulting death and misery. Ceding this ground to liberals, as well as the right, makes it more likely that reactionary and ineffective reforms and half measures will carry the day.

This is especially the case when the president is calling for arming teachers with military training as a "solution" to school shootings. The debate and discussion should revolve precisely around which reforms can be advanced, rather than sidestepping the plain fact that we need a society with fewer guns.

In a follow-up piece written by Danny, he points out that there are more guns in the U.S. than in decades past, while gun deaths have decreased. This decrease in gun deaths is a part of a drop in homicides that coincided with a massive drop in overall crime, a phenomenon that does not seem to be well understood.

However, rates of gun ownership have either remained steady or decreased slightly (Danny hints at this fact when he says that there is a higher concentration of gun ownership today).

What one can conclude from this--in light of the ample evidence drawing the connection between the number of guns and gun violence--is that there is a relatively small marginal impact from an additional gun owned by a person that already owns a gun, and a more significant marginal impact from an additional gun owned by person that did not already own a gun.

This is an important nuance, but it does not make the connection "less clear" between the U.S. being waist deep in guns and having astronomical rates of gun violence.


IN HIS second piece, Danny seems to step back the argument that the left should "broaden the scope." He rightly points that the left must oppose policies that will lead to racist repression or increased police power. He also rightly points out the absurdity of bans on liability lawsuits against gun companies and Centers for Disease Control research into the epidemiology of gun violence.

The left can and should raise demands for repealing these bans. Danny also, to his credit, makes the common sense point that gun ownership should be regulated at least as much as automobiles, something that some on the left have been shy to do.

How this fits into his argument that the left should concentrate on "root causes" and addressing gun violence indirectly via other movements made in the first piece is unclear. Danny seems to remain skeptical about the possibility of reducing the number of guns in the U.S.

However, this is the time for the left to be bold in advancing political demands directly against the gun industry, the NRA and the political representatives that serve them. This is the time to fight for solutions to the public health disaster of gun violence in America and bring this fight into all other movements against oppression and exploitation.

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