Gun Control: Carnage in Context

Against the Current, No. 163, March/April 2013

The Editors

THE CARNAGE IN Newtown, Chicago and probably a city near you has forced onto the agenda the issues of “gun control” and that sacred scripture of the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution: “ A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

As with sacred scripture in general, the big fights center around what the hell the text means. In 1787, “a well regulated militia” might have been considered an alternative to a standing army, which the Constitution’s framers rightly feared. Or it might have meant the need for slaveowners arming to prevent Black slave escapes and uprisings, which were surely deadly threats “to the security of a free state.”

The right of those slaves “to keep and bear arms” was never contemplated — although the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense sure enough righteously exercised it 180 years later, when it marched through the Oakland streets in 1967 with weapons on display. Indeed, the policy of the Socialist movement in the United States has always upheld the right of working people to be armed — because in a country where class struggle has been violent, brutal and raw, the greatest danger lies in the state and the bosses possessing a monopoly of armed force.

That principle still holds true, but what “the right to bear arms” means today is murkier in a society which is profoundly unorganized, exceptionally violent, highly racist, and with desperately inadequate care for the mentally ill. (Eddie Ray Routh, the PTSD-afflicted soldier who took the lives of his comrades, Chad Littlefield and Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, at a shooting range had been released from a mental care facility against the pleas of his mother, who knew how dangerous his condition was.)

In a weirdly twisted way, Wayne Lapierre of the NRA has a point when he blames a violent society for the slaughter of innocents. He simply neglects to mention the leading role of his own organization — and the gun manufacturing industry which (much more than gun owners) finances the NRA — in exacerbating that violence and the mainly-white paranoia that drives it.

It is simple sanity to support the banning of military assault weapons and the massive ammunition clips that create weapons of mass destruction in our communities. Folks who feel the need of guns for self-defense should have that right, subject to the same regulatory regime we take for granted with respect to motor vehicles. That kind of gun control is just common sense. What socialists understand, however, is that the violence of our society has deeper roots that must be addressed: the violence of police against unarmed people, the violence of imperialist wars and drones, the violence and cynicism of a system that produces massive inequality and poverty, all of which generate a culture in which life is cheap and extinguishable with barely a thought.

In a revolutionary crisis, a population rising up against a murderous state finds ways to arm itself as repressive police and military forces begin to split. The very concrete crisis of our present reality is different: In a chaotic and atomized society like this one, the very idea of “a well-regulated militia” verges on lunacy.

Gun control, yes then, but not in isolation. The struggle must be for a new society built on cooperation and solidarity — a society where extremes of wealth and poverty, gated estates and homelessness, police brutality and wars for oil will be regarded as relics of the dark ages.

March/April 2013, ATC 163