Gun Control — Who Controls the Guns?
With the possible exception of abortion rights, there is no single issue in the American political landscape more divisive than the debate over gun control. And just like the abortion debate, the differing sides of the gun debate are rife with contradictions on both sides.
The mainstream media like to frame it as a simple “left” against “right,” with both left and right within acceptable bourgeois definitions. According to the talking heads of the media, the debate pits gun-banning liberal Democrats against gun-owning conservative Republicans. Whether this framing is a deliberate attempt to mislead or just an attempt to simplify the issue in order to hold the attention span of the American public can be argued either way, but the simplification itself is blatantly obvious. The truth is there are many on the left that have no problems with guns in the hands of the people and many conservatives that do have a problem with guns, especially guns in the “wrong” hands. This contradiction in a “liberal vs conservative” overview is easy to point out with just a few historical examples.
On the left, going all the way back to Marx and through Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the idea that the working class should be armed in preparation for insurrection is well documented. The check on state power by an armed populace was considered a necessity by the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries just like it was by the bourgeois revolutionaries of the American Revolution. And on the right, the NRA and no less of a right-wing hero as Ronald Reagan himself, while governor of California, pushed through draconian gun control legislation as a response to armed and militant socialists in the Black Panther Party who were carrying weapons openly in response to the police terror of 50 years ago.
In reality, even if it’s rarely stated as such, the debate is about who controls the guns more than about control of the weapons themselves.
The Second Amendment
The debate actually goes as far back as the founding of the Republic and the enactment of the Constitution of the US. The National Rifle Association (NRA) likes to tout it’s raison d’etre as the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. But this amendment, although short, has an inherent contradiction in wording that can provide support for both sides of the argument. The Amendment itself reads as follows:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Although seeming to be fairly clear on the right of the people to own guns, what was meant by the very first phrase in this sentence? Is it only that “well regulated Militia” members are granted this right? Since this was written before the advent of a standing military in the US, it does seem that the writers expected that every able bodied (white) man would be part of this militia to be called up as needed. Which would imply that every man would have the right to own and keep a firearm in his own home. But since we now have a standing military and, arguably, also state militias in the US National Guard, does this change the intent of everybody having the right to own a firearm?
Although the language of the amendment is debatable, it seems clear that even a cursory reading of the debates around the Second Amendment showed that a majority of the writers and representatives in favor of this amendment were in favor of a more general right to individuals owning guns, rather than just a standing military or militia. And using it as a check against a governmental tyranny against the people was a primary motivator for the ratification of the amendment.
The context of the writing and ratification of the amendment, provides further proof that the amendment was aimed at the general citizenry of the time and, by inference, today. The nascent USA was a strip of former colonies on the east coast of a continent filled with millions of indigenous people and a large population of enslaved Africans, none of whom were granted any of these Constitutional rights. Since uprisings against these oppressions and resistance to future expansion were expected by these populations, a well-armed white settler population was a must.
And finally, there are always exceptions to these amendments for the public’s safety. Even the touted first amendment guaranteeing individual freedoms and freedom of the press have always been seen to apply to most, but not every case. The famous phrase about yelling “Fire!” in a crowded public space comes immediately to mind as an exception. And the NRA and the right-wing have always been big supporters of first amendment exceptions when they lobby and advocate for the suppression of dissent by pro football players who “take a knee” to protest police terror or to shout “Love it or leave it” when dissenters protest what’s wrong with US imperialism.
And as stated above and even from its inception, the right to bear arms has always been about who does the bearing.
The background for much of the gun control debate for at least the last two decades have been mass school shootings, using high powered military inspired weapons with large magazines. From all the way back to the Columbine shootings in 1999 in Colorado to the most recent at Parkland high school in Florida, there have been many situations where disgruntled and alienated students have gone on random killing sprees, resulting in mass deaths of young people and children. Even the youngest have not been spared, as witnessed by the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut in 2012 has shown.
