The following article below was originally published by the Return to the Source news blog:
December 19, 2012
People across the United States are mourning the ghoulish mass murder that took place on Friday, December 14, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The victims – 20 children as young as six years old and six adults – were murdered by 20 year old Adam Lanza.
The horrific tragedy in Connecticut immediately ignited fierce debate on the merits of gun control, but predictably neither side is interested in examining the issue from a class-based perspective. The usual suspects representing the traditional political trends in America, led by different sections of the capitalist class, jumped feet-first into the discussion espousing the positions that people in the US have come to expect.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama came out in support of reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired under President George W. Bush in 2004. Though Lanza acquired his murder weapons by stealing them from his mother, rather than purchasing them, the President argues that reducing access to assault weapons will prevent future tragedies like the killings in Newtown, Connecticut, from taking place.
On the other side, we find the right-wing gun proponents. For them, not even the most heinous tragedy can shake their determination to uphold the Second Amendment for the capitalist class. Whereas liberals want to limit gun ownership to the state, the right-wing prefers to have armed bands of vigilantes and militias, who can be counted on to repress workers and oppressed nationalities if the conditions call for it. They hypocritically defend the right to bear arms for themselves while turning a blind eye to the already-existing gun control regulations on oppressed people in the US.
After observing the stances of comrades taking part in the debate, we felt it might be helpful to identify and materially analyze the competing positions of the gun control question. For the purposes of this piece, we hope to present some historical examples to better prepare comrades for discussions in the workplaces and the community.
Most of all, we hope to refute both the liberal position calling for greater restrictions on firearms and the crypto-right-wing position extolling the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. In its place, we arrive at and examine the Marxist position on the right to bear arms.
The Liberal Position
The “pro-gun control” forces, who have traditionally opposed to the Republican Party’s Second Amendment support and the expansion of firearms across the US, have found themselves languishing for many years. The Democratic Party has all but abandoned the position out of political opportunism. The pro-gun control position has found new life in the corporate media and the mind of liberal supporters in the US following the recent wave of mass shootings, like in Connecticut.
Rest assured, this “pro-gun control” position is put forward by other sections of the capitalist class in the Democratic Party, supported broadly by white middle class liberals. However, it also has some material support in oppressed nations affected most heavily by gun violence. Groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence articulate this position as follows:
“We should make it harder for convicted felons, the dangerously mentally ill, and others like them to get guns in the first place. We can do this by passing laws such as requiring Brady criminal background checks on all gun sales; banning military-style assault weapons; and strengthening law enforcement’s efforts to stop the illegal gun market, like limiting the number of guns that can be bought at one time.” (1)
The capitalist class and the white middle class in the large cities in the North, West, and Midwest that live in more constricted confines with the working class and oppressed nations push forward this “law and order” gun control policy. Indeed, the US government already has massive gun control measures in place, especially in the major cities like New York and Chicago and states across the nation, which represent the extreme end of this policy, where it’s practically unheard of for average citizens to own firearms legally.
These measures don’t restrict mass murderers like Jared Lee Loughner – the shooter in Arizona last year – or Neo-Nazis like Wade Michael Page, who murdered six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin this summer, from acquiring firearms. Instead, they largely restrict the rights of oppressed people who face violence from vigilantes or police from owning guns.
