Socialism and Gun Control

Mass shootings are part of the terrible “new normality” for youth growing up in 21st century America. In the aftermath of every tragic incident, liberals and conservatives line up to shed crocodile tears and to push for or against more stringent gun-control legislation. What are some of the more common measures being proposed? Can they resolve the issue of mass shootings? Or is the root of the problem something much deeper?

For his part, President Trump has thrown his weight behind Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO), which are more commonly known as “red flag” laws. Such legislation has already been passed in a handful of US states. These laws enable law enforcement or a family or other household member to petition a court to temporarily seize the firearms of a person they perceive to present a danger to themselves or others. The guns in question are seized without due process; it’s not uncommon for the person in question to be completely unaware that such a petition was filed until the police arrive at his or her home to confiscate the weapons.

The accused will eventually appear in court and have to prove that the accusations leveled against them are without foundation. Confronted with a “guilty until proven innocent” approach, it would be expedient for the accused to hire an attorney, something that is often beyond the means of many working-class people. The potential for abuse of these laws is immense, especially considering that the capitalist state is anything but impartial. We can predict in advance that such laws will be used to justify police raids on gun owners who happen to be black, Latino, or left-wing. One can easily imagine a scenario in which a socialist gun owner could be subjected to such a raid by a far-right relative or online troll.

Another proposal that has gained a lot of traction in recent years is the call for universal background checks. Few would argue that anyone should be able to purchase a firearm as easily as one can buy a pack of cigarettes. However, we must reiterate that the bourgeois state is not impartial. Despite all the mass shootings they have perpetuated, the alt-right has not been designated as a terrorist threat by the bourgeois state. Bourgeois law enforcement has been documented working hand-in-hand with fascists.

The bourgeois state is not impartial. Despite all the mass shootings they have perpetuated, the alt-right has not been designated as a terrorist threat. / Image: Anthony Crider via Flickr

The capitalist state apparatus treated Cliven Bundy’s right-wing mob with kid gloves, even though they aimed guns at federal law enforcement officers during their reactionary occupation of public lands in Oregon. Meanwhile, Philando Castile was killed by police simply for legally carrying a concealed firearm—while black.

Even if we look at things through the lens of formal legality, a fair number of mass shooters have been able to pass background checks. And needless to say, a resourceful and committed reactionary will always find ways to obtain firearms illegally.

Liberal ideologues have often called for permanent reinstatement of the 1994–2004 federal ban on the production of “assault weapons” and “high capacity” magazines for the civilian market. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the functionality and classifications of firearms, but in brief, the term “assault weapon” is a nebulous term mostly based on the cosmetic appearance of a firearm. For example, the civilian AR-15 models closely resemble the M4 and M16 rifles used by military forces. However, the civilian variants are only capable of semi-automatic fire. The AR-15’s lower receiver cannot readily accommodate the parts necessary for burst or fully automatic fire, and attempting to modify it to do so is a federal felony.

The popularity of the AR-15 on the civilian market stems from its modular design—it can easily be built, maintained, and repaired without an array of specialized tools or extensive gunsmithing knowledge—not due to anything inherently sinister about it. As for magazine capacity, gun-control advocates typically define any magazine that can hold more than ten rounds of ammunition as “high capacity.” While this term is technically incorrect, it is worth noting that magazines with lower capacities have not automatically resulted in fewer casualties. As an example, the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School only used 10-round magazines.

Ultimately, the 1994–2004 ban had a negligible impact on reducing gun violence; it did decline during the prohibition, but it also continued to decline after the ban was allowed to expire in 2004. Not only that, but there are other countries where civilians can legally buy “assault weapons” and “high-capacity” magazines—e.g., Czech Republic, Slovenia, Switzerland, Finland—yet gun violence in those countries is rare. It is also worth noting that fewer than 400 people are killed every year in the US by rifles of any kind. Most shootings are carried out with handguns. However given their popularity for self-defense and sport shooting, it would be an act of political suicide for any capitalist politician to call for them to be banned.

