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In the aftermath of the Isla Vista massacre, we can expect the far Right to vehemently oppose any renewed call for gun control. They will tout the supposedly Constitutional right of Americans to keep and bear arms. The Right will summon up the specter of a tyrannical government waiting to oppress us but for our wood stocks and blued steel. We will be told yet again that gun control leaves citizens to the mercy of criminals who simply ignore the law. And we’ll hear about how guns are as American as apple pie, John Wayne, and sports. The gun lobby, its main financial backers being the firearms manufacturing industry, and its most vociferous lobbyists, the 5 million members of the NRA (only about two percent of the U.S. population), are going to mobilize in the media, the halls of Congress, and California’s state capital Sacramento to kill any bill that might restrict the ability of people like Elliot Rodger from getting their hands on a gun.
But there is another quarter from which we are already hearing rote objections to gun control: the Left. All sorts of Lefties—anarchists, socialists, Black and Latino nationalists, and even quite a few Democratic Party-voting liberals—cling to guns just as tightly as the far Right. They use surprisingly similar language to justify their objections to gun control proposals. They either sit on the sidelines after each new massacre and wring their hands about the daily slaughter, or worse still, they actively oppose gun control. Here are a few reasons why some on the Left oppose gun control and reasons why they are wrong.
The people need to defend themselves against the government.
The more radical variant of this argument is that “the people” need guns to wage an eventual revolution and liberate themselves from the shackles of the state and corporate America.
Gun control need not dampen the spirit of those still hoping for a revolution, even if such a revolution is highly unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. What stands in the way of such leftist dreams are the vast majority of current gun owners. Over-represented among current gun owners are white reactionary men, the types who regularly expresses their desire to shoot on sight the “Muslim socialist” president of the United States, and who “muster” along the U.S.-Mexico boarder with their weaponry to defend the nation against “alien” immigrants. As it stands, toxic gun culture would coopt any new American revolution with a lethal cocktail of supercharged masculinity, racism, and provincialism fantasized about in post-apocalyptic scenes. If the United States ever comes to another civil war, the first thing to die under a barrage of lead will be our hope for a more just and democratic society; guns would empower warlords with petty political agendas, not egalitarian-minded freedom fighters.
The most likely cultural shift away from reactionary gun ownership will not happen in cooperation with the Right and their politics, but against it. Gun control is the best place to start. Disarming the Right will do more to advance goals toward a revolutionary democratic transformation of America than trying to beat the Right-wingers (and the U.S. government!) in an arms race.
Of course Left insurrectionists who advocate the right to bear arms are more focused on the U.S. Government as the singular impediment to their variant of utopia. This dream is sadly a classic example of radical posturing done in the name of some distant hypothetical moment, and it ignores the actual harm that guns cause each and every day. In the real world, guns kill upwards of 30,000 Americans every year, virtually all of these deaths serving absolutely no political purpose in the fight for a more democratic society. Most of these deaths are just tragic accidents or suicides, many of which would not end in death if guns were not in the mix. Left fantasies about armed struggle are the same half-baked ideas as those held by the secessionist Right. What varies for Leftists is the template of decolonial struggles; yet a leftist revolution in the United States would not kick out a small minority of foreign occupiers, as happened in India and Vietnam, but would be a fight amongst settler colonialists for political authority. This is why the worn “Zapatistas defense” touted by the radical left is a bad analogy for the United States context – the Zapatistas started a peasant rebellion that kicked outsiders off their landbase, a task for which wooden cutouts of guns turned out to be more effective than the real thing.
The cops should be disarmed, not the people.
Yes, the police should be disarmed. Police violence is intolerable and oppressive, particularly for communities of color. But here, quite a few Leftists extend their critique against police brutality to claim that “the people” can defend themselves against the police with guns. The Black Panthers’ armed patrols shadowing police in the 1960s is the most common example trotted out to demonstrate how armed communities defended themselves against unaccountable cops. Groups like the Deacons for Defense, or revolutionaries like Malcolm X and Robert Williams are also also mentioned as proof that guns help the democratic Left fight the power, and that without guns we will be increasingly victimized by the police.
