by Jai Chavis
The Buffalo supermarket shooting on May 14th killed ten people and injured three more in an explicitly anti-Black terror attack. Then, ten days later, another shooter killed 19 children and two educators at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, while police spent over forty minutes refusing to confront the shooter. More recently, a shooter killed seven people at a 4th of July parade in Highland Park, IL. These are just a few of the most recent high-profile mass shootings that have yet again made it apparent how prevalent gun violence is in the U.S.
Workers are correctly fed up with our children and fellow workers dying due to the callous refusal to act effectively on gun violence by the Republicans. But we must also point the blame at the Democrats who have had numerous opportunities to tackle gun violence and have failed to protect the lives of workers and youth in numerous ways; in fact, they have made matters worse by expanding the War on Drugs under Clinton, greatly increasing gun violence and deaths. Unfortunately, the current half-measures from the Democratic Party are par for the course and apply likewise to issues ranging from ending mass incarceration to defending abortion rights and universal free healthcare.
Gun Violence – a Symptom of Capitalism
The corporate media likes to focus on mass shootings that they can use to generate eye-catching headlines. Every entirely preventable death due to a mass shooting is tragic, and we must address them as a society, but we also need to expand our approach to ending gun violence beyond just mass shootings, which account for only a fraction of gun deaths. To truly solve gun violence, we must understand the problem in its entirety and not just the sensationalist framing presented by the mainstream press for the political gain of both Democrats and Republicans.
Each year, there are more than 40,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S., nearly two-thirds of which are due to suicides. The remainder of gun deaths are primarily a result of disputes between individuals and gang-related violence. Additionally, more people are killed yearly by police than by mass shootings. We must address that the violence in this capitalist society goes far deeper than the current mainstream media conversation about mass shootings suggests.
This violence comes from the dehumanizing and alienating nature of life under capitalism. In 2020, there was a 24% increase in homicides in the nation’s 50 largest cities that correlated with the onset of the pandemic and the conditions it created. And there were nearly 50% more mass shootings in 2020 than in 2019. We live in a violent, warmongering society that valorizes “tough-on-crime” and militaristic approaches to social problems. Capitalist society actively dehumanizes homeless people, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ+ people, and women, just to name a few.
Economic inequality and precarity have skyrocketed due to the capitalist mismanagement of the pandemic. In addition, the War on Drugs escalated organized drug crimes and facilitated mass incarceration without making workers safer, instead contributing to even more gun deaths by incentivizing more and more violent drug markets to respond to increased police militarization.
Gun violence in the U.S. cannot be blamed solely on “gun culture” or easy access to firearms in some states. For example, Brazil, a country with 100 million fewer people and fewer guns per person than the U.S., has a firearm-related death rate nearly two times higher than the U.S. Additionally, Brazil has more yearly gun deaths in total than the U.S., despite its smaller population. Brazilian capitalism is more violent, alienating, and exploitative than in most parts of the U.S., which reflects the immense number of gun deaths. Juxtapose this to Italy and Switzerland, where there are high rates of gun ownership, yet gun deaths are exceedingly low because higher levels of social spending can somewhat mitigate social problems to the extent that there are fewer violent gun crimes.
For a socialist approach to stopping gun violence, our methods need to do more than address access to guns, as this is only one piece of the equation. We also need to go after the conditions in society that cause alienation and make violence so prevalent.
Mass Shootings and Far-Right Terror
Many recent mass shootings have been terrorist attacks by right-wingers, instilling fear in people and promoting their far-right ideas. These attacks have been reminiscent of other “lone-wolf” attacks like the Charleston church shooting in 2015 and Christchurch Mosque shooting in New Zealand in 2019. Unfortunately, mainstream media conversations around gun violence frequently underemphasize the fact that openly hate-fueled and fascistic violence is at the root of many mass shootings.
The capitalist class tolerates the politics of the far-right since they pose no opposition to capitalism as an institution. So, despite lengthy manifestos and clear connections to far-right ideas, the mainstream conversation about mass shootings consistently fails to address the economic and social conditions that breed these hateful, anti-worker ideas in the first place and blames these events purely on mental instability. Clearly, the Buffalo shooter—whose terror attack intended to scare Black people into leaving the U.S. to prevent the “replacement” of white people—is delusional, but it does a massive disservice not to address that these violent delusions stem from systemic issues in society that we as workers need to fight against collectively.
If we want to stop mass shootings, we must build an anti-fascist movement and expose the state for being fundamentally incapable of challenging the far right (see our statement condemning the fascist march in Boston on July 2nd online). It requires a movement capable of defending itself from both the far right and the state. For more on fighting the far-right, head to independentsocialistgroup.org.
We cannot support policies that unfairly disarm workers and thereby increase the state and right-wing militia’s monopoly on violence. We would support some new gun control policies, on a case-by-case basis, that could prevent clearly dangerous individuals from acquiring weapons and ammunition without handing the state the capacity to disarm any worker for any reason they wish, but the state will abuse most policies to disproportionately target workers of color, the Left, and labor activists.
The Racist History of “Gun Control”
While gun control measures are vital to prevent gun deaths, these policies are not all created equal. Historically in the U.S., limitations on gun rights have been racially motivated, most notably starting with banning enslaved people from owning guns to prevent rebellions. After Reconstruction ended, many Southern states instituted prohibitive taxes on guns (or outright banned their sale) to intentionally make it more difficult for freed Black people (and poor whites) to acquire arms. In 1967, the Black Panther Party (BPP) held a demonstration in front of the California State House where they encouraged Black people to arm themselves for self-defense against the racist U.S. government. In response to the BPP open-carrying firearms at the protest, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan and the NRA supported and won gun control legislation to disarm them.
