Yesterday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conneticut once again re-ignited the gun control debate. For US liberals, stricter gun regulations are the key to preventing future tragedies. For conservatives, responsible gun ownership and armed citizenry is the best defence. But neither position really gets to the roots of the issue.
As an anarchist, it should go without saying that I don't subscribe to the position that if only the state bans more things the problem will go away. Whether it's a social right like abortion, recreational products like drugs and alcohol or something as problematic as guns, it's generally true that prohibition doesn't work.
Taking the specific issue of guns, we might look at the UK as an example of this. Following the Dunblane Massacre, private ownership of handguns was almost entirely banned. However, parliamentary statistics (PDF) still record handguns as being used in 44% of non-air weapon firearms offences in England and Wales, followed by imitation weapons in 23%. (23% and 22% respectively in Scotland.) In other words, the majority of gun crime is committed with illegal weapons.
There is a rough correlation between gun ownership levels and gun deaths, as seen in the graph below. However, one of the main reasons behind this is quite simply that in gun owning countries more of those who commit suicide do so using guns. The USA also remains something of a statistical anomaly:
On the other side of the coin, the right-wing argument boils down roughly to legalised gun ownership being "the only way for ordinary people to protect themselves against gun massacres." One example being that the Appalachian School of Law shooting in 2002 was brought to a premature end by armed civilians. But this would only be a guarantee against such massacres if such armed citizenry was compulsory rather than just a right. After all, surely the US of all places should be able to offer more than one example?
The conservative argument also fails to address the deeper roots of the problem. All it says is that we should all carry guns, leaving the prospect of somebody turning up and shooting holes in everyone as a regrettable fact of life we must prepare against. But is it - or is the way to address massacres such as yesterday's not down to gun control but to social conditions?
We don't yet know enough about the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School to start assessing motives. However, we can look at other shootings to get a snapshot of the kind of people who would commit these kind of crimes.
The most famous such massacre, popularised by the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine, is the Columbine High School massacre. Although there was much nonsense surrounding the shootings - not least the religious right blaming Marilyn Manson - there was also some insight into the social makeup of American high schools and its effects on such events. Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were both thought to have been victims of bullying, whilst a Secret Service analysis the year after of 37 pre-meditated school shootings found that two-thirds of perpetrators were victims of bullying they described "in terms that approached torment." Of course, this doesn't mean that such tragedies can be boiled down to bullying, with suggestions that Harris was a clinical psycophath pointing to far more complex issues at work.
Nonetheless, the role that alienation plays cannot be discounted. Last January, Adam Ford looked at two US shooters who on the surface couldn't be more different - Jared Loughner and Clay Duke. Loughner, who infamously shot US representative Gabrielle Giffords, framed his motives in terms of the reactionary right, whilst Duke, who committed suicide after a hostage situation, spoke of the class divide in America. Yet Ford sees both cases as "social tensions ... erupt[ing] in acts of individual desperation" for the lack of "mass collective expression."
Moore's Columbine film hints at this when it looks at other tragic shooting cases. Most notably, the case of a single mother whose six-year-old son found a gun in his uncle's apartment, took it to school and killed a classmate. The boy had to stay in his uncle's apartment because his mother was facing eviction, even whilst being bussed out of state in the early hours and returning late at night under a welfare-to-work program.
Over here, we might not have seen workfare participants' kids finding guns and killing friends, but we have had the self-immolation of an unemployed worker outside a job centre, just one of many recent welfare suicides. The shooting of Kayla Rolland documented in Bowling for Columbine is an indirect consequence of capitalist social relations, those suicides a direct one, but both are a consequence of those same social relations.
This brings us back to the graph we saw before. The United States stands out as a statistical anomaly - less guns per head than Switzerland but more gun homicides. Why?
In Bowling for Columbine, Moore asks if it's something unique to US culture, and comes back to the culture of fear on the news and in the media. This may be part of it, but in all honesty I doubt that there's an argument for American exceptionalism when it comes to a capitalist media that perpetuates fear and division.
I don't know enough about class politics in the US to offer as thorough an analysis as is needed here. However, I can sketch some thoughts and theories which hopefully American comrades may be able to either expand upon or correct.
Firstly, the popular perception across the pond is that the ruling class has succeeded in atomising American society and isolating individuals to a far greater extent perhaps than anywhere else. (Hence part of the reason why the 2011 Wisconsin protests or the Wal Mart strikes were so important.) In part, that's the mythology the country was built on - rugged individualism and the liberty of those with property - but it's also the result of an official union movement that is thoroughly institutionalised and a "left" tied to a party that doesn't even offer the hollow pretences that the UK Labour Party does.
Secondly, as already discussed above, we know where alienation and desperation lead. Many in the UK have found it hard to come to terms with the class content of last year's riots. It may be harder for Americans to associate mass murder, especially of children, with the effects of class and capitalism. But in the absence of a positive collective response, the eruption of social tensions is pretty much bound to be so uncontrolled and ugly. Throw the right to bear arms, extremely high gun ownership and any other social factors from the dynamics of high school to the rhetoric of the hard right in the mix, and you've got a recipe for far more gun homicides than anywhere else in the world and lots of high profile massacres.
But whilst America has far more instances of this type of crime than anywhere else, it holds no monopoly on them or on other forms of desperate, tragic violence. Atomisation, alienation, poverty and the complete absence of hope are the inevitable results of capitalism. The backlash against that (conscious or subconscious) may be massacres, riots or suicides, but it will be there.
The real debate isn't whether we ban guns or whether we arm everyone to defend against the madmen lurking around every corner. It's how we build a real movement against the present conditions so that people's only option isn't to kill ourselves or each other.