The truth is that most of these random acts of mass violence against a general population are still a small part of school shootings. Most shootings involve a relatively small number of casualties and the motives, when known, are the same as the motives of other murders in the general population, namely domestic disputes, criminal activity, revenge slayings for real or perceived insults and other more mundane motivations. Of course, these are not to be taken lightly, but for the most part, the randomness element that is present in the mass slayings are not the motive for the vast majority of school shootings.
The ease and accessibility of firearms can always be blamed for all school shootings and, indeed, for shootings in general, but this is a relatively easy mark in the blame game and does nothing to actually help the situation of a culture steeped in violence and the lack of economic opportunity or mental health support for the perpetrators of these crimes. Or even for the alienation that the random shooters feel when they are contemplating and then act out violently on their impulses. And blaming guns does nothing to solve the thorny problem of an estimated 310 million guns already available to the general population. Guns are big business with big profit margins and, as such under capitalism, any attempt to “outlaw” guns will be resisted strenuously by the ones making the profit. Profits that are used to “buy” legislators at the local, state, and national levels into voting for the interests of profit rather than the interests of society in general. Keeping the law away from the profit is what the NRA does best with their massive campaign contributions.
This alienation is a general fact of life under capitalism written about by Marx and Engels and, as such, shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s no accident that most of the perpetrators of mass shootings are white and male from a middle economic class background. These are the ones who feel most left behind by multiculturalism that they see as taking away the life that they feel they were born to lead. As an added motive, several of these mass murders have been in response to an immediate situation involving the rejection of their advances by the object (s) of their sexual desire. It’s as if the life expectations of some now include the “right” to sex with whomever they decide is their partner, with the partner having no say in the matter. This of course is mostly the influence of the patriarchy at work in society in general. An “object” of affection is just that, an object, a piece of property to be “owned” and not another human being with their own choice. Although shootings by black and other disenfranchised and poor students are by no means rare, their motivations are almost always opportunistically based, rather than a random act against society in general.
The problem with actually doing something to get at the root causes of all gun violence, not only the alienation of the mass killers, but also the shootings based on criminal activity, interpersonal conflicts and domestic violence is that these solutions cost money and require the input of society at large. And it’s obvious that money won’t be found under a capitalist system facing falling profits. The right-wing and neo-liberal versions of both political parties don’t have the political will to invest in the real solutions that involve taxing the rich for the money to institute long-term solutions, so we can expect to see simplistic solutions being offered that don’t really address the issues involved. Instead all we will get are sops to please their constituents on both sides.
The Youth Movement Against Gun Violence
One thing that has facilitated the recent debate on solutions to this problem is the reaction to an uprising of school age youth against the gun violence that they do face all too often. It was sparked by the mass shooting earlier this year at the Margory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and the activism of the students there. The deaths of 17 high school students and teachers by a random shooter was just the latest in a long line of incidents that has fueled anger and fear among children and their parents for decades now. The demonstrations and rallies were spread by social media, but then quickly co-opted by the Democratic Party machine, much like the woman’s marches last year, into a “get out the vote” campaign for Democratic candidates in the upcoming 2018 elections. Because of the heavy involvement of the Democrats, some have taken the position, just as they did with the woman’s marches, that this is a fake, “astroturf” expression of dissatisfaction and not worthy of support in any form. We disagree.
Although heavily influenced by partisan politics, backed by cops and other representatives of the current power structure, and thus only aimed and guided in a specific and socially acceptable direction, the dissatisfaction and fear that originally sparked the reaction is real. As always, and as should be expected, the Democrats merely took advantage of an already existing problem to channel this dissatisfaction to opportunistically benefit themselves. It’s what they do. But because this is a real problem and a real reaction at its base, it should not be ignored as worthless.