Decades of relative class peace followed the postwar boom. Although the golden years of economic growth ended in 1974, capitalism gained a new lease on life through the unprecedented expansion of credit and the eventual entry of ex-Stalinist countries, namely China, into the world market. While there were some mass movements and revolutions during this time, they were either defeated outright or driven into “safe” channels due to the lack of revolutionary leadership.

Widespread ideological confusion among the working class was a natural result of these defeats and betrayals. The confusion has sunk such deep roots that many on the left—including some who consider themselves to be socialists, anarchists, or communists—have ultimately taken a liberal, “Wall Street knows best” approach to gun control.

No doubt, the toxic right-wing gun culture promoted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) has played a significant role in this. As a result, it’s little wonder that many people have come to associate gun ownership with racism, homophobia, and religious obscurantism. Decades ago, the NRA shifted its original focus on gun safety and the promotion of hunting and sport-shooting to become one of the most prominent right-wing political groups in the United States. To further complicate matters, the media typically depicts the NRA as the primary “pro-gun” side in what passes for a debate on this issue. Whether or not there is a direct connection, the NRA is the real voice of the arms and ammunition manufacturers and retailers.

On the other hand, the liberal approach to gun control has a superficially objective appearance to it, as it makes heavy use of studies. However, these studies are ultimately predicated on cherry-picked statistics. While mass shootings are horrific, they make up a tiny minority of overall shooting deaths. To begin, two-thirds of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Lack of access to quality healthcare, housing, education, and jobs with livable wages undoubtedly play a significant role in such deaths.

Two-thirds of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Lack of access to quality healthcare, housing, education, and jobs with livable wages undoubtedly plays a significant role in such deaths. / Image: Public Domain

The remaining one-third are homicides. Most of the people murdered with guns are between the ages of 15 and 34. Additionally, 66% of these victims are black. A cursory analysis of these statistics and the background information reveals that senile capitalism can only offer poverty, crushing alienation, and institutionalized racism and sexism to millions of workers and youth. These are the root causes of gun violence and violent crime in general.

By placing the focus on banning certain types of firearms and magazines, liberal politicians divert workers’ attention away from the pressing need for universal healthcare, a minimum wage that can provide for a high standard of living, a shorter workweek, and the need to abolish institutionalized racism. As Malcolm X correctly noted, “you cannot have capitalism without racism.” This means that the fight against racism is a fight against capitalism—something the liberal defenders of this system are not about to encourage.

And while a hue and cry is raised about a worker being able to purchase an AR-15 legally, nothing is said about the bourgeois state having enough firepower to unleash worldwide Armageddon. The US government controls over 4,000 nuclear weapons and spends more than the next ten countries combined on its military. And as POLITICO reported: “Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant ‘Little Americas’ to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.” But when it comes to healthcare, infrastructure, and wages, we are told the coffers are empty.

Image: Cosmo Spacely via Flickr

Ultimately, the issue of gun control is a class question. Depending on how the question is phrased, polls have shown widespread support for some gun control measures, namely, universal background checks. However, we must ask the question: who is controlling whose access to firearms? Under the hammer blows of events, workers and youth have been moving further to the left. The more farsighted bourgeois strategists are alarmed by this, and it’s not an accident that fundamental civil liberties have been under attack for years. When it comes to bourgeois gun control, the ultimate aim is to disarm the working class and to further strengthen the state apparatus’s stranglehold on armament possession.

The state of California is known for its draconian gun-control legislation, but what isn’t typically mentioned is that these restrictions have their origin in Ronald Reagan’s Mulford Act of 1967—a direct response to the Black Panthers carrying firearms to protect themselves from racist police officers. When it comes to the enforcement of bourgeois gun control, it is minorities and poor workers who are most negatively affected.

We cannot trust the bourgeois state to disarm fascist groups or take any meaningful action to put an end to gun violence. Marxists address the issue with a bold socialist program that would nationalize the commanding heights of the economy, including the arms and ammunition industry, and raise living standards via universal healthcare, high wages, universal access to education, full employment, access to affordable housing, a twenty-hour workweek, and more. Only socialist policies can eliminate the root causes of gun violence and ensure that workers can responsibly enjoy recreational sports shooting without having to worry about mass shootings or having their firearms subjected to bans or confiscation.

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