What a Socialist Approach to Gun Violence Should Look Like

We’re thankfully beginning to see mass organizing and protest against the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. But we can’t let billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and solutions that further criminalize the poor and increase police power dominate the debate — we need a socialist approach to ending gun violence.

Over 10,000 people marched through St. Paul, Minnesota, demanding lawmakers take action on gun law reform, on March 24, 2018. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

Gun violence in the United States has long been a major crisis. Rates of firearm deaths are nine times greater here than they are in Canada and over seventy times the rate of Great Britain. (And with heavily armed soldiers operating in nearly 150 countries each year, Americans are disproportionately even more likely to kill with a bullet than they are to be killed by one.) This is a country so violent that its police officers, the people supposedly employed to protect us from things like gun violence, kill more of us each year than the total number of homicide victims in England and Wales.

In recent years, this emergency has finally started receiving the widespread attention it deserves. The urgency is driven by mass shootings, which understandably receive outsized media attention. But two-thirds of gun fatalities are suicides, and even among homicides, mass shootings account for fewer gun deaths than domestic violence or police killings. And while the number of mass shootings is accelerating at a terrifying pace, the overall gun fatality rate remains far below what it was in the 1970s or the early 1990s — although it’s been rising in recent years.

None of these clarifications should lessen the sense of emergency around gun violence. In fact, while mass shootings may be statistically unrepresentative, they also convey a message that is both accurate and deeply moral: none of us should feel safe from gun violence. The impotent government responses that follow each public massacre give us a sense of existential dread at being trapped in a broken political system hijacked by a far-right minority.

The good news is that this crisis has created a novel political development: for the first time in generations, the push to “do something” about gun violence isn’t being primarily driven by the reactionary law-and-order politics of the Right. Instead, the growing movement against gun violence has been fueled by revulsion at the impunity of weapons manufacturers and at the outsized political influence wielded by the racist vigilantism of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

At the national March for Our Lives rally organized after the Parkland school massacre, many speakers powerfully connected their experiences of losing loved ones to gun violence with the broader social justice themes of their generation’s growing left. Edna Chavez talked about how the trauma of her brother’s death was only worsened by police in her Los Angeles school who make students feel less safe. Trevon Bosley traced his own brother’s death in Chicago to “a city that feels it’s more important to fund a college’s sports complex than fund schools in impoverished communities.”

But there’s a notable gap between the radical sentiments expressed by Chavez, Bosley, and many others who have marched against gun violence and the moderate solutions that are still largely on offer from gun control organizations and Democratic politicians.

The movement against gun violence remains largely shaped by the centrist agenda of urban police chiefs and mayors — above all by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor, current presidential candidate, and founder and funder of Everytown for Gun Safety. These groups are uninterested in the role powerful institutional forces like poverty and militarism play in our gun crisis. Instead, they exclusively focus on questions of which types of guns and gun users are the problem, an approach that pushes an agenda of expanded criminalization and helps lead to policies such as the “stop-and-frisk” policing for which Bloomberg recently gave an entirely unconvincing apology.

The revived American socialist movement, which has transformed the debates around health care and climate change with bold new demands, has been largely hesitant to enter the gun debate. We are horrified by gun violence but wary of supporting measures that will add to the already vast powers of the criminal justice system. We appreciate that oppressed and colonized people need the right to arm themselves but recognize that these days, the radicals on armed patrol are more likely to be border vigilantes and white supremacists.

What follows is a proposed framework for how socialists can help build a movement against gun violence that is geared toward liberation instead of criminalization. It’s not an all-encompassing vision like the Green New Deal, and it doesn’t contain a signature policy like Medicare for All. It’s also far from complete — important policy proposals like mandatory gun buybacks and “red flag” laws raise complicated issues that require more discussion than this space allows. But the hope is that a framework like this can help develop a distinct and popular left-wing approach to an issue that isn’t going anywhere.

More Democratic Power Over Arms Makers, Less Authoritarian Power for Armed Police

For decades, Republicans and Democrats have shared a neoliberal approach to government that transfers funding and power away from the government agencies that don’t use guns, and toward the ones that do. Socialists want to reverse that process.

We need more anti-poverty and health care programs that address the causes and effects of gun violence, and we need more regulations on the gun industry — there’s no reason why firearms should not be subject to at least as many health and safety rules as cars and pharmaceuticals. We need fewer carceral solutions like increased jail sentences for gun possession, aggressive policing strategies to “get guns off the streets,” and security measures like metal detectors and not quite “random” searches that make schools feel like prisons.