We can support the idea of solutions without supporting specific proposals that are counterproductive. We can congratulate the students on their activism and recognize that school shootings, whether random and mass or focused and opportunistic, are a real problem. We can attempt to help look for real solutions to current problems while pointing out that the solutions that have been and will be offered are, not just inadequate, but actually harmful to the idea of a just, peaceful, and democratic society. And finally we can point out that capitalism is the problem and the shootings are merely the symptom of the systemic disease. The disease of violence under capitalism is shown by the massive amount of killings by the police with a proportionally larger percentage of the victims of police terror being the oppressed, and proportionally more of the oppressed being people of color. It’s also shown by the various undeclared wars and bombings in areas like the Middle East that the imperialist powers bomb on a daily basis, killing innocents randomly. And it’s shown by the ignoring of the real solutions which won’t be discussed if those solutions will cost money that will have to be taken from the wealthy in order to implement them.
Yet at the very least, this new movement has set themselves up as a nemesis to the NRA, calling this vicious right-wing organization out by name and receiving violently worded responses. Just for setting itself in opposition to the gun lobby, who lobby for far more reactionary programs than just for guns, is worthy of qualified and critical support.
The Solutions Being Offered
So what are some of the solutions that have been floated as a way to solve the problem of school shootings? They run the gamut from the bourgeois “left” and “right” and also from the ridiculous to the oppressive. Of course many on the bourgeois “left” favor banning of almost all guns in the hands of citizenry with only legally “allowed” persons having the right to ownership. Cops and the military for the most part. This ignores the glaring contradiction of allowing guns to only be permitted to forces that this “left” also sees as participating in the murderous oppression of people of color and the poor, both here and abroad. Cops can’t be allowed to kill with impunity, but they should be the only force in society to have the weaponry to kill with impunity. This also ignores the reality of attempting to take away the 300 million or so guns
Even the more “reasonable” solutions offered by the Democrats, things like banning guns for the mentally ill and spousal abusers, run into the problem of who decides these categories and what to do about cops who fit into these categories. Spousal abuse among cops is a rampant problem that has been around for decades. Are guns banned for cops that abuse their partners, husbands, wives, children and families? And it’s the same for “mental illness”. Who decides who is too mentally ill to own a gun? Some more right wing legislatures in states with medical marijuana laws have floated the idea of banning guns from people who have a medical marijuana prescription. And this example of selective legislating and enforcing of any ban on guns for the “mentally ill” doesn’t even get into the problem of exactly what a mental illness is and what forms of this nebulous category of mental problems should be considered for a ban. The USSR had a habit of declaring dissidents as “mentally ill” and imprisoning them in mental hospitals. It’s easy to see where these solutions offered by some Democrats could be abused to suppress dissent, not only by the right wing, but by the nominally “left” of the bourgeois power structure too. Are Bernie Sanders’ supporters “mentally ill” because they don’t believe in the policies of the neo-liberal and center-right core of the Democratic Party leadership?
And of course the solutions offered by the reactionary right-wing are no better and in many cases worse. A box of rocks kept in classrooms to use against a school shooter is just the most inane of the solutions offered. Another idea that has been floated is teaching students CPR in order to save other students who have been shot. Like CPR, as worthy as it is, would make much of a difference against a random mass shooter. These solutions do, of course, have the benefit of being cheap and not requiring taxes on the wealthy, so we can expect them to be seriously considered.
However, for the most part, the right-wing solutions offered are more of the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” scenario than any real solution to the complex problems that underlie all of the school shootings, random and focused, that have happened. Two of the most popular “good guy with a gun” proposals consist of more cops in schools and arming teachers. This “hardening of the schools” to make them less easily a target is rife with potential problems. More cops in schools would inevitably lead to turning schools into repressive institutions more like a prison than a place for learning. And it has been proven over and over again that cops cannot be trusted to use their “license to kill” appropriately when it comes to people of color in the US. Not even for young children as the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice showed. With the heightened sense of “threat” that these types of solutions would engender, it’s logical to expect that the killing of students would go up under this scenario and especially kids of color who are already in danger from police terror in their neighborhoods and homes. Now this threat from the authorities would be extended to their school life too.
