How do socialists take on gun fundamentalism?

February 27, 2018

Danny Katch, the author of Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People, considers the challenges for the left as it engages with an emerging new movement.

"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.

As SW's first report stated, "[T]he collective anger and defiance that has been organized and expressed by many classmates of those killed has turned this tragedy into a line in the sand--marked out by young people who are demanding that this country try to actually do something about the epidemic of mass shootings."

But do what?

Socialists have traditionally been wary about many of the policies that are labeled gun control measures. For one thing, many anti-gun measures implemented in cities like New York City and Chicago have further criminalized 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.

Protesting students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
Protesting students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Moreover, we recognize the right to self-defense 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 organize 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 horrible 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 of the above reasons for skepticism remain true. But they have also come to seem incomplete as a response, as right-wing gun fundamentalism has become a central ideological and organizational 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 labor 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 color-coded: The NRA and Republicans have been notably silent about African Americans like Philando Castile and Marissa Alexander, who were victimized for lawfully possessing and/or using their guns.

Gun fundamentalism is also a connective tissue between the Republican Party and the far right.

Republican officials in Florida and Pennsylvania spread the vile lie that the Parkland victims were actors.

Another case in point: Gun Owners of America leader Larry Pratt is a longtime right-wing militia leader who works with Texas Republican Ted Cruz and frequently shows up as a cable news panelist in the aftermath of mass shootings.

The truth is 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 organization in the country. While most people join the NRA for firearms training and other services, not for its hard-right politics, the organization's mass membership is a captive audience for those politics.

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 U.S. political system.

As a consequence, 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 U.S. political system was what fueled the student walkouts that broke out unexpectedly after the Parkland, Florida, 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.


LET'S START with some facts about guns and gun violence.

There are twice as many guns per person today as there were in 1968, yet gun ownership has become more concentrated than it was a half-century ago.

About a third of American households have a gun today--down from over half in the late 1970s. Half of all the guns in circulation are owned by 3 percent of gun owners, who average 17 guns apiece.

There were roughly 11.8 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2016--six times as high as Canada and almost 50 times higher than Great Britain. Nevertheless, the rate of gun deaths is lower today than the 13.5 per 100,000 it was 50 years ago, and far lower than the 15.2 per 100,000 of 25 years ago.

Almost two-thirds of firearm deaths are suicides, a small number of which are also homicides or even mass shootings. Among gun homicides, the vast majority are committed with handguns, and victims and perpetrators are overwhelmingly poor and working class, and disproportionately Black.

To get a full picture of American violence, however, statistics about gun deaths carried out illegally by private citizens are insufficient.

Police killed almost 1,100 people in the U.S. in 2016, far, far more than any other wealthy nation--and far above the total number of deaths from mass shootings, for that matter. Police killings alone would make up more than 5 percent of homicides if they were counted as such.

The U.S. also stands out from other wealthy countries in the numbers of its citizens who suffer horrific violence inside prisons, and who die from lack of health insurance, exposure from the cold and the social disease of poverty.


IN SHORT, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. in 1968 and today, the truth is that there are fewer gun deaths proportionally in a current-day America with proportionally more guns.

NRA arguments that guns prevent violence rather than creating it are clearly absurd. But it's also important to recognize the massive blind spots inherent in the view that, as a recent New York Times study concluded, "guns themselves cause the violence."

Mass shootings make up a tiny percentage of overall gun deaths, but they are increasing at an alarming rate. Mother Jones keeps an ongoing tally, and here are some of its conclusions:

Since 1982, there have been at least 97 public mass shootings across the country, with the killings unfolding in 34 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Fifty-eight of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006...

More than half of the cases [from an analysis of 62 mass shootings from this period] involved school or workplace shootings (12 and 20, respectively); the other 30 cases took place in locations including shopping malls, restaurants, and religious and government buildings. Forty-four of the killers were white males. Only one was a woman.

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 ghettoized 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 U.S. 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 licenses, 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.

A recent poll showed that among numerous gun control measures, the one with the widest support was for laws "to prevent convicted felons and those with mental health problems from owning guns."

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 color 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.

A ban might even lead to an increase in mass shootings as a consequence of the ramped-up rhetoric of Wayne LaPierre and company--which underscores that what's needed isn't just regulations on guns but a political movement against gun fundamentalism.

We also have to 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 criminalization and repression aren't the solution to gun violence--we have to argue that they are actually part of that violence, and that the movement should fight for undoing mass incarceration and the militarization 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 color 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 polarized 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 recognize that while we discuss our approach, we need to listen to and learn from our fellow protesters.

One thing we can contribute is a long-term perspective, both past and future. There are hundreds of years of violence--against Native Americans, enslaved Africans, striking workers and more--that contributed to the fact that Americans own more guns than any other country.

This is also the prime reason why those guns will be almost as hard to erase as that history.

Many people point hopefully to the example of Australia, which responded to a 1996 mass shooting by adopting new license and waiting-period requirements--and, most famously, implemented a buyback program that "bought and destroyed more than 600,000 civilian-owned firearms, in a scheme that cost half a billion dollars and was funded by raising taxes," according to Uri Friedman, writing for the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, this doesn't translate to the U.S. so simply. As Patrick Blanchfield notes:

During the holiday shopping season of 2015, Americans bought three times as many guns as Australia collected over the course of its yearlong nationwide buyback in 1995-96. Meanwhile, the cost of implementing a similar program in the United States--simply in terms of purchasing-related expenses and not including enforcement costs produced by inevitable noncompliance--could easily surpass $100 billion.

That's the bad news.

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.

A youth protest movement has the potential to change the equation in the gun debate by opening up new space to build a left-wing alternative--one that sees more similarities than differences between the NRA and the FBI, and that demands that gun violence be connected to American imperialism and racism.

Socialists should discuss our approach on general issues and specific proposals--but we know we need to be part of the effort to build that left wing.

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