After the horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., the country witnessed an outpouring of sympathy and outrage. Parents immediately thought of the safety of their own children. Students everywhere are discussing it with their teachers. Many are now mobilizing and walking out.
The student-led protests against government inaction on the epidemic of gun violence have forced the issue back onto the national stage. Prayers and sympathy messages from politicians are no longer enough. They want to know how politicians are going to make the violence stop.
Some socialists suggest this student movement, just for raising the question of gun regulations, empowers the state or threatens the right to self-defense. Others have criticized the students for failing to get at the “root” of the problem of violence in the United States. Any progressive movement — or movement that has progressive sentiments — that arises spontaneously under capitalism will have contradictions and problems. Any movement that is fighting for reforms, by definition, does not get to the “root” of exploitation and oppression. But that does not invalidate the struggle for reforms. Further, to quote Malcolm X, “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” Socialists should engage with solidarity and sensitivity towards the young people who want answers to the question of gun violence.
The following are the words of Emma Gonzalez, a student and survivor of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who spoke on Feb. 17 at a gun control rally:
“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice. … Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days, saying that all we are self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”
The fact that this student movement is targeting politicians for being in the pockets of the racist NRA, which itself is entirely in the pockets of weapons manufacturers and gun profiteers, is a good thing.
Currently, over 60 percent of the population supports stricter gun laws.
After the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 in which 26 people were massacred, including 20 six- and seven-year-old children, much of the population rallied behind stricter gun laws. Washington did nothing.
Mass shootings are on the rise — dramatically so. Almost 600 people were killed in mass shootings of this type in 2017, the highest number in modern history.
People killed in mass shootings make up just a small fraction of gun deaths in the United States. Over 15,000 people in the United States were killed with guns in 2017. Over 20,000 people committed suicide using a firearm.
Black men are four times more likely to be shot and killed than white men.
Every 16 hours a woman is killed with a gun by a domestic partner in the United States.
The police killed over 1,000 people in 2017. More people were killed by racist police forces last year than in mass shootings.
Clearly, the United States is an extremely violent country — much more so than other “developed” countries. Every single statistic bears that out. This is a social problem of considerable magnitude, and the capitalist ruling class has provided no substantive answers to the millions demanding something be done. It is insufficient for socialists, just because we oppose the capitalist state having a monopoly of force, to say “nothing can be done.”
United States of Violence
In fact, the United States was founded on violence. Native genocide and slavery are not errors that happened in the past but the very cornerstone of the edifice that is the United States.
The 2nd Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights as a license for racist vigilante militias — with the overt and covert backing of the United States government — to carry out a reign of terror against Native populations.
Slave patrols carried out unspeakable atrocities against the Black population as a matter of routine in the enforcement of slavery. Of course enslaved people would be severely punished if found in the possession of firearms; after slavery, the Black Codes across the South forbade Black people from possessing firearms. When the Black Panther Party powerfully exercised their right to bear arms, the California state legislature rapidly changed the law to criminalize this, with the NRA’s support. Philando Castile, a school employee exercising his right to carry a weapon under Minnesota law, was killed on the spot when he announced that he had a gun — (and again the NRA did nothing for him). Tamir Rice, after playing with a toy gun, was instantly murdered by a Cleveland officer; Ohio is an open carry state.
Native and Black resistance, even when operating within the law, was and has always been met with repression and brutality.
The fact that police forces to this day murder Native and Black people at a much higher rate than white people is not a coincidence. It is not possible to separate institutional and violent racism from the social and political character of the U.S. state.
Capitalism is violent. The vast poverty that we are subjected to and the monstrous inequality of the for-profit system are debilitating forms of violence. In the United States, according to the government’s ludicrously low poverty line, 21 percent of children live in poverty and 34 percent of Black and Native children live in poverty. Children!
Imperialism is violent. The U.S. wars that are fought in the interest of profit and domination against poorer countries are devastatingly violent. Literally millions have died.
