Talking with Anarchists About Gun Control

Every time I write anything supportive of gun control there is a consistent response from a certain segment of my social circles that is strongly in opposition to my position on this very fraught issue.  Of course we’re talking largely about the internet here, but many of the responses represent actual people I know in the real world.  They’re people of all ages, from various countries, who identify as anarchists, socialists, communists, or elsewhere on the left.  Demographically diverse, though skewing towards white, male, on the younger side, and from the US — which may say more about my social circles than about anything else, and it’s not particularly relevant.  The point is, from my vantage point at least, there is an abundance of people on the left who seem to be seriously opposed to any kind of gun control laws, for all kinds of reasons.

Those are the folks I’d like to speak to now.  Most of the voices in support of gun control laws out there are not necessarily coming from what we might call a radical left orientation.  The hypocrisy of liberals who support spending hundreds of billions every year on the military but complain about the Republicans who don’t want to pass gun control laws domestically is easy to dismiss, as is the moralizing of pacifists.

For whatever it may be worth, that’s not where I’m coming from.  I have a decades-long record of being called a terrorist sympathizer, on the basis of the many songs I’ve written that are fairly explicitly supportive of historical and contemporary armed struggles around the world.  I’m not a pacifist, moralistic or otherwise, and politically I have loads in common with the anarchists and communists who take issue with my support for the idea of gun control laws in the US.

I think I have a solid understanding of where my fellow members of the far left are coming from on this, and for those who are willing to hear me out, I’ll venture to unpack the conversation around six of the types of questions I encounter regularly.

1)  Guns are a tool, though a potentially deadly one.  Is the problem the tool, or how the tool is used, and who’s using it, or misusing it?

Let’s say we agree that guns are good for hunting and good for self-protection, but they can be misused, for shooting schoolchildren or killing one’s family (which happens somewhere in the US on a daily basis).  What might be done to prevent misuse, in terms of laws and regulations?

I know many of us are very doubtful about the potential for the US government to pass useful laws, since it usually just makes everything worse.  But just at least in principle, as someone who spends a lot of time in countries where governments are more interested in passing useful laws on occasion, let’s say we were talking about cars.

Cars are also a tool, and a deadly one.  Tens of thousands of people die in the US every year from car accidents (about half as many as those who die from guns).  In many other countries, guns hardly kill anyone.  Cars are still pretty deadly most everywhere, though.

In Stockholm, city planners decided a while back they were going to aim to design the city’s streets, roundabouts, and other infrastructure in such a way that even if people drove recklessly, on purpose or not, they will find it difficult to get into a fatal accident.  Without four-way intersections, if you run a red light, it’s very difficult to have a serious collision, though it’s easy enough to have a fender-bender.  As a result of decades of work on redesigning Stockholm’s streets, the city achieved zero traffic deaths over an entire year recently.

If we were to treat guns as a necessary evil along the lines of cars and try to minimize their misuse without banning them, there are many different avenues to explore there, certainly including many of the types of things the NRA guys talk about, such as bulletproofing schools.  But one of those ways to avoid the misuse of guns is to make at least some aspects of their misuse impossible.  For example, by banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and the rapid-fire weapons that employ them, we can dramatically lower the death count, as happened during the years when the assault weapons ban was in effect in the US.

2)  The state is the greatest purveyor of violence and has a monopoly on the really big weaponry.  Why should we unilaterally disarm, and leave the police with all the guns?

So, there is gun control already, it just doesn’t ban high-capacity magazines and rapid-fire weapons.  It does ban really big, even more rapid-fire weapons from being owned by civilians, though.  We also can’t have our own howitzers, shoulder-fired Javelin missiles, tactical nukes, etc.

But we can buy lots of guns, and we do, as do the cops.  And what are the results?  The cops kill several thousand of us every year, and we kill tens of thousands of each other.  According to the NRA dude on the radio yesterday, guns are preventing a million more deaths on the streets of the US every year, which is just a mind-boggling notion, that without being so well-armed, we’d be killing a million of each other every year.  But barring the NRA’s lunatic reasoning, we are still the victims of guns, mostly fired by each other.

Specifically, many people kill each other in violence related to the very profitable trade in illegal drugs.  Making all the drugs legal would be a very good move to help with some of that violence.  It would also give the police far fewer excuses to terrorize so many people, fill the prisons, etc., but I digress, slightly.  Point is, mostly we’re just killing each other, and we do that more, the more guns we have.  This is a statistical reality, though of course there are always many possible explanations for it.

Also, the idea of gun control is not to just control guns for civilians, but potentially for the cops, too.  Now I can see the looks on the faces of your average American radical when I say this — I realize the unlikelihood of demilitarizing the cops in the US.  Demilitarizing society in general is also unlikely, in the current political climate, so let’s just stay partially in the realm of hypothesis here — we have to start somewhere, in terms of thinking about these things.  Implementation will be another matter altogether, to be sure!