It is no surprise then that billionaire Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg and his coalition, “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” are quickly becoming the leading force advancing this agenda. Principally, they support gun control for the same reason the Republican opposed gun control: they are afraid of oppressed nationalities. We quote the website of “Mayors Against Illegal Guns”:
“We support the Second Amendment and the rights of citizens to own guns. We recognize the vast majority of gun dealers and gun owners carefully follow the law…But what binds us together is a determination to fight crime, and a belief that we can do more to stop criminals from getting guns while also protecting the rights of citizens to freely own them.” (2)
This is a common theme among the liberal gun control advocates: a heavy focus on “crime” and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, especially in big cities. This position cannot be divorced from the war on drugs and the war on Black and Latino youth, who find themselves disportionately criminalized and imprisoned. Capitalist leaders like Mayor Bloomberg in no way seek to limit the violence visited on working class and oppressed communities. Remember that Bloomberg is responsible for spearheading the blatantly racist “stop and frisk” policies carried out by the NYPD. (3) The NAACP has said of these policies: “Bloomberg’s massive street-level racial profiling program is a civil rights and human rights catastrophe that both hurts our children and makes our communities less safe.” (4)
Are we to trust the liberals like Bloomberg, chiefly responsible and complicit in waging the war on black and brown communities, with ending gun violence with new criminal restrictions? Are we to trust the racist criminal justice system and groups like the NYPD whom Bloomberg has called “his army, the 7th largest in the world?” (5)
It is no coincidence that liberal bourgeoisie like Bloomberg are silent about gun control for their “private army” when it comes to police violence and murder committed by police, like in the case of unarmed 17 year old Ramarley Graham in New York City. (6)
The gun control policies of Bloomberg and reactionary allies, like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, are efforts to extend national oppression and the capitalist monopoly on violence, especially over Black and Latino communities. This also serves to keep the working class and discontented elements of society passive in the face of foreclosures, austerity, voter suppression, legislative attacks like Right-to-Work initiatives, and efforts to use state repression to silence social movements like Occupy Wall Street and trade union protesters in Michigan. After all, unarmed protesters are entirely at the mercy of the capitalist class’ “personal army,” leaving them subject to violent repression at protests or on picket lines.
It is only natural that these forces support such measures to strip oppressed nationalities and workers from their democratic rights to bear arms: They have their own arms, their own personal security, their own “personal armies”, their police, their courts, their prisons; in other words, the “special bodies of armed men” talked of by Lenin in State & Revolution. They live in gated communities and mansions, while most Black and Latino people live in occupied territory not unlike occupied Afghanistan. The agenda of the liberal Democrats is to strengthen the apparatus of state repression – to increase arms and weapons in the hands of their “personal army” – while keeping guns out of the hands of “criminals” and other “undesirable elements”. This agenda is reflected in the expansion of billions of dollars in state funding to arm police with military hardware to the tune of $34 billion dollars over the past decade. (7)
There seems to be no talk of gun control or preventing gun violence when it comes to the army of the capitalist class. There’s no talk of assault weapon bans for the police, who are upgrading to tanks in many cities! (8)
Middle class white liberals who live in gated communities, or the “nice” sections of town also don’t have the same worries as our class and our allies. They want to strip “the common rabble” and criminals of their means of self-defense. After all, the police and the ruling class of the United States are their friends. They’re not the ones getting imprisoned, stopped and frisked, or having their homes foreclosed on.
However, comrades cannot ignore that gun violence does have a disproportionate and devastating impact in the communities of oppressed people and working class communities. African-Americans are the victim of 54% of all firearm homicides, despite making up just 13% of the population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (9) It’s no surprise that gun-related violence disproportionately occurs in the US South, the historical home of Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan terrorism against Black and Latino people, according to Zara Matheson at the Martin Prosperity Institute. (10) This provides some material appeal to elements of the oppressed nations in regards to these gun control policy.
Still, comrades should combat this wolf in sheep’s clothing. The enforcers of this violence are the American capitalist class and white supremacist forces that work to uphold the established order. Trusting them to end violence in the oppressed communities with gun control is the equivalent to entrusting the United States to help Syria and Libya with “humanitarian intervention.”