A key starting point for a socialist approach to gun violence is that police and prisons are not solutions to gun violence but are in fact major contributors. Researchers with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group estimate that police account for a third of stranger homicides — and almost 10 percent of total murder victims. These are astonishing figures — almost as astonishing as their complete absence from most discussions about gun violence.

We need demands that target the absurd immunity and privileges that our gun culture bestows upon both gun manufacturers and law enforcement:

  • End the unique legal protections granted to gun manufacturers. Repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which grants the gun industry immunity from most lawsuits, and reverse the Dickey Amendment, which blocks federal funding into researching gun violence.
  • End the unique gun rights granted to police officers, who carry far higher rates of suicide and domestic violence. Repeal the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, which allows current and retired police to carry a concealed weapon anywhere in the country regardless of local laws. End local law enforcement practices that allow officers to bring service weapons home.
  • Prohibit the production and sale of particularly destructive guns, ammunition, and attachments — and/or require that they be stored at licensed shooting ranges — and cap the number of gun purchases an individual can make over a given period of time. (These measures might not significantly reduce gun deaths, the vast majority of which come from handguns, but their passage would be a meaningful cultural statement.)
  • Prohibit the distribution to local law enforcement of particularly destructive military weapons like tanks and grenade launchers through the Pentagon’s 1033 program.
  • Divert funding from military and police gun purchases to fund federal and local voluntary gun buyback programs, accompanied by public education campaigns about the scope and causes of various types of gun violence — starting with suicide and domestic violence.

Universal Safety Measures, Not Reactionary Profiling

After Nathaniel Berhow shot five of his Santa Clarita classmates before killing himself on November 14, there was justified fury at Senate Republicans who were at that very moment blocking legislation to end the so-called gun show loophole and require all gun buyers to go through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). In fact, as in the case in many mass shootings, it’s unclear whether background checks could have prevented Berhow’s massacre. But that’s typical of the gun control narrative that steers justified anger at American violence toward the narrow solution of background checks, which as currently constituted are both ineffective and reactionary.

Background checks are by far the most popular gun control proposal. They offer a false solution to what is self-evident after any mass shooting: that guy shouldn’t have had a gun. In fact, the available evidence (limited thanks to the Dickey Amendment) is unclear about the effectiveness of background checks. Perhaps that’s because most of the criteria used by the NICS — with the important exceptions of domestic violence and stalking — have little to do with higher rates of gun violence. Instead, the feds use categories straight from J. Edgar Hoover’s “enemies” list, such as drug users and (actual NICS language) “mental defectives.”

When socialists argue for policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, we have the enjoyable task of raising expectations and making the case that a government not run by plutocrats can provide health care access and slow down climate change. With gun violence, however, we have to sympathetically but soberly rebut the false promises of safety offered by gun control groups who push to “keep guns out of the wrong hands,” warn against the destructive panic of bills like Vermont’s stunningly broad “domestic terrorism” law, and give no quarter to the craven opportunism of proposals like tying gun ownership to the Islamophobic No Fly List.

Instead, we have to put forward a very different public health framework for regulating gun ownership, one that rejects ignorant profiling and recognizes that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” with guns, and that any of us are capable of turning at some point to violence and self-harm in a society already awash in guns and seething with hatred and trauma.

We should push for:

  • Universal public health and safety measures such as raising the age of gun ownership, waiting periods for all gun purchases, and safe storage laws.
  • A licensing system for gun ownership on the automobile model, with periodic renewals. (This licensing agency could also oversee firearms training, thereby undercutting a major source of NRA revenue and membership.)
  • Gun licenses should be refused or withdrawn based on behaviors linked to irresponsible or destructive use rather than ignorant tropes. A few NICS criteria that include domestic violence and stalking could qualify but others should be removed.

Those Most Affected by Gun Violence Should Lead the Fight

Thousands of ordinary people have organized for years against gun violence, but they have largely not been able to shape a movement dominated by the likes of Bloomberg and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. The school walkouts and marches that broke out after Parkland offered a glimpse of a potentially very different movement. Over the past year and a half, March for Our Lives has become a youth organization with chapters around the country, worked through internal debates about racial inclusivity, held a national convention, and created an ambitious peace plan.

These are inspiring developments, but there is much more work to be done to develop a vibrant democratic movement that gets to the root of American gun violence. We need to hear from a range of voices with gun experiences beyond student survivors of mass shootings, including antiwar veterans, domestic violence survivors, indigenous water protectors, and mosque security volunteers. Collaborations among abuse survivors, mental health self-advocates, and police accountability activists are needed to develop proposals for addressing threatening domestic situations that don’t further empower police. Forums should be created for ongoing discussions about the effectiveness of guns for collective and individual self-defense, led by those who have good reason not to trust the police to protect them.

