A class struggle perspective on the gun control debate

A class struggle perspective on the gun control debate

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.

Posted By

Dec 15 2012 17:18


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Dec 17 2012 10:34

I don't know how well thought out or accurate this is, but it seems like white murderers are often portreyed as 'psychopaths', as an anomaly. Whereas when it's Asian or black murderers there's usually some underlying message that Asian and black cultures are causes in themselves of why people are murderers - ie "honour killings", suicide bombs, infantacide because of a belief in witches and voodoo or whatever, "gang violence" etc. It's portreyed as a normal part of Asian and black culture - those murderers aren't one off psychos, that's just an inevitable part of their culture.

Plus, you're very unlikely to ever be affected by a one off psycho, whereas entire cultures are presented as breeding grounds for heartless criminals on the street.

Bah! This is badly written, just speakin' my brains.

Dec 17 2012 11:32

Re the idea of alienation, saw this article (translated from Der Spiegel) which to me pretty neatly depicts the process of alienation in the case of one particular US drone operator:

The Woes of An American Drone Operator

Obviously not from a class perspective. Can't say for sure that the psyches of drone operators and those of gun killers are necessarily the same, but there is definitely something there.

R. Spourgitis
Dec 18 2012 05:24

Having time to read the above posts more carefully, I have to say that I don't think a lot of people posting on here quite appreciate how deeply seated gun culture is in the US. That's not a value judgement in being a good or bad thing, it simply is what it is. To an extent, no amount of legislation is really going to substantially change that.

By one estimate in 2009 there are 310 MILLION firearms in the US. Easily, several (tens of?) million of these would qualify in some form of "assault weapon" category, which reviving some kind of ban on these is heralded as the most far-reaching and profound form of gun control. And indeed, we're seeing some clamor for that over here now. In reality, this only effects actual cost and new production or importation of certain rifles on the market, existing ones wouldn't vanish, and the actual numbers of gun-related deaths and crime committed with "military-style" rifles are quite statistically minute. In '94, when Clinton instituted this ban, it had to grandfather in the more than one million at the time, that or institute some kind of gun round-up or making people guilty of felony charges overnight -- not one aspect of which would be thinkable then, probably even less now. If you top off this with the recent trend for legislation, including supreme court decisions, state and federal level initiatives, the last several years has actually seen a steady decline in restrictions of gun ownership and the ability to carry them concealed in public, even. I think what's probably more realistic is that there may be a few more state and local restrictions, possibly a stronger criminal background check to purchase.

But say you implemented any of these types of things, chances are people like the CT, Portland shooters last week, the white supremacist Page in Milwaukee earlier this year, or the CO movie theater shootings would have had the same access. Two of them did not themselves own the guns they used. 3 of 4 had no criminal background, and this is only a small sample of this years' mass murderers. It's worth mentioning that Columbine happened right in the middle of the assault weapon ban period.

In my earlier post I included two links to the history of gun control and gun rights in the US, and how they are so intertwined with racial oppression and intra-class division, they are both solid class struggle pieces on this issue that I would recommend reading for those interested in the subject. If we're keeping in mind who guns are used against, we should also keep in mind who gun control laws are used against: http://libcom.org/library/racist-roots-gun-control-clayton-e-cramer and http://libcom.org/history/gun-rights-are-civil-rights

Any kind of sweeping ban like has been cited in UK, Australia, etc. is just simply unimaginable here. In fact, we'd probably see a frightening explosion in the patriot/soveriegnist/klan/neo-nazi formations as a result, which have already been burgeoning in recent years.

And so that gets into one more thing I want to mention, which is that I don't think posters from elsewhere quite realize (or fellow US posters aren't paying attention to) how we have a far right so armed to the teeth it truly is startling. There's a lot to this history and it's a big and complex subject in its own right, e.g. targeting of leftists, state's complicity with this, the question of self defense, but this gets a bit off-topic. I do think this element of a nasty, well-armed far right is overlooked by the US left.

For some recent bourgeois press reading on the issue:

Joseph Kay
Dec 18 2012 17:54
Joseph Kay wrote:
Why it it always dudes? (is it always dudes?) In the reflexive rush to talk about gun control, nobody talks about the relationship between masculinity and violence

Fwiw, this is apparently an advert for the weapon used in the shootings:

Chilli Sauce
Dec 18 2012 21:18


Dec 19 2012 14:39

Indeed, that's one of the most horrible ads Ive ever seen.

Dec 28 2012 19:32

Gun culture is certainly a huge part of this debacle. I found the most insightful analysis of Bowling for Columbine to be the relationship between the towns economy, which was mostly dependent on a Lockheed Martin weapons factory, and the acceptance of guns (and thus violence) of the residents. The issue of personal gun ownership is almost trivial compared to global militarization. Until the US, UK, China, Russia and every other county with a huge military gives up their spyplanes, cctvs, tanks, aircraft carriers, nuclear missiles, fast food and other violence machines, people are going to continue going apeshit.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 31 2012 17:20

That's a good point.

In university I remember seeing a long-term historical sociological study some years ago that determined the number one correlation for violence in a given society is whether that country was at war. Considering America has basically been at constanst war for the last century....

Sep 6 2016 08:55

Very helpful.