Malcolm X understood the nature of violence by the US government and police, as well as the need for African-Americans to defend themselves from these attacks. We quote him at some length:
“Last but not least, I must say this concerning the great controversy over rifles and shotguns. White people been buying rifles all their lives…no commotion. The only thing I’ve ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the Constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks, although you’d be within your rights – I mean, you’d be justified; but that would be illegal and we don’t do anything illegal. If the white man doesn’t want the black man buying rifles and shotguns, then let the government do its job.” (11)
There’s a reason that the Sanford police covered up the shooting of Trayvon Martin this past February, and it was only after massive protests that his killer, George Zimmerman, was arrested. Across this country, the system of white supremacy is reinforced by the underlying threat of violence, whether it comes from police brutality or vigilante terrorism. The response is not to buckle to the pressures of liberals, who trust the very purveyors of violence to protect oppressed people, but for oppressed people to have the ability to defend themselves.
Sensible policy on guns for working class and oppressed people in America can only come from a Marxist position. But to do that, we must first analyze and pull apart the muddled position carried by the advanced, progressives, and some of our comrades.
The Left-Second Amendment Position
In response to the liberal gun control proposals, many people on the US Left embrace a position similar to that espoused by the Right. This “Left-Second Amendment” position unites with the views put forth by the National Rifle Association by dismissing guns as incidental to mass murders like yesterday’s tragedy in Connecticut. In this view, something else – an external cause like mental health or the culture of violence in the US – is chiefly to blame.
This is not incorrect. The US is an incredibly violent society, with the greatest purveyor of violence being the US government itself – and that’s not our opinion; that’s the opinion of Martin Luther King Junior, who used those exact words to describe the government on April 4, 1967. We see the evidence of this ‘cultural violence’ everywhere, from movies like Act of Valor, financed by the US military to glorify violence committed against other countries, to police violence inflicted on children and the innocent, like we saw in Anaheim, California, this year.
Along the same lines, mental health services in the US are stigmatized and woefully underfunded. It’s no coincidence that many of the perpetrators of these mass killings have had severe mental health crises; crises that were more often than not identified but not adequately treated.
The Left-Second Amendment position boils down to the pressing concern over the state having a monopoly on violence. When we look back in history, oppressed people have never won their freedom without armed struggle. In many cases, the lack of an armed populace has led directly to the rise of brutal fascist regimes, like in Chile and Spain. In 1973, the workers in Chile were underprepared to defeat the fascist coup d’etat that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende because of the government’s refusal to arm the people. During the Spanish Civil War almost four decades earlier, the social democratic government was similarly reluctant to arm the workers to resist Franco’s fascist brigades. And of course everyone knows of Adolf Hitler’s infamous ban on citizens owning guns after the rise of the Nazis.
In essence, many leftists view guns as a means of self-defense for oppressed people and a safeguard against fascism. This leads them to oppose gun control measures, i.e. the liberal position on gun control.
However, the Left-Second Amendment position mistakenly adopts the Right’s view of the right to bear arms as a philosophical abstraction, rather than a material reality. In practice, the Constitution does not protect the rights of oppressed people to bear arms. Even the most vocal advocates of the Second Amendment have no objection to regulations on firearm ownership by the people who need it most to defend their class and national interests from right-wing vigilantes and state power.
The Left-Second Amendment position rests on two incorrect assumptions. First, it implicitly assumes that gun ownership is not already heavily regulated and restricted for oppressed people. And second, it assumes that the US government would ever totally restrict the ownership of firearms, which leads these leftists to vocally oppose gun control measures.
We will begin with the first assumption.
Consider the following: In 1967, there was a major legal battle going on in California against a Governor bent on abridging “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” The Governor and his party brought out all of the pro-gun control arguments about dangerous vigilantes running loose with weapons, saying that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons” and that guns were a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” (11) As it would today, the Governor’s gun control policies led to massive demonstrations of armed people marching on the Capitol.
Yes, in 1967, California Governor Ronald Reagan – future right-wing President of the United States and darling of the National Rifle Association – signed the Mulford Act in direct response to the protests and actions of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Act banned the open-carry of loaded firearms in California, which the Panthers used to intimidate racist police officers and thereby prevent police brutality in black neighborhoods. Open-carry meant that the Panthers could defend the black community, and they rarely had to fire a single shot.
