What Leftists Get Wrong About Guns

Cameron Hughes | Social Movement Studies | Commentary | July 2nd, 2018

A passing glance at the headlines might suggest that the debate around gun control breaks down along the typical liberal/conservative divide. Most elements of the mainstream right have coalesced around a narrative that "big government liberals want to eliminate the second amendment" - that is to say that their arguments lay strictly in the realm of respecting the 'sacred text' of the constitution. Other, more fringe elements of the right make similar points, though the crux of their position tends to portray gun ownership as a last defense against a tyrannical government; think militias of the far-right-libertarian or Bundy ranch disposition. Following their rhetoric to its logical conclusion, the right offers a view of mass shootings as a series of aberrations, unconnected to a larger pattern.

The liberal philosophy regarding guns has solidified behind a vision of gun culture as belonging to the unsophisticated, poor, or un-evolved. The liberal elite sees no use in understanding, let alone owning, firearms. These same liberals have historically offered paltry technocratic solutions to the gun-violence problem; they favor increased background checks or the outlawing of certain gun accessories. Liberals may recognize that the violence perpetrated by mass shooters fits into a cogent pattern, but like those on the right, they are incapable of recognizing the structural root of the problem. Regardless of the rhetoric emanating from either pole in the debate, mass shootings have continued unabated, constantly spurring renewed calls for sweeping gun control. Herein lies a fundamental problem.

The calls to massively overhaul existing gun laws betray an understanding of who exactly a new regime of restrictive legislation would most effect. If we understand that jurisprudence is disproportionately meted out based on race, then clearly we should also understand that new laws - especially those which call for enhanced sentencing, like most gun control legislation does - would disproportionately be applied to people of color and the poor. Despite all of their bluster, it would not be the suburban, 'middle-class,' 'don't-tread-on-me' libertarian types who would bear the judicial brunt of new gun-control ordinances. Rather, as evidenced by cases like that of Tamir Rice and John Crawford III, the police are already eager to use the guise of 'being armed' or 'reaching for one's waistband' as a cynical cover for their obviously racist murders. Imagine then for a moment that they are extended a further legal precedent to criminalize those that they already subject to excessive arrest or violence. If we take the problem of mass incarceration seriously, then so too should we take our understanding of how the state actually functions in its application of the law. In this way, we must confront the fact that racial justice is a prerequisite for tackling gun violence, not the reverse.

We must chart a different path forward. Free from both the inaction of the right and the liberal reliance on violent state coercion. As revolutionaries, we understand that the abolition of class society, and its replacement with a wholly more democratic and equitable alternative, is our only viable option. We contend that much of the violence we experience in our everyday lives, as well as that which is brought to bear in the horrific actions of mass shooters, has itself risen out of the violence, alienation, and degradation that we are subjected to by the forces of capital and state. The building of a society which not only acts to reduce isolation and anomie, but also allows individuals access to comprehensive physical and mental health services would, in our contention, make great leaps toward curtailing episodes of mass violence.

But how do we make a break from our current situation? Though the left has a history of successful armed insurrectionary events to look back on, it's clear that the current US left is nowhere near this stage, capability, or willingness. If anything, the capacity to drum up support for an insurrectionary anti-state imaginary has more life among the militias of the right. Despite this, we recognize that firearms have played a historic role in helping to create the material preconditions for popular power. We must only look to the Black Panther Party - whose program of armed self defense spurred Ronald Reagan and the National Rifle Association to pass extraordinarily racist gun control laws in California - for confirmation that the incorporation of arms into a broader program of popular organizing can strike fear into the heart of the state, giving a burgeoning movement enough defensive breathing room to build its base.

While firearms have their place in revolutionary activity, as the Panthers well understood, it is imperative that we on the contemporary left disabuse ourselves of the notion that bullets are the ultimate praxis. Instead, we must incorporate arms as but one component in a wider strategy of building up a popular, revolutionary mass movement. Contemporary groups like Redneck Revolt, the Socialist Rifle Association, and Huey P. Newton Gun Club, among others, have made strides toward rejecting a fetishization of armed insurrection, while still recognizing the necessity of self defense that firearms help to facilitate in the context of popular organizing. An anecdote from an NPR interview with Charles E. Cobb, author and former member of SNCC, about his book, This Nonviolent Stuf'll Get you Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible , further drives this point home:

"William Worthy, who was a journalist...tried to sit down in an armchair in Martin Luther King's house and was warned by Bayard Rustin, who was with him, that he was about to sit down on a couple of handguns. [...] Martin King's household, as one person noted, was an arsenal with guns all over the place."

In his book, Cobb makes the assertion that the vast majority of civil rights leaders who championed a commitment to 'non-violent' struggle were still willing to use arms as a measure of self defense against white-supremacist mobs and assassins.

Taking a cue from our forbearers, we should recognize that guns have a place in our tactical and strategic outlook as revolutionaries, but in the same way are limited in their potential role. Members of Redneck Revolt and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, for example, spend the vast majority of their time building programs of autonomy and survival, away from the range. Both groups have initiated food-sharing programs, first-aid courses, and firearm-safety training. When hurricane Harvey struck the south coast of Texas, the Houston chapter of Redneck Revolt sprung into action, helping to distribute supplies and clear debris from waterlogged houses.

We should reject the glorification of firearms that so often occurs on the right, while also rejecting the revulsion and ignorance that is simultaneously offered by liberals. We should emphasize that the roots of mass-shooting events are linked intrinsically to the unequal material conditions of our society - and that neither intransigence nor reform can hope to bring this type of explosive violence to an end. This task can only be achieved through a fundamental reshaping of our society.

Cameron Hughes holds a bachelor's degree in sociology, with an emphasis in social movement studies. He is a founding member of the editorial collective which publishes Salvo. He is also a member transitioning into the Black Rose Anarchist Federation.