But guns hardly keep away the police or help communities fight back against the cops. In fact, the proliferation of guns in America has provided an excuse for police to further intrude in our lives. The police use the ubiquity of guns in America to justify their brutality, seen especially clearly in the extrajudicial killings they commit. It is difficult to see how arming communities translates into a reduced police presence. Furthermore, carrying a weapon certainly would not have assisted victims of recent lethal police violence, and would have instead have worked in the favor of officers under official review.
American police militarizing themselves with tanks, drones, SWAT teams, and mass surveillance systems say that they have to do so because the American public has access to super deadly types of guns and ammunition. Aggressive new police policies treat nearly everyone as a gun owner (armed or not), leading to the pervasive use of SWAT raids, ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ no-knock warrant searches, invasive automobile searches, stop and frisk, excessive use of force, and the implementation of ever-more powerful surveillance systems. In sum, an armed citizenry only encourages the police to arm themselves more heavily.
It is true that radicals, especially African American revolutionaries, have used guns to symbolically protest power in America and call out the hypocrisy of white supremacy and lax gun laws that selectively apply to dominant social groups. Yet the power of armed protest is only enhanced by laws that restrict ownership of assault rifles, special ammunition, and even handguns, and should not be confused for revolutionary violence, of which there are scant encouraging examples of in recent United States history.
Finally, it is necessary to note that America’s most oppressed communities are already flooded with guns, especially pistols and assault weapons designed for close quarter combat. The ready availability of these weapons has in no way empowered these communities to fight back against the cops, at least not in any obvious way. The prevalence of firearms has instead magnified America’s radicalized inequality, poverty, and structural violence to produce an epidemic level of shootings among youth of color in places like Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, and Newark. Guns hurt working-class communities of color. The gun industry, weakly regulated as it is, has long prospered off the illegal market for firearms in inner cities.
Should we also ban knives and cars and bombs and bleach and acid?
Some pro-gun Lefties sideline the obvious merits of gun control and argue that supposedly “deeper” systemic issues should be our true focus.
With the Isla Vista massacre, we are already hearing that guns are not inherently linked to violent modes of masculinity, and that guns are only dangerous in the hands of someone as misogynist or “crazy” as Elliot Rodger. Pro-gun Lefties say Rodger would have killed and maimed anyway—indeed he did kill at least three people with a knife and wounded others by plowing into them with his car. We are asked then, sardonically, should the Left also ban knives and cars?
First off, no, of course we should not ban knives and cars. Knives and cars are really useful, and are unlike assault weapons and pistols, whose sole purpose is to kill other human beings. But regulating knives and cars is not a bad idea – that is why both are highly regulated. Just about everything is regulated, and usually to our benefit. Breakfast cereals, infant formula, dog and cat food, cleaning supplies, household appliances, furniture, cell phones, house paint, lipstick, toothpaste, and thousands of other consumer products are regulated and controlled because safety is a low priority for manufacturers, and experience shows that government intervention and oversight over capitalist enterprise saves lives. Experience also shows that regulation works, at least until regulatory agencies are captured by the industries they are supposed to watch over.
Successful examples of regulation abound though: we tackled the tobacco companies and saved millions of lives by purposefully reducing their ability to market and sell cigarettes. We regulate drugs, cosmetics, and foods, which prevents countless deaths. Far from representing “state power” over our lives, federal regulations often represent democratic rejection of the capitalist profit motive for the public good. Regulations of consumer products, especially health and safety and environmental regulations were born out of social movements fighting back against exploitation.
Cars are a great example of how regulation reduces harm while creating a more equal society. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, catalytic converters, unleaded gasoline, seat belts, airbags, and other “car control” measures benefit public health and the environment. The automobile industry is highly regulated, thank goodness. The gun industry, in contrast, has some of the weakest regulations in America, and not by accident. The corporations that manufacture most of the guns and the gun dealers who profit from the American arms trade have successfully fought against meaningful regulation. We should regulate guns at least as much as we regulate cars.