There was no talk of “a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” The white Second Amendment advocates we see today were not out in the streets marching with the Panthers against “encroaching tyranny.” Reagan banned the use of guns in a meaningful way by oppressed people because it was a direct threat to police dominance and white supremacy in California.
Historically, the Second Amendment has never defended the right of oppressed people to bear arms. An integral component of the state “Black codes” that were implemented at the end of Reconstruction was the denial of the gun ownership to African-Americans. This Jim Crow-era policy of national oppression extends into the 21st century through the racist “War on Drugs” and the disenfranchisement of Blacks and Latinos.
Remember that the US takes away the second amendment “right” of non-violent felons. By prosecuting the war on drugs, a disproportionate amount of Black men – 1 in 8, according to the Huffington Post – have no right to bear arms because of convicted felon status. (12) Similarly, Latinos comprise a disproportionate percentage of all convicted felons – “disenfranchised at a rate higher than whites, but lower than blacks.” (13) Through convicted felon status, the US government takes away the right to bear arms disproportionately from the African-American and Chican@ nations, allowing the state to more heavily occupy their territory through police.
Onto the second assumption:
The US government has no interest in repealing the second amendment or outright banning guns across the board. They already have ways of restricting the right of oppressed people to bear arms. For everyone else – especially white males – it’s the Wild, Wild West.
When the country was experiencing revolutionary upheavals during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, armed bands of white reactionaries used their second amendment ‘right to bear arms’ to attack and repress African-Americans struggling for more freedom. Striking trade unionists faced the same repression from both police and company-hired thugs on the picket lines in the 1930s and 1940s. In both cases, oppressed people and workers exercised their right to bear arms against and in opposition to the rights of an oppressor to bear arms.
The real Second Amendment advocates, attempting to make guns even more prevalent, actively pass Stand Your Ground laws that lead to the slaughter of Black youth like Trayvon Martin in February and Jordan Davis last month in Jacksonville, Florida. Marxists and progressives have nothing in common with these people.
The Marxist Position
“Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.”
We have examined two erroneous positions on gun control: the “left” error of embracing the Second Amendment, and the liberal “right” error of trusting the state with an exclusive monopoly on violence. Fundamentally, both positions stem from idealist assumptions about rights and the nature of the state.
The Marxist position on gun control is unequivocally upholding the right of workers and oppressed nationalities to bear arms.
In direct refutation of the Left-Second Amendment position, which upholds the right to bear arms as an abstract constitutional right, the Marxist position upholds gun ownership as a class right. Similarly, class rights directly confront the liberal belief that the state should be the predominant or sole trustee of firearms.
By classifying the right to bear arms as a class right, rather than a ‘human’, ‘constitutional’, or ‘natural’ right, the Marxist position upholds the social character of gun ownership. The Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms as an individual right set in place to protect individuals and their property from threats. Under capitalism, this translates into principally a ruling class and petty-bourgeois right since these are the classes that own “property,” i.e. capital, businesses, the means of production.
‘Open-Carry’ or ‘Concealed-Carry’?
We see further evidence of the reactionary character of the Second Amendment when looking at the prevalence of ‘concealed-carry’ state laws versus ‘open-carry’ state laws. ‘Open-Carry’ – allowing people to publicly carry firearms – is a social means of exercising the right to bear arms. As the Black Panther Party understood, the known presence of firearms allows oppressed people to better police their own communities and challenge the authority of the state without firing a single shot. The right to bear arms thereby becomes ‘social’ because it is a public exercise of power.
Consider why the police openly carry their firearms. The state allows its officers and agents to publicly display their firearms to deter confrontations with said agents. It is a silent exercise of state power.
Reagan banned the open-carry of loaded firearms in California precisely in reaction to the Black Panthers’ practices. If an African-American was stopped and harassed by a police officer, an openly armed Panther cadre would enter the scene to give legal counsel to the person facing police harassment. The Panthers challenged the state’s perceived monopoly on violence by acting as “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free [Black] State.”