To bring in another example from outside the US in terms of this question of disarming the police, along with everyone else:  I was at the G8 protests in Rostock in 2007.  Through mass nonviolent civil disobedience, tens of thousands of people blocked the roads throughout the region, forcing G8 delegates to travel by helicopter or by boat.

There were also riots, which as far as I could tell were started by the cops, but I didn’t see how they started, I only saw what happened once things really kicked off.  There were thousands of mostly young folks throwing rocks and other projectiles at the police, who were decked out in body armor and other riot paraphernalia.  The police swung their clubs and the youth threw rocks, and there was some tear gas, too.  This went on for hours.

As this medieval melee progressed, many people were injured.  I recall reading in the news that 16 cops got broken bones.  Afterwards, some of the politicians in Berlin were outraged, and called for the riot police to be armed with guns.

They were immediately rebuked by the chief of police, who said arming the police would only escalate these kinds of riots, so that the folks throwing rocks might also arm themselves with heavier weapons than cobblestones.

Without arming the riot cops, they still maintain law and order in Germany, such as it is.  Without any of the protesters being armed, we shut down the whole Rostock area for a week.  The state could change the equation and arm themselves more heavily, easily.  The state could impose long prison sentences on people who sit down in the street, too.  Doing so, or not doing so, is a calculated decision on the part of any government, which every government knows will come with various short- and longer-term consequences.

Either way, the real power of the state here isn’t mainly about how well-armed it is, but how well-organized, how competent, and how relatively trusted it is, in many different ways.  By the same token, the power of the social movement in this situation is about how well-organized it is, how much popular support it has, and the overall context it exists in, which is a context that has been established by previous governments, previous social movements, cultural norms, and other factors.

Not whether it escalates conflict from cobblestones to more deadly projectiles, so that the police can respond in kind.

3)  The US government is the biggest terrorist organization in the world.  It terrorizes its own population as well, and is also bringing us closer than ever to the end of life as we know it.  It must be overthrown by any means necessary.  This may involve lots of guns, so if the proliferation of guns cause problems in the short term don’t we just have to deal with it, without banning them?

I agree with the sentiment here, including the potential need, hypothetically at least, to sacrifice one thing in order to achieve another (in this case, sacrificing public safety in order to achieve a violent revolution).  But I would invite the insurrectionists to engage with me in a little bit of nuanced thinking.

If we recognize there’s a problem here — public safety — but we’re willing to sacrifice it for the hypothetical revolution, then maybe we can also apply this same logic in different ways.  As far as I’m aware, the philosopher who first wrote about the concept of principal and secondary contradictions was Lao Tzu, but it doesn’t matter.  Whoever came up with the notion, it’s very relevant.

At this stage in history in the US, I think very few people would say we’re on the brink of a popular leftwing revolution of some kind, and what we really need is enough guns and ammo to make it happen.  That’s very far from our actual situation.  The kind of movement that could lead us in that direction would be a very large, very well-organized mass movement, involving a significant minority of the population of society, that has lots of deep ties throughout civil society, labor unions, community organizations, neighborhood associations, and so on.  That kind of movement doesn’t currently exist in the US.  Putting on a good riot and organizing a revolution are two entirely different things, there are many, many steps in between.

In the meantime, if we’re supporting or opposing different reformist initiatives, any laws that make it more difficult for people to buy assault weapons and guns in general will tend to make society safer, and this is a good thing.  It does not resolve so many of the deep contradictions within society that desperately must be addressed, but the existence of those many problems does not justify having more guns around — they’re not helping.

The easy availability of legally purchasable high-caliber weapons is not generally the thing that makes or breaks a revolution.  At some point in the process, access to weapons and support of all kinds is crucial to any such movement, and we can cite many examples of revolutionary movements and the role played by the supporters of different movements in different parts of the world in securing needed weapons.  And of course revolutionary movements around the world recently and historically are full of examples of soldiers and cops abandoning their posts and joining the movement, too, which is often where the weapons used in revolutions come from in the first place.  Plus, so many of the more explosive tools used by guerrilla armies, urban or otherwise, are illegal, even in the US.  Revolutionaries tend to need to be creative, and are not usually reliant on the guns they use being legal in the first place.

4)  Gun control is just more reformism.  The US is a failed state.  We can’t hope the state is going to fix our problems for us by banning guns, can we?

The thing is, the fact that US society is so awash in deadly weapons is by design.  It’s been this way for centuries.  What’s changed is the weapons have gotten deadlier.  But arming the white male population in this country has been government policy since long before the US was a country.  It was part of the settler-colonial project from the beginning.  Speaking as a white male American for a moment, historically we have been the cannon fodder for settler-colonialism — or the overseers, or the hired killers — depending on what the capitalists were looking for at the time.

In other words, to a huge extent we are just playing into the hands of the powers-that-be by opposing gun control.  Of course the police need to be disarmed, and defunded, and a whole lot of other things need to happen.  There’s nothing smooth about any of these processes, if they can be called that.  But there’s no hope of demilitarizing the police if the rest of society is as militarized as it is.