Above all, we need to find ways to organize with the most numerous victims of the violence of American weaponry: those who have been invaded and occupied by our military and the proxy forces we arm. It’s a travesty to hear Democrats propose banning assault weapons because they “belong on the battlefield” — as if modern American warfare looks like a Game of Thrones battle scene, with opposing armies meeting on empty fields. Today’s “battles” take place in the same schools, public plazas, and workplaces where mass shootings take place back home. When Adam Lanza dressed up in military camouflage to murder the children at Sandy Hook, he sent a clear message that politicians can’t stop people from deciding the geography of their own personal battlefields.

The era of mass shootings coincides with the era of endless war. Socialists should internationalize the gun violence movement with events that bring together victims of gun violence from Chicago to Iraq to help make that vital connection.

Reducing Gun Violence Means Taking on Capitalism

Michael Bloomberg is a celebrated public health philanthropist — that’s how he sees his work for gun control legislation. Yet during his time as mayor, nineteen hospitals closed in New York City. But the billionaire who was celebrated for aggressively challenging the smoking and soda-drinking habits of his working-class constituents was strangely passive about taking on this crisis created by a for-profit health care system. “The reality is you can’t have a hospital on every corner,” he once said in response to protests against closing the only hospital within three miles of its Brooklyn location.

Last year, the Trace, a gun violence news outlet funded by Bloomberg, reported that southern Queens neighborhoods that lost two hospitals and their only trauma center have seen their gunshot fatality rate rise almost 50 percent. That the widely prominent anti-gun figure saw no need to stop the closure of trauma centers that serve gunshot victims is a perfect illustration of the absurd degree to which centrists have steered the gun debate into a safe space tucked away from larger questions of social inequality.

Gun violence is deeply connected to health care, poverty, war, unemployment, domestic violence, migration, school and workplace alienation, and dozens of other factors. Any solution has to connect with broader demands for peace and justice, from Medicare for All to slashing the Pentagon budget to winning accountability for the crimes of police and ICE agents.

This approach goes against all the instincts of anti-gun violence organizations whose strategies rest on appealing to the “common sense” of a broad moderate majority against the irrational extremism of the NRA. We don’t need to accuse the NRA of having an excess of intelligence to see that this is the wrong approach.

The NRA preaches a gun-fundamentalist gospel of cynicism, individualism, and paranoia that Trump has only made more popular. According to their Bad News gospel, the only thing you can count on is your ability to arm yourself to protect what’s yours, and the day you let the government start to infringe on that right is the beginning of the end. It’s a powerful message that connects this country’s settler-colonial origins to our declining superpower present and our possible climate-apocalyptic future — with white nationalism as the constant.

We’re not going to defeat that fire and brimstone with status-quo pragmatism, but with our own compelling vision: not more policing but a fighting peace and justice movement that fights climate change, pickets against hospital closures, and demands that power and resources be taken from the corporations and government agencies flooding us with weapons for killing and redirected toward the health, education, and environmental projects that can help us start living.

For non-billionaires, our most valuable property is what we own collectively — our schools, hospitals, and communities, our political rights and privacy, our planet. There are no stand-your-ground laws to help us secure this public ownership — we have to organize with one another in our workplaces and communities.

That’s what West Virginia educators have done for the past two years with job actions that successfully resisted anti-teacher laws. In a state run by reactionaries who tout open carry laws as “freedom” even as they restrict basic rights on the job, these mostly women teachers have demonstrated an ability to protect their families and communities that no gun could ever provide.

Make the Links

For all the seeming intransigence on both sides of the gun debate, almost everyone agrees that the epidemic of mass shootings is a signal that something has gone very wrong in this society. Socialists can address that feeling in a way that Bloomberg can’t. We can draw the obvious links between mass shootings at home and the push for mass bombings and shootings in Iran, and talk about the more nuanced connections to the atomization produced by closing neighborhood schools, hospitals, and factories, and a lifestyle of consumer solitude where most social interactions are mediated through Amazon or Instagram.

Most importantly, we have an inspiring alternative to the dismal worldview held in common by the NRA and many gun control groups, which sees the high levels of US violence as inevitable and debates only whether the best good guys to protect us from bad guys are armed police or armed private citizens. If socialists can effectively enter the gun debate, we can win millions over to the idea that a more equal and just society will also be a more peaceful one.