Arming individual teachers is also no solution. The proposals now under consideration for the most part involve teacher volunteers who undergo some level of training in dealing with life or death situations. The same type of training that the cops have and we all see how that has worked out. Except this venue would be a school with a population made up of youngsters still learning impulse control. And what of the teachers who do volunteer? Who would they be and who would do the choosing? The teachers who would volunteer for this particular job would quite possibly be in the same category politically and socially as the cops, i.e., a group with an authoritarian mindset whose idea of protecting students would mean intimidation of “troublemakers” in day to day life rather than protecting the general student body against a very specific and, in most cases, a random and rare threat. It seems clear that a rise in the deaths of students would also be expected with armed teachers.
And finally, even with more cops in schools and armed teachers, or both, who is to say that they would actually do what they were supposed to do in an active shooter scenario? There were armed Sheriff deputies in the Parkland shooting who were there on site and didn’t go to investigate, but instead stayed outside and safe while waiting for “backup”. There’s no guarantee that on-site cops and, especially, armed civilians wouldn’t do the same thing under the same scenario. Or what’s worse, go in guns blazing as randomly as the bad guy. How many innocent students will be killed by “mistakes” made by these “official vigilantes”?
In truth and in addition to the question of who is controlling the guns, these solutions offered would quite probably make the bad situation of rare random shootings worse by making school shooting more likely than they are now.
Solutions via a Transitional Method–Alleviating Alienation in Society
So what should be the solutions to this very real problem of violence in society as a whole and, more specifically, violence in schools?
First, as a Marxist and Leninist tendency, we can never go on record as in favor of a total ban on guns for the working class. This would go against one of the fundamental principles of our beliefs. And most importantly as stated above, this stance would put guns only in the hands of the repressive and oppressive forces of the state and leave no recourse for even minimal self-defense against these sometimes murderous forces.
But make no mistake, against a modern military, we recognize that merely an armed population will not be enough. We are not enamored over some left-wing version of the “Turner Diaries” or some Maoist dream of a “peasants’ insurrection” and asymmetrical warfare. For a revolution in a developed nation to succeed, it won’t happen in this fantastical way. The armed insurrection part of a socialist revolution will only happen with the active support or, at worst, the neutrality of the lower ranks of the military. No, the need for weaponry in the hands of the working class, and especially the most oppressed sectors of the working class at the current time, is to provide for a basic level of self-defense against, first, a growing fascist threat and, eventually, self-defense against police repression and terror that have always and will always support this fascist threat.
However, to face this reality is not to say that nothing could or should be done to alleviate some of problems associated with gun violence, random or directed. Of course the overarching goal needs to be the overthrow of capitalism and the assigning of the resources of society as a whole into areas of need rather than profit. Until that happens, we can advocate for incremental measures that push towards this goal. Things like confiscatory taxation of wealth above a certain level of need until everyone has their basic needs satisfied. Expropriating the means of production in the commanding heights of industry to be run under workers’ control. Sharing of work at full pay in democratized workplaces led and run by the workers themselves. Councils set up in the productive sectors of the economy that allow full workers’ democracy to flourish, everywhere from the shop/office floor to, in conjunction with the entire citizenry, in the local towns and cities, all the way up to state and national levels. A “living wage” as a minimum for every worker, fully socialized medical care so one is bankrupted by medical needs, education for any who wants it paid for by the taxation for the benefit of society at large. In short a workers’ government led by elected representatives of the working class, fully recallable by their constituents at any time, delegates who lead because they believe in themselves and their class and not because they are motivated by personal greed. They would be paid only the wage of an average worker in their industry and the penalties for betraying their class for material gain would be severe.
Instituting these measures would go a long way towards relieving the alienation that is felt by the majority of the people of the country and that leads some to act out in ways that are deadly to the rest of us. This type of reordering of society for needs rather than profit would also stifle many of the current crimes that are committed because of need. This would naturally result in a reduction in all personal property crimes, some of which involve the opportunistic use of firearms to deadly effect. After all, why take the chance of death or incarceration if there’s no pressing economic reason to do so?