In fact, California is one of seven states in the US to have outright bans on open-carry. Not surprisingly, the other six states with these bans – Illinois, Texas, New York, Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas – are either the most populous and multinational, or located in the heart of the Black Belt South.
Not coincidentally, though, all 50 states in the US allow the concealed-carry of firearms. Illinois was the one state that upheld a ban on concealed-carry, but the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that ban a week ago. (15) Concealed-carry caters to the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois class nature of the Second Amendment, which allows individuals to ‘protect themselves from attacks in public’. From Bernhard Goetz in 1984 to George Zimmerman in 2012, this right has generally manifested itself in white men gunning down Blacks and Latinos on the basis that they ‘felt threatened’.
Concealed-carry individualizes, rather than socializes, the right to bear arms. The Right uses concealed-carry laws to expand the legal basis for the murder of African-Americans and Latinos through Stand Your Ground laws. Even the NRA backhandedly agrees with bans on open-carry, calling the repeal of these bans “not a priority.” (16) Instead, the NRA’s far-right membership dedicatedly works to expand concealed-carry, which offers no legal basis for oppressed people to socially exercise the right to bear arms.
The Social Organization of the Right to Bear Arms
On picket lines, strikers in the 1930s regularly had to defend themselves and their fellow workers from company-hired paramilitaries. As far back as the Homestead Strike in 1892 involving Steelworkers and the Battle of Blair Mountain involving Coal Miners, the capitalist class has openly resorted to violence in order to crush the demands of striking workers.
Looking at restoring a militant strike movement as one of the main objectives of the progressive labor movement, it would be a folly to support increased gun control, which would allow the state, the capitalist class and its supporters to monopolize guns. While not all proposed gun control methods would completely curb access to firearms, Marxists should oppose any restrictions that further reduce the ability of oppressed people and workers to defend themselves or deter violence.
The disastrous consequences of gun control on the workers’ movement came full-circle during the South African Miner’s strike this year, in which state police opened fire killing 34 miners, armed mostly with clubs and other such weapons. A modern picket line with workers legally and openly carrying arms in self-defense would represent a strong deterrent to violent attempts to break up the strike by management, vigilantes or illegal police actions, like the ones that occurred in South Africa.
Many comrades will find that workers, and especially people of the oppressed nations in the US instinctively understand that the police force represents the ruling class and not their interests. Presenting the question of gun ownership in terms of class opens up workers to realizing that gun control is a question of democratic and class rights. Many workers understand reasonable gun rights and even gun control, but they will also reject the idea when presented with the prospect of surrendering their democratic right while the rich and their personal army get to hold onto this right.
In a March 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, Karl Marx described the need for workers to exercise the right to bear arms through social organization independent of the state. We will quote him at some length:
To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized. The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition, and the revival of the old-style citizens’ militia, directed against the workers, must be opposed. Where the formation of this militia cannot be prevented, the workers must try to organize themselves independently as a proletarian guard, with elected leaders and with their own elected general staff; they must try to place themselves not under the orders of the state authority but of the revolutionary local councils set up by the workers. Where the workers are employed by the state, they must arm and organize themselves into special corps with elected leaders, or as a part of the proletarian guard. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary. The destruction of the bourgeois democrats’ influence over the workers, and the enforcement of conditions which will compromise the rule of bourgeois democracy, which is for the moment inevitable, and make it as difficult as possible – these are the main points which the proletariat and therefore the League must keep in mind during and after the approaching uprising. (17)
In the underlined portion of the quote selected above, Marx describes the security functions of what the Bolsheviks would later call ‘Soviets’, or workers councils. Writing in London, Marx was warning against English attempts to co-opt independent armed bodies of workers by reviving citizens militias, which were directed and organized by the state to supposedly police communities. In actuality, these bodies served the interest of the capitalist state, making them functionally analogous to the gun control demands of the liberals today.