As for the crux the matter: guns are an embodiment of patriarchal values. Perhaps antique gun collectors treat them as relics and farmers use them as tools. The majority of guns are however owned to aggressively threaten, control, and hurt people; and more often than not, women bear the brunt of that aggression. This is a country where men still exert power over women in virtually every context, causing street harassment, acquaintance rape, family and partner abuse, employment discrimination, and assaults on women’s health. The NRA says that all women would be safer if they carried a pistol in their purse, but we know that guns cannot be the solution to the very problem that they create: a climate of fear, anxiety, and violence essential to society’s devaluation of women.
Looking at the realities behind the fictions of vigilante justice shared by the Left and Right, guns are the common denominator. Over two thirds of all homicides in the United States in 2010 were caused by a firearm; and of them, only about five percent were ruled to be justified. Stepping back from the Isla Vista massacre and looking more broadly at gun violence we might note that many victims of firearm homicides are poor and marginalized urban and rural Americans. African American men are particularly susceptible to dying by gun. So what is the deeper problem here? Inequality? Structural racism and poverty?
Of course gun control will not eliminate America’s patriarchal power structure, or pacify the culture of violence, or undo racism. But gun control can do one thing very effectively: reduce the lethality of violent acts that stem from patriarchy, racism, and inequality. Instead of dying in a hail of bullets, victims will be survivors and can more effectively fight back. Indeed, in our present political context, gun control is fighting back against patriarchy and other forms of oppression.
The government should not have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force.
Some Lefties oppose gun control on the grounds that the state’s violence is illegitimate, and they argue that it is a question of power – that “the people” should never cede power to the state.
Of course government violence is never legitimate, even if it is popular and sanctioned by many of its citizens. Wars, executions, and structural violence such as starving children or denying million basic healthcare are but a sliver of the illegitimate violence for which the American government is responsible. But is opposing gun control an effective way to challenge the violence of the American state? Does anyone honestly think that the abstract notion of gun rights is what keeps alive dreams of an armed struggle toward democratic emancipation, or imparts those who own guns with some mystical quality of “autonomy” or “power”? In what world does gun ownership delegitimize or even reduce the state’s use of violence? And how would such a place be less authoritarian and violent? The relationship between guns and American government at the present moment is clear: our lax gun laws buttress state violence.
The political economy of guns shows how weapons manufacturing is an important part of American corporate and political power. This is because the military industrial complex serves as an engine for the national economy. The firearms industry employs few workers, but it is part of a larger arms manufacturing sector responsible for over 1 million jobs. As “defense” manufacturers, the gun industry’s political interests lie in arming the police at home and fighting imperialist wars abroad. The same gun companies that benefit from the American government’s hunger for small arms and ammo, which it sprays both here and in foreign lands, benefit doubly from the lack of laws restricting gun ownership. On the other side of the equation, the American military has reciprocally benefitted from popular gun ownership. The NRA, after all, was considered a boon to the U.S. military in its early history, as it provided the Army with enlistees already familiar with firearms. Just prior to World War I, the NRA even partnered with the federal government to give guns to the population and to sponsor shooting contests.
On a structural level, the federal budget is often decided through “guns versus butter” tradeoffs whereby every dollar of military spending is taken from the mouths of the needy. The Reagan administration, for instance, slashed child food programs, Medicaid, family welfare, food stamps, and low-income energy assistance to feed the military industrial complex. Confronting the gun industry on the national stage could be part of a larger strategy of opposing the war industry as a whole, which produces nothing of consumable value and whose political interests directly oppose the Left. Only then can the Left shift the terrain of struggle away from apocalyptic fantasies of armed insurrection to areas where it has historically drawn strength, such as cultural politics.
Andrew Culp is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Studies at Whitman College. He specializes in cultural-communicative theories of power, the politics of emerging media, and gendered responses to urbanization. In his current project, Escape, he explores the apathy, distraction, and cultural exhaustion born from the 24/7 demands of an ‘always-on’ media-driven society. http://www.andrewculp.org
Darwin BondGraham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at http://darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/.