Minimum and Transitional Measures Specifically Dealing With Guns
What this would look like in the specific area of “gun control” would be to make sure that the people, and especially the most oppressed sectors of the working class, control the guns. Or at least enough of the guns to provide a check on fascist and criminal elements among the people and in the ruling class. But it’s impossible to consider gun control of any sort without considering the impact of guns in the hands of the state actors that the public most frequently interacts with, the various law enforcement agencies. Until these forces are under control of the people, they will continue to arbitrarily and/or in the service of profit, directly or indirectly, intimidate and terrorize sectors of the populace, almost all working class, mostly poor and working poor and of course, overwhelmingly people of color.
Nothing shows the function of the police in society as the protectors of capital and private profit as much as the recent, post-Great Recession militarization of the various police departments in US cities. Everything from some of them training with the murderous Israeli IDF in counterinsurgency tactics to the donation of older, but still useful military grade equipment to local departments, to the buildup of the police in general shows that the owners in society expect push back from the people and are preparing for that push back by building up the forces of repression. They know that the working class has the potential to fight back against their plans to put the costs of the recession on to the people and are preparing their first lines of defense against this push back. Before we can talk about any “gun control” we have to demilitarize the forces of state repression on our streets.
Cops will need to be eventually disarmed and replaced by community guards who actually live in the communities they guard. These community defense guards will first need to be trained in conflict resolution and negotiation and made to understand that deadly force is, and always will be, a last resort. They will need to understand that they will face the wrath of the community that they actually reside in, a form of Peoples’ Tribunals, if they abuse their authority, up to an including the severest punishment that the community can provide if they overstep their bounds. The laws they enforce will only be laws that impact life itself or an individual’s personal property and not corporate private property The quality of life in the community and not some arbitrary “moral” strictures like those that punish victimless crimes as under bourgeois capitalism, will be the overriding mission of any community defense organizations.
Until these community self-defense guards can be organized and put into action, other measures can be taken to rein in police terror. Community oversight boards in all areas of the country, but especially in the cities, should be elected and vested with real power to make sure that police act in the interest of the communities they are supposed to “serve and protect”. A COB should have the power to fire cops at will after an investigation into breaches of protocol and the law. They should be vested with Grand Jury powers to indict police who overstep their authority. And they should have the power of first hiring of any cops that are needed. In other words, a community oversight board would control the police and not just be a rubber stamp for the current authorities as they are in too many places. An appearance of control without actual control is worse than useless, as it actually harms the community.
There should be a limit on the amount of weapons that can be held in individual hands. There are an estimated 300+ million guns in the USA, but a large majority of the population owns no firearms. This disparity needs to be remedied, as some, usually the most reactionary and paranoid, sometimes own dozens. This kind of unequal allocation of deadly force into the hands of the right-wing does not bode well when it comes to self-defense for the rest of us. At this point we recommend a limit of three per individual or household, but that could be negotiated downward if needed. As long as the number is not zero.
“Open carry” serves no purpose than to intimidate and this includes open carry by the police. So we recommend the immediate outlawing of open carry for individuals and police, except in case of true need like workers’ militias. We already regulate the carrying of a weapon with concealed carry statutes and open carry should be taken under the same umbrella as concealed carry. In other words, only with a proven need.
Weapons in the hands of criminal and unstable personalities will need to be looked at and addressed. The logical place to begin would be with threats of bodily harm or death to specific individuals by other individuals. If “A” threatens “B” with death, they should be banned from having a firearm until the threat is investigated and some resolution is found. The small percentage of paranoid and violently schizophrenic personality disorders would need to be banned from firearm ownership until they can be helped and cured.
Any other reforms to gun laws would need to be discussed on a case by case basis, not only for need and benefit, but also in the light of potential harm to the idea of democracy itself. In other words, reforms need to be discussed with an eye towards exactly who is doing the “control”.
Any society of any size, even a socialist one, will have some who opportunistically prey on their neighbors and community and this element will need to be reeducated into more socially acceptable behaviors. And if this cannot be accomplished quickly and safely for all parties involved, the “criminal” and the victim, then they might perhaps have to be incarcerated until they can be reeducated. This incarceration will not be out of revenge or other personal motivation, but will be for the good of society as a whole and our communities. The conditions of this incarceration will be humane and will value even the criminal as a human being. No one should profit over this, so we would immediately ban the use of the “for profit Prison Industrial Complex” in these incarcerations. Profit that leads to the commodification of humanity leads to humans being worth no more than their value as profit. This would not be the case in a socialist or a transitional society. If we incarcerate an individual, society as a whole takes responsibility for the humane and considerate care of that individual, no less so than we would take responsibility for those who cannot contribute in a “normal” fashion like the elderly, the infirm, or children.