If we just take what is essentially an accelerationist position — that there’s no hope for useful reforms, and the best we can hope for is for society to implode quickly, so we can somehow benefit from the chaos and make a revolution out of it — what we are actually doing is aiding the far right.  I can’t guarantee that — there are certainly examples in history where bread riots were instrumental in bringing on very progressive changes.  But the kind of breakdown of social cohesion that we’ve been facing in this country for so long is not the kind of chaos that leads anywhere good.  Flooding the country with inexpensive guns will accomplish just about as much as cancelling the food stamp program, it seems to me.  Not the kind of reform that would be helpful.  Unlike more food stamps, and fewer AR-15s.

5)  The Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer go downtown with AR-15s, threaten us, and worse.  Recently they shot into a crowd of protesters and killed one of us in Portland.  Don’t we need to be armed, too, to protect ourselves from them?

Realistically, gun control just means fewer weapons on the streets.  Norway already had strong gun control laws when a Norwegian Nazi went and killed 78 people in 2011.  This can happen anywhere.  People can get shot at protests in Norway, too, but you’ll have to go back a very long way to find a protest where something like that happened.  Same with Cuba, incidentally.  Or most countries that aren’t having a war.  But in the US it happens all the time.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

But laws that impact the availability of guns, or particularly deadly forms of them, such as rapid-fire weapons with high-capacity magazines, would not just apply to the left.  We started carrying guns around at the protests because they were doing it.  They started doing it because they were both allowed to by law, and encouraged to by very rich and powerful forces in society.

Having protests where there are opposing sides, both heavily armed, along with a heavily-armed police force, hasn’t been making anyone safer.  People keep getting killed.  Not that we’re safe with only the police being heavily armed, but without the heavily-armed civilians facing off, we seem to shoot each other less often.

6)  If we ban guns, then we just make ourselves more vulnerable to state repression.  Guns can help protect oppressed communities, can’t they?

I’m a big fan of the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, and other liberation movements originating from the US that at least partially involved the use of guns, and these would literally be the last sorts of groups I would want to see disarmed.  But it was not mainly the fact that they believed in armed self-defense that made these organizations so threatening historically, or that led to their total repression by the very heavily-armed forces of the state.  They were threatening, and violently repressed, because they were massively popular, and represented a real alternative to the capitalist, imperialist, racist, neocolonial status quo.  Their belief in armed self-defense was a powerful one, to be sure, but neither the belief or the practice required the state approving of it, or making it easy for them to acquire weapons by having them be freely available in gun shops.  The Irish Republican Army also believed in armed self-defense, and managed to acquire lots of weapons, none of them legally.

I am not making a pacifist argument here, to be clear.  I’m not at all suggesting there’s anything better or more moral or even more effective about the IWW or AIM having access to arms or not having access to arms.  I’m suggesting that historically, when it comes to popular movements that did not make revolutions but did ultimately have a major impact, the impact they had was overwhelmingly because of their popularity, their thinking, and their methods of organizing, rather than any victories on the battlefield, and certainly had nothing to do with the easy legal access to firearms.

Although US history — whether we’re talking about last year or the last century — is very bloody, as is the history of much of the world, and armed movements can be instrumental in influencing the powers-that-be to make major reforms, once those reforms have been made, the forum of the struggle tends to change.  It’s a very rocky, uneven process, I’m not suggesting otherwise.  But generally, once things like the right for workers to strike was more or less established, and going on strike was no longer generally going to result in being massacred by the police, violent repression did not stop, but the largely unwritten rules of engagement did, to no small extent, and this happened in lots of different countries that could be mentioned, including the US.

In the relative absence of the kind of massive, coordinated state violence against the labor movement that was characterized by the period of the twentieth century preceding the election of FDR, the large-scale armed uprisings and bombing campaigns that we saw in the 1910’s and 1920’s also subsided, replaced by large-scale labor organizing, which changed the face of this and many other societies for at least a few generations.  On the island of Great Britain the history is also stark — the last armed uprising on the island happened just prior to the establishment of the (legalized) trade union movement, after which time violent repression most definitely continued, but less often in the form of massacres of striking workers anymore, after the 1830’s.

When the state changes the rules and starts massacring workers for going on strike and this sort of thing, that’s the sort of change that tends to make armed resistance more popular — when the alternative is getting slaughtered.  In the absence of that kind of situation, though, as far as I can tell, carrying around or stockpiling guns will only lead us further towards slaughtering each other, rather than towards any form of liberation.

In conclusion, for what it’s worth, I applaud the militancy of the many anarchists and communists out there across the US that want to make a revolution, and feel so committed to the idea that they are doing what anarchists and communists have been doing since either term has existed — namely, studying history, political theory, getting involved with some kind of local organizing, and learning to be a good sniper.  I would just strongly suggest that we’re going to need a lot more folks involved with a lot of successful local organizing before those marksmanship skills might ever be useful.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.