Oppression is violent by its very nature. Racism, sexism and bigotry are all inherently violent and are all a part and parcel of the political, social and economic fabric of this country.
Everywhere you look in the culture of the United States you see violence.
And it sells too. While other manufacturing industries have declined in the United States, weapons and gun production have skyrocketed. The U.S. produces, exports and sells more weapons than the rest of the world — subsidized by the largest military budget in world history.
The weapons industry thrives on war and is always eager to peddle their goods in new conflict zones, but they have branched out. What started as a slow trend of selling excess military-grade weaponry to local police departments and individuals has now flourished into a vast civilian market. The gun manufacturers and advertisers cultivated the culture around their products, and use fear-mongering about terrorism and government confiscation to boost their sales. In a very profound way, it is capitalism — the for-profit economic system we live under — manifested in the weapons manufacturers, the gun lobby and the NRA that has thwarted any rational public discussion about guns in our society.
What can be done?
So what do we do? While the above historical context of U.S. violence is necessary, it is not sufficient to say that capitalism is the root cause of gun violence or that systematic racism is at the heart of the disproportionate impact of gun violence in Black and Latino neighborhoods. People want answers and they want change. There is a national consensus about the need to reduce violence, to have a meaningful dialogue to combat the problem of violence in the United States effectively. Socialists should participate in that conversation with concrete proposals and to make that dialogue wide-ranging and radical.
The existing terms of the gun violence debate — “gun control” versus “gun rights” — if we are to be honest, are extremely superficial and inadequate to the complexity of the problem. To put it succinctly, under the capitalist system neither gun control nor gun access has guaranteed people’s safety or protected their rights.
A broader program is necessary to which socialists have much to offer. For instance:
- The socialist vision is to reduce and eliminate the violence to which millions are subjected on a daily basis and to end the exploitation, alienation, oppression, poverty and competition that fuel violence. This would not be achieved overnight but under socialism the working class has real power over the issues that affect their communities, the state would serve their interests, the racists and oppressors of the past would be disarmed and disempowered, basic needs would be met and a collectively planned political, social and economic system would be set up. In Cuba, for instance, guns have not disappeared — in fact, nearly the entire population is trained on how to use guns — but those guns are stored safely in each community, and local organizations (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) stand ready to distribute them as necessary. Gun violence and mass shootings are practically non-existent.
- Violence interruption, conflict resolution and social work programs must be fully funded as a national priority. Across the country, thousands of people in poor and working-class communities are already working to reduce violence in their communities. These “violence interrupters” are systematically ignored because their work does not fit the racist media narrative of “Black-on-Black crime,” and because the government does not want to see autonomous grassroots organizing take off that would diminish the role of their police. These groups are having many successes despite the odds. We stand with them and their methods should be studied, amplified and fully funded. The U.S. capitalist system is not built to provide a meaningful early intervention or services to someone who is alienated, suffering or displaying violent tendencies; it offers them first and foremost access to the marketplace, access to a gun, and then afterwards a penal system.
- Black, Native, Latino and other oppressed peoples must have the unconditional right to self-determination and self-defense, including the right to carry out the gun control conversation on their own terms. Considering the racist nature of the U.S. state, now led by Donald Trump, the historical and ongoing violence of racist organizations, not to mention the violence meted out against the working class, women, and LGBTQ people, socialists uphold the right of self-defense as inviolable. This is not a question of Constitutional interpretation but practical necessity in the class struggle; for those organizing in areas where well-armed fascistic forces are confronting them, like in Charlottesville last year, it could very well have been suicidal if the anti-racist movement had dismissed the question of organized self-defense with firearms.