Finally, there is no accepted science that posits the inherent superiority of any group of humans over another group of humans. The “white race” is not inherently superior to other “races”. The majority sexual orientation is not “normal” as opposed to another orientation. Men are not superior to women just because they’re men. In truth, science shows that there’s a wide range of diversity within all groups that we like to gather in, just as there is within the groups that some like to vilify as “inferior”. So we would propose that organizations that use violent language, including threats to kill, in this vilification of the “other” be classed as a mental disorder and banned from gun ownership. As would individuals within these groups. Judging from their propaganda, this would apparently include many that are now part of the NRA, as well as the more extremist and fascistic groups that are showing a resurgence under the Trump administration.
Any other measures, like age limits on the purchase of guns, liability insurance for gun ownership, criminal penalties for gun owners who’s weapons are used in crimes and other small measures could be tried, but shouldn’t be expected to actually fix the problem.
Conclusions For Now
We have attempted to show here some of the factors that have gone into the current situation in the United States as it relates to guns, gun culture, and especially gun violence. It’s a complicated web of history involving white settler colonialism, slavery, racism, patriarchy,“rugged individualism”, vigilantism, alienation from the products of our labor and from each other, criminal opportunism, the profit of the capitalist gun industry, and many other factors. We have attempted to contribute some nuance and some practical suggestions, both minimum and immediate but also transitional and longer term, into the discussion. But the sad fact is there is no quick fix to the problem of gun violence in the US. Any quick fix attempted will inevitably result in more bloodshed, at least in the short term, and definitely more oppression in the longer term. A gun ban as some on the bourgeois left would want would be a nightmare in practical terms. How do you confiscate 300 million guns in private hands without a large amount of bloodshed? And how do you expect to keep your freedom of dissent when the only ones left with the power of life and death are the forces of government and the system that controls it?
The only way to effectively counterbalance the weight of governmental oppression and a growing fascist menace is with an armed and disciplined self-defense force made up of workers themselves, along with a militant program to take back power in society from those who own, not only the means of production, but also own the legislators who make the laws that support their ownership. Since the only mass worker organizations that are left revolve around unions, as inept and collaborationist as they might be presently, then it’s only logical to begin with unions as the seeds of these workers’ militias. These militias should further represent the most oppressed sectors of society in their makeup and orientation. Black and brown people will need to be given a priority in arms and positions, if for no other reason, than because they are the ones that are under the most threat from violently reactionary forces of both the state and in society in general. In other words, if you want to arm teachers, start with arming the teachers’ unions. These workers’ defense organizations would of course, need to be under control of the general membership.
At this time, there’s also a place for self-organized militias like Redneck Revolt, as long as they don’t devolve into criminal gangs that turn into community oppressors themselves. But any self-organized militia, even the ones made up of black and brown people, women, gays, and other specially oppressed minorities need to be aware of the need to place themselves under control of the communities they serve and not spiral out of control into violent and intimidating personal opportunism.
It’s becoming more and more obvious that the days of senile capitalism are upon us. The masters are no longer able to rule in the way they have in the past and the workers are showing signs that they are refusing to be ruled as they have been in the past. This is a situation that could easily spiral into Bonapartism and even outright fascism, especially if there is no organized and disciplined alternative from the working class and the left. It’s our job to provide that alternative and it will involve self-defense, including armed self-defense. For the foreseeable future we on the left will come under increasing threat from armed fascists and covert and overt elements of the state. To disarm the working class at this time of peril would be a criminal betrayal of our ability to defend ourselves and to fight back against this threat to democratic rights and our very lives.
We must make sure that we are the ones who control the guns. Anything less would be suicidal.