The History and Hypocrisy of Gun Control in the United States
Written by Andy Libson, a teacher active in the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF)
In the middle of January, the San Francisco Labor Council (SFLC) (one of the most progressive labor associations in the country) passed a resolution to “End Gun Violence” that said “we join the demand that the government of the United States legislate that the importation, sale, purchase and possession of guns that are intended as weapons of war, including assault weapons and high capacity ammunition, be made illegal so that those weapons and material can be taken off the street.”
This resolution was initiated by my union, United Educators for San Francisco and as a result of the tragedy at Sandy Hook and other mass killings that have occurred (and continue to occur) in this country. There were parts of the resolution that were worthy of support including opposition to arming teachers in their classroom and a call for more services and support for students with disabilities. Still, I was alone as a delegate to the SFLC to express opposition to this resolution – it not only fails to address the real sources of violence in our society, but distracts our attention from the ways in which the state perpetuates its violence against working people, especially people of color.
Among progressives, there has been virtually unanimous support for legislation like this and many are counting on and urging President Obama and the Democratic Party to do something about ‘gun violence’ by passing some form of gun control legislation. The push from the liberals and the trade unions has been so overwhelming that many people who see themselves as fighting for social justice and a better world feel support for gun control is a ‘no brainer’. This is only confirmed by the fact that the only vocal opposition to gun control comes from the Right. Sensing its isolation, the Left has been largely silent on this issue and reluctant to oppose such resolutions outright.
Yet, the question remains can working people trust the Obama administration to be an ally to ending violence? A government and a Party that only one year ago violently repressed the Occupy encampments all over the nation, repressing the right of free speech and free assembly. A government that pushed a massive surge of soldiers, weapons and war-making in Afghanistan, and continues to keep torture chambers in Guantanamo Bay open. Can we really expect that such a government is interested in doing something about violence?
The fact is that radicals and progressives, and even some Marxists are muting their criticism of the Obama administration as he addresses people’s legitimate concern about violence in society around a narrowly crafted discussion of assault rifles, magazine capacities and “straw purchases” of weapons. Such a discussion can at best be understood as a distraction from really dealing with the violence and alienation that permeates the lives of working people. That’s way uncritically lining up behind gun control advocates as a solution to the kind of violence we saw at Sandy Hook or in Boulder Colorado is a mistake. Doing so obscures who is responsible for the violence in society and what steps are needed to be taken to end it.
Where does violence in society come from?
In order to stop the violence in society, we have to be able to answer the question of where this violence we see comes from. Historically, the Left and progressives have had answers to these questions. The violence we see within the working class has roots directly related to the oppression and exploitation of that class: unemployment, lack of access to education and health care, and poverty. Workers bear all this in the face of the perverse inequality staring us in the face as the banks and the wealthy are enriched by the very same conditions which produce our desperation. Such conditions have always been at the roots of violence in modern society. They are direct result of the state violence needed to maintain these huge inequalities.
Martin Luther King in speaking out both against the Vietnam War as well as the miserable economic inequalities at home which produced such despair and rage called the U.S. state, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. Little has changed in the last 40 years since these words were spoken except that inequality has grown and state repression has increased. The U.S. State, (in fact any state in a class divided society), must always maintain a monopoly on violence and reserve for itself legal rights to exercise that violence usually at the service of maintaining the wealth and continued prosperity of a few.
This is why those who pose gun control as an answer are not only misidentifying the problem, they are actually strengthening the hand of the single “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.
Can the U.S. government, which is currently overseeing several occupations of other countries and has its military poised to act in over a hundred countries worldwide, be trusted to stop violence at home? This is the same government which sold drugs to its own citizens to pay for weapons to be sold to the Contras in Nicaragua and despots in El Salvador. These people? The same government, the same political party which bailed out the banks for trillions of dollars while watching as millions lose their life-savings in home foreclosures and is now justifying even greater cuts on workers through bogus claims of reaching a fiscal cliff. Can we trust them to deal with tragedies like Sandy Hook and look to get to the root of where tragedies like this emerge?