- Lift the special legal protections for the arms industry. Weapons manufacturers received special immunity from lawsuits as soon as the assault rifle ban was lifted in 2004. Congress passed a law to absolve the weapons industry of all future responsibility for any deaths or crimes committed by use of their products, including assault weapons. Drawn up by arms lobbyists and Congress, signed by George Bush in 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act means that these death profiteers can operate unimpeded. The rush to speed up production and sales was on. And that is precisely what has happened. The firearms industry was valued at $19.1 billion in 2008 and that soared to $49.3 billion by 2015. There are now approximately 350 million guns in the United States (more than there are people), a dramatic increase from just ten years ago, and the U.S. is by far the most armed country in the world. Less than one-third of the population owns a gun, however, and around half of the total firearms are stockpiled by 3 percent of the population.
- Ban the marketing and advertising of weapons, similar to the ban on cigarettes, and get corporate money out of politics. The weapons manufacturers — known as the military-industrial complex — have a vested interest in promoting conflict and war, exaggerating threats and promoting fear. They use their billions to control politicians and enact policies that destroy the lives of people in this country and worldwide. The gun lobby, just like all corporate lobbies, have no constructive role to play in the national dialogue over crucial social issues.
- Government-administered background and mental health checks are not the answer. We do not believe the U.S. federal government should be granted any additional new processes that could deepen the discrimination and inequality that already exists in the right to purchase arms. This state — propped up on racism, war, mass surveillance and oppression — cannot be trusted with this kind of power. Consider the question of background checks for gun purchases, for instance. Very few of the school shooters would have been thwarted by such a procedure, despite their history of violent rhetoric and tendencies; as middle-class white men mostly in suburbia, they had not been “put through the system.” In this context, background checks would mean that racially and nationally oppressed communities, already the most targeted by law enforcement and the Jim Crow justice system, would be further disarmed. The FBI and Department of Justice would presumably administer such a database. These are the very institutions that have long targeted and continue to repress working-class movements. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called Black Lives Matter activists “Black identity extremists” akin to terrorists; so while white militiamen with military experience stockpile arms and threaten anti-racist organizers, every Black activist associated with “identity extremists” or with a criminal record would be unable to legally defend themselves.
- De-militarize the police and the state. Ending the mass production and proliferation of automatic rifles (essentially machine guns) is a noble and just demand. It is not achievable, however, without challenging the larger militarization of society and the state itself, which is more armed than ever. The mass production of weapons for the state, from the military down to every prison, jail and local police department, creates huge opportunities for the arms trade, underground and above ground, and has empowered the weapons manufacturers. The state and the weapons manufacturers — led by the same officials alternating between the public and private sector — are the two engines for the military-industrial complex and the militarization of society.
- The existence of assault weapons cannot now be resolved with a federal ban. Essentially weapons of war, we support measures to curtail their mass production and the campaigns to get them out of everyday retail stores. At present it is very easy to purchase semi-automatic weapons and conversion kits to turn them into automatic or automatic-like weapons. Without these weapons fewer people would die in mass civilian shootings, as the examples of Japan and Australia make clear. The mass production and sale of these weapons in the United States has also fueled the spiraling violence in Mexico. But great damage and death can still result from semiautomatic weapons and handguns; the type of weapons is just one piece of the problem. At present, 4-5 million assault rifles alone are circulating in the population, they are being produced for the police and military every day, and ending their legal sale would at this point undoubtedly create a sprawling underground market. Removing assault weapons from society would not be easily achieved. At present a federal government effort to confiscate guns would undoubtedly target Black, Latino and working-class progressive forces, and not the right-wing social forces that have been stockpiling them. No people’s movement is in a position at this time to ensure that gun control of this type would be carried out in a progressive or non-repressive manner.
- Required proof of training in shooting and gun safety, similar to the common sense regulations required for purchasing automobiles, can be extended to firearms without infringing on the right to self-defense. The NRA has grown significantly because it offers such training as a service to its members, but their near-monopoly should be challenged. Similarly, raising the minimum age to purchase assault rifles — to match that which is required for handguns — is a sensible measure.