Later, in the 1990s, “gun control” laws under Clinton prevented public housing residents, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, from owning guns and also furthered the War on Drugs via expanding legalized racial profiling through gun sweeps and “Stop and Frisk” policies.
No amount of arresting people for interpersonal gun violence will solve the fundamental problems of poverty, the vicious sexism that underpins most domestic violence, and genuine life-or-death incentives for those working in dangerous, illicit drug markets. Poor workers of color are more likely to be victims of gun violence and have a right to protect themselves from it. Yet many are denied from doing so legally due to felony convictions despite not having a history of violence. As a result, many workers are forced to turn to illegal gun markets for self-defense, making them prone to further persecution. Workers should have the right to defend themselves and their families. This right is especially important for workers that police consistently fail to protect.
The systemic racism baked into the U.S. government has not fundamentally changed, so there is no reason to think that gun control in the hands of the Democratic Party will magically become equitably designed or enforced. Simply passing “gun control” legislation will not be adequate to protect workers or end gun violence. U.S. society is saturated with weapons due to corporations profiting from weapons production. We must critically analyze what specific policies we support on a case-by-case basis and develop democratic working-class structures to manage them.
Workers’ Self-defense and Opposing State Violence
Disarming the working class is not an option that benefits workers in the long run. Therefore, it is vital that any measures we come to support actually increase the safety of working-class families without leaving us more vulnerable to right-wing and state violence. These could possibly include some of the measures being discussed in the wake of recent mass shootings, such as caps on the amount of ammunition and guns individuals can purchase, closing the gun show loophole, and/or instituting federal background checks that aren’t racist.
Throughout the history of progressive movements, many activists have understood the importance of self-defense. Black militias played a vital role in stamping out the KKK and similar groups during Reconstruction. The Deacons of Defense provided armed protest security for Civil Rights activists to defend against racist agitators. Many Civil Rights activists in the South were well-armed to protect themselves against white supremacists, including MLK’s bodyguards, Robert F. Williams, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
The example of the 2020 wave of BLM and the police repression of the movement has shown us what happens when police and other anti-worker forces have a monopoly on violence. We cannot see the sale of guns as a moral issue. Guns are tools for self-defense that we as workers cannot abstractly reject. We need to think critically about how we can support gun control measures that keep guns out of the hands of white supremacists, right-wing militias, and high-risk individuals to fight against mass shootings without facilitating the disarmament of workers which leaves us even more vulnerable to being divided up and conquered.
A Socialist Response Against Gun Violence
We should not give a blank check to the capitalist perspective on “gun control.” Instead, we need to support specific policies and reject the false binary of gun control vs. no gun control. It is a question of which policies genuinely support the safety of regular working people and youth and which policies unnecessarily further the state’s monopoly on violence. And gun legislation without social programs like public housing, universal healthcare, after-school activities, and jobs programs that provide good wages and benefits will fail to address the underlying violence of the capitalist system.
Assault weapon bans significantly oversimplify the issue at hand. Only 25.1% of mass shooters use assault rifles and semi-automatic rifles are used in less than 1% of overall shootings, illustrating that banning sales of assault weapons to civilians is not the slam dunk solution the media portrays it as. 80% of school shooters stole the guns they used from family members, so access to free safe storage of firearms is a key demand that could drastically reduce school shootings. It’s worth keeping in mind that an assault weapon ban would not apply to the police or any other state agency that will continue to use these weapons against the working class–just look at the fatal incident on July 2nd in Akron, Ohio where cops fired 60 bullets into the back of an unarmed Black man after a traffic stop.
There is no magic fix for mass shootings in the U.S. It has been woven into the fabric of the U.S. far-right movement. The far-right’s violent “lone wolf” methods have been highly effective at terrorizing workers, and they will not give up on this tactic voluntarily. What we can do is support specific gun control reforms that limit their ability to harm workers while also building a movement that can defeat the far-right by undercutting their base of support and improving workers’ economic and social conditions. To protect working people from the threat of gun violence, ISG proposes:
- Institute federal background checks that focus on history of actual violent behavior and do not falsely use criminal convictions as a shorthand for violence. Repeal the ban on gun ownership for people convicted of a felony. Ensure that any background check is not enforced in racist ways by establishing democratic public safety committees made up of workers.
- Oppose blanket gun bans that expand illegal weapons dealing while making it harder for regular workers to acquire equivalent arms for self-defense if they wish to.
- Develop free training programs to teach workers and youth how to unload and disable firearms safely. Provide free gun safes and safe storage training, which is crucial for preventing racist, alienated youth from accessing family members’ unsecured guns. Develop free programs that teach a variety of means of first-aid and personal self-defense.
- No more cops in schools! Demilitarize and majorly defund the police. End the War on Drugs that has escalated gang violence. For democratic community control of the police.
- Organize health and safety committees within schools to draw up plans to prevent school shootings, primarily by organizing non-punitive reporting systems that could intervene before shootings occur.
- Tax the rich to fully fund public education so students can access all the support services they need.
- Build a multi-racial mass movement to organize against systemic racism, including police racism and brutality.
- For a fighting movement of unions, anti-racist groups, progressive organizations, and working people to stop the far-right by denying them public space in which to organize. No public space for fascists!
- Slash the bloated military budget and use funds to invest in social programs, including: the massive expansion of public housing; jobs programs guaranteeing good wages, benefits, and union protection; universal healthcare, including comprehensive mental health programs; and fully funded public education.
- Weapons manufacturing and distribution corporations should be taken under democratic public ownership so workers can decide how best to regulate the production and distribution of arms. This should include refusing to sell weapons to right-wing and dictatorial governments. Nationalizing gun manufacturing and distribution could also bring an end to the U.S. as the world’s premier weapons exporter.
Image Credit: Phil Roeder via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY SA 2.0