Marx instead recognized the necessity of workers organizing themselves and defending the right to bear arms through political struggle. This right would not be exercised individually through concealed-carry or for personal security, but it was instead a social right of the working class to defend their gains and interests.
In the oppressed nations within the United States, open-carry and the class right to bear arms has a rich history in America of forwarding national liberation. From countering white terrorism during Reconstruction, to the CPUSA again fighting off the Klan in the 1930’s, to the Black Panthers patrolling black communities, the right of Black armed organizations has been a guarantor of their democratic rights. Every instance of this has been organized, not on individual basis of “concealed-carrying” a handgun for individual defense, but as disciplined groups acting practically as the police force or army of the black nation itself. This, in essence, is the social right to bear arms.
The American working class and the Black and Chican@ nations should have the right and authority in their respective organizations to decide how to best manage gun rights in their communities. The answers lie in organizations and successful practices of the past, in contrast to the white liberal proposal to rely on the capitalist police forces’ monopoly on violence for protection.
We believe gun rights for workers and oppressed nationalities is a major factor in this struggle. Marxists should oppose the war on drugs and any possible “war on guns,” which would likely result in an intensification of national oppression. We should oppose legal restrictions, including efforts to strip members of the oppressed nations victimized by the Jim Crow legal system, of their right to bear arms. We believe Marxists should also support defensive, deterrence-based social gun policies, like open-carry, which would give oppressed nationalities and workers the ability to defend themselves from illegal violence and racist vigilantes in a legal fashion.
(1) Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Mission Statement, 2012,http://www.bradycampaign.org/about/
(2) Mayors Against Illegal Guns, “About the Coalition,” 2012, http://maig.us/awoN03
(3) The Gothamist, “Bloomberg Continues Tone-Deaf Support Of Stop-And-Frisk Policy,” May 18, 2012,http://bit.ly/KXZrz2
(4) CBS News, “Bloomberg Defends NYPD’s Stop-And-Frisk Program, Says It Should Be ‘Mended, Not Ended’,” June 11, 2012, http://cbsloc.al/NsJZht
(5) Graham Rayman, The Village Voice, “Bloomberg Claims NYPD “7th Biggest Army in World” … Um, That’s Totally Wrong,” November 30, 2011, http://bit.ly/tgb0fT
(6) Lucy McKeon, The Nation, “Marchers Demand Justice for Ramarley Graham,” June 26, 2012,http://bit.ly/Oe65EU
(7) Justin Elliott, Salon, “How the feds fueled the militarization of the police,” December 24, 2011,http://bit.ly/u74o0s
(8) John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute, “Tanks on Mainstreet: The Militarization of the Local Police,” January 3, 2012, http://bit.ly/ybNymo
(9) Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Introduction to Gun Violence Statistics,” November 18, 2012,http://bit.ly/R5xf0i
(10) The Atlantic Cities, “The Geography of Gun Violence,” July 20, 2012, http://bit.ly/MOxA2k
(11) Malcolm X, “Malcolm X on the Right to Bear Arms,” http://bit.ly/R49Yhq
(12) Adam Winkler, The Atlantic, “The Secret History of Guns,” September 2011, http://huff.to/odPpKZ
(13) Dan Froomkin, The Huffington Post, “How Do You Disenfranchise 1 in 8 Black Men?” May 17, 2010,http://huff.to/au3ptU
(14) Michael McLaughlin, The Huffington Post, “Felon Voting Laws Disenfranchise 5.85 Million Americans With Criminal Records: The Sentencing Project,” July 12, 2010, http://huff.to/NtkyLs
(15) Ray Long, The Chicago Tribune, “Concealed carry: Court strikes down Illinois’ ban,” December 11, 2012, http://bit.ly/SRqfEW
(16) Sean Caranna, All Nine Yards, “NRA’s Own Prodigal Son Story – Open and Concealed Carry,” August 25, 2011, http://bit.ly/YdAOXJ
(17) Karl Marx, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, March 1850, http://bit.ly/noHW0h