- De-militarize the schools — no arming of teachers. The Columbine school shooting led to the mass introduction of armed police officers and metal detectors into schools. School safety officers were armed to the teeth, and in many cases replaced with regular cops. Urban districts in particular paid the steepest price, as the number of arrests of children skyrocketed, fueling the so-called “school to prison pipeline,” an essential aspect of mass incarceration. Turning public schools into military fortresses may have led to declines in certain categories of violence but there was never any evidence that schools are in fact more dangerous or violent than the rest of society. Trump’s absurd plan to “arm the teachers” is the logical conclusion of this failed approach, and it must be opposed. Parkland student David Hogg, 17, said about this proposal, “I don’t want to see another teacher with a gun. … I don’t even want more school resource officers. Do you know the racial discrepancies they have against African-American and Latino students? We’re going to create a system where we widen the school-to-prison pipeline.”
- Build strong and empowered working-class, youth and neighborhood organizations. It is ridiculous that society should have no ability to make collective decisions about killing machines and their proliferation, that this should be left in the hands of the gun manufacturers and a Congress dominated by millionaires. Finding a solution for gun violence in the United States will require that regular people — students, workers, and especially Black, Latino and Native communities facing racist violence—be empowered. Really empowered. According to Emma Gonzalez, the students did try to intervene in the situation in Parkland. They did look to and report things to the authorities and hoped the authorities would help them but the authorities failed them—completely. She said about the shooter: “It was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter.” In a country where violence seems to sown into the DNA and where violence has been used to keep the vast majority of people very far from power, a strong people’s movement from below can offer communities collective security (including self-defense) and build the kind of power to address fundamental problems, including mass shootings and the daily violence in poor neighborhoods. In addition, we must demand the right to employment, education, housing and health care as the foundation of these stronger and more united communities. Large-scale public investments must be made to build up and rebuild the multitude of neighborhoods of poor people that have been abandoned and persecuted by the rulers of this society.
We support the students who are marching to reduce gun violence, end mass shootings and hold the gun manufacturers and their lobbies accountable. At the same time we support the right of oppressed and working-class people to defend themselves. These are not opposed principles; they are both progressive instincts that share a common goal: peace and justice, a life with dignity.
We need to be clear: The ruling elite of the United States — which includes people who make enormous profits off of the sale of guns and weapons of war—will not stop the violence. Violence and the profit from it are baked into the U.S. capitalist system.
There is unanimity in the centers of power to stay committed to the weapons manufacturers as an important way to sustain profits and to prop up the U.S. empire. They see no problem with arms in the hands of reactionary, racist elements in society, including the white supremacists, vigilante and fascist groups. They hope these social forces will continue to side with them if the discontent against the inequality of wealth and oppression in this country grows to the point of rebellion, revolt and militant multinational unity in the big cities.
The U.S. state has decided to go all in on rounding up immigrants with the ICE gestapo, the militarization of the police forces, domestic spying, the demonization of Black and Native peoples who dare to resist and a clamp down on dissent in general.
The government as a whole, including both major parties, is not overly concerned with the violence in poor and working-class communities — it fuels mass incarceration policies and is a considerable weight on the daily lives of the most oppressed that obstructs organizing against the real enemy.
The Democratic Party has moved in swiftly to take control of the student movement with a whole assortment of marketing firms, lawyers, and staffers, promoting the students only to further their own interests in the 2018 elections. This is complete opportunism and must be exposed.
More generally, the U.S. legal and political system is committed to protecting the perpetrators of violence all the time. When one killer cop after another gets away with murder, when war criminals like George Bush walk free, when the architects of dirty wars, coups and assassinations are not held accountable, and are in fact treated like national heroes, we see that the ruling class, as a matter of policy, endorses murder.
The only way to break the patterns and culture of violence is for poor and working people to take the economic and political powers of the country into our own hands. When we do that, we will have at our disposal all the resources we would need to unite the vast majority, fix mass shootings and end the daily violence created by the racist and sexist U.S. capitalist order.