Gun Control and Class Struggle

The recent attacks in Colorado, Connecticut, Boston, and across the country have shocked everyone. As has been previously explained in the pages of Socialist Appeal, these repeated incidents of violence signify the decay of American capitalism. The decline of capitalism offers no future for today’s youth, only distractions, desperation, and escapism. High unemployment, debt, lack of health care facilities, alienation, and a widespread feeling of insecurity is enough to push some over the edge. Only by changing society to one which will give everyone hope of a better future, only by engaging people in a way that they will want to live their lives rather than escape from them, can we put an end to these horrible crimes.

However, many capitalist politicians are telling us that there is a quick and easy solution: stricter gun control laws. This “solution” flies in the face of actual experience. Alcoholism is as prevalent and intractable a problem today as it was in the 1920s. In January 1920, the 18th Amendment was put into effect, prohibiting the production and sale of alcohol. The argument was put forward that by banning alcohol, alcoholism would fade away. Nothing of the kind happened. Prohibition strengthened organized crime, giving criminal gangs a monopoly over all aspects of the production and distribution of alcohol, and alcoholism continued as before.

Today, states with tough gun control laws like New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California are still among those that experience the most violent crime involving firearms. Illegal guns are most commonly acquired from other states, by individuals who can legally purchase firearms, and from the illegal sale of guns by licensed dealers. Although this seems like an argument to broaden the strict gun laws to the federal level, there is no reason to assume firearms won’t make their way into the hands of those with malicious intent.

There is already an underground market for firearms, and like the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, stricter gun control laws would only bolster this lucrative black market. There are already designs on the internet that would allow someone to use a 3D printer to produce a fully functioning handgun out of plastic. And one look at the Mexican drug cartels, which are often better armed than the police and army, shows how ineffective efforts to curb access to guns have been (or the illicit drugs they trade in, for that matter).

The “right to bear arms” is a right that has been championed perhaps more in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with the other nine Amendments that make up the “Bill of Rights,” were a concession on the part of the early American ruling class, in order to pass the less democratic aspects of the constitution such as the creation of the Senate and Supreme Court.

At the time of the signing of the Constitution, despite the reining in of the revolutionary energy of the masses by the ruling class, the capitalist system was still young and historically progressive. A strong state apparatus had not yet been developed. The ruling class did not yet need one, as the proletariat had not yet developed into a powerful and massive force constituting the vast majority of society, as is the case today. It could depend on geography and local armed militias for national defense and to put down local uprisings, supplemented by a small standing army, and above all, a strong navy.

But things have changed in the United States. The slogan “we are the 99%” is a close approximation to the actual class balance of forces today, with a tiny minority of capitalists on one side, and a mass of workers on the other. The working class has tremendous potential power in its hands—the ability to bring production and society as a whole to a grinding halt. With the capitalist crisis deepening, the ruling class can no longer rely on ideology or a few concessions to keep class peace. In the face of such a threat, the capitalists have developed an imposing state apparatus in order to maintain their rule.

Frederick Engels, in his classic work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, explains the role of the state: “The state is therefore by no means a power imposed on society from without… Rather, it is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.”
When capitalist politicians call for “gun control,” they are really saying that the working class majority should give more power to the bourgeois state in determining who should have access to arms. The capitalist class would breathe a sigh of relief at the complete disarmament of the working class. The capitalist state would then have a complete monopoly of arms, on top of its monopoly of the courts, prisons, police, spy agencies, military, etc.

Therefore, from the point of view of the capitalist class, the real essence of “gun control” is not the disarming of criminal elements or unstable individuals—who would still have access to guns through illegal channels—it is the disarming of the working class on the whole.

We have seen how this has been used in the past. When the Black Panthers had arms for self-defense, the bourgeois state violently attacked them. Far-right groups, on the other hand, are armed to the teeth and the state typically looks the other way.

The United States has a long history of gun violence on the part of the state against immigrants, blacks, and against the working class on the whole, especially when they dare to struggle. Nearly every major labor battle in the U.S. has been marked with violent attacks by the state against the striking workers. As one boss infamously put it, his striking workers needed to be “shot back to work.” Against this overwhelming force of the capitalist state, the working class must defend its basic democratic right to defend itself and its organizations, including its right to access arms.

There are no quick fixes to the problem of gun violence, and no solutions within the limits of capitalism, a system based on the organized exploitation and violence of one class against another. Only the organized and united working class can offer a solution to the violence of class society, whether it be perpetrated by the capitalist state when breaking a strike, or by unstable and alienated individuals on a killing rampage.

The labor movement, by organizing a political party of its own, could begin to deal with the ills of our society—but only if that party is armed with a socialist program. Corporations like Colt and Smith & Wesson make huge profits from the sale of weapons. A workers’ government would nationalize the arms industry and place it under democratic workers’ control.

Under a workers’ government, the working class would democratically organize itself to protect society. As socialism spreads worldwide, and relations between nations are increasingly based on solidarity, not exploitation, the need for national defense and the military will fade away, along with national borders themselves. Here at home, the need for a special police force standing above society, with special powers and privileges, would likewise disappear.

With the immense wealth and resources of our society geared towards providing jobs and raising everyone’s standard of living, we could eliminate the instability, alienation, and inhuman conditions of capitalism that give rise to the senseless violence that plagues our society.

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