No. In fact, the policies pursued by the Democratic Party and the State it now runs is only going to insure deeper alienation and economic and social dislocation of workers and will produce more violence within our class. The ruling class knows this and are wiping their hands clean of their own collective guilt by making this a debate about ‘gun control’ and not a debate on the criminality of the U.S. state, which justifies these inequalities, or a discussion on the illegitimacy of a system which pushes workers to the brink while using them up in the endless pursuit of profits. Pushing forward on gun control will place more power in the hands of the police to arrest people of color or deport immigrants and will have absolutely no impact on stopping tragic events like Sandy Hook or the Colorado movie theater shootings. These are the kinds of outcomes progressives should be opposing not supporting.
Racism and Gun Control in the United States
But the violent nature of the US state is not something recent development of a modern imperial age, it has been an inherent characteristic of the US state. This violence has historically targeted one sector of the working class: black people. And further more, we can see that through much of its history, gun control legislation in the United States has aimed since its origins at banning happy wheels demo the right of self defense of the black population from state violence and has therefore a deep and direct connection to racism. Prior to the Civil War, despite or because of the Second Amendment rights, numerous states passed openly racist legislation that specifically restricted the right of free Blacks to own a weapon, such as this North Carolina Statute in 1840:
That if any free negro, mulatto, or free person of color, shall wear or carry about his or her person, or keep in his or her house, any shot gun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger or bowie-knife, unless he or she shall have obtained a license therefor from the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions of his or her county, within one year preceding the wearing, keeping or carrying therefor, he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and may be indicted therefor.
The shameful Dred Scott Decision handed down in 1857 was also motivated by a need to not allow Blacks (free or not) their constitutional right to own a weapon. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion insisted that Blacks could not be citizens because, if they were, they’d have all the protections of the Bill of Rights, including the right to “full liberty of speech… to hold public meetings on political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
The end of slavery after the civil war did not end the racist implementation of gun control laws. Southern leaders passed various Black Codes requiring Blacks alone to obtain a license to possess a firearm or Bowie knife. Recently, much has been made of the 13th Amendment that officially banned slavery throughout the United States and its territories. However, much less is known about how radical Reconstructionists pushed for the passing of the 14th amendment in order to assure that ALL the rights of the Constitution afforded whites also were extended to Blacks including the “right to bear arms”.
In response to the 14th amendment, racist posses of whites like the “Knights of White Camelia”, the “Knights of the Rising Sun” and most famously, the “Ku Klux Klan” formed in part to terrorize Blacks and take away their newly obtained firearms. Blacks who refused to do so were often beaten or lynched.
The links of racism to gun control are not just a feature of our distant past. As recently as the 1960’s, state after state passed sweeping gun control legislation to control an increasingly restive Black population. The most famous example are laws passed by Ronald Reagan in California in response to the rise of the Black Panther Party and their armed monitoring of the police in Oakland and other cities.
In 1967, after several cities erupted in rebellion in response to institutional racism, economic injustice and police abuse, the federal government issued a report which put part of the blame for the violence on the availability of guns in urban neighborhoods and passed the Gun Control Act. In fact, the National Rifle Association (for all its talk of standing up for the rights of ordinary citizens) supported these laws. One critic of the Gun Control Act said it was “passed not to control guns but to control Blacks.”
While racism (or social control) is not the immediate justification for the current round of gun control legislation, it is undeniable that people of color will find themselves to be the ultimate targets and victims of any gun control laws that are passed. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in 2011, of all those sentenced to federal incarceration for firearms violations 49.6% were Black, 20.6% were Hispanic, and only 27.5% were white. Additionally, “stop and frisk” laws currently enforced in New York to ostensibly “take guns off the streets” have in fact led to a wave of racist harassment of Black youth by police. ACLU documented 168,126 stop-and-frisks of Black males aged 14 to 24 in 2011. Incredibly, there are only 158,406 Black males of that age in New York. That means on average, every young Black male in New York was “stopped-and-frisked” more than once per year.
The racist roots and implementation of gun control laws are undeniable and for that reason alone people should oppose them. But there is a deeper reason that people should pause before they jump on the ‘gun control’ bandwagon that has everything to do with reasons that are ostensibly given for supporting gun control: stopping violence.
Pitting Worker vs. Worker
The fact is people who accept gun-control as an answer (even a partial answer) to the violence are also falling prey to the notion that we should fear each other more than the people who rule over us. So, while racism may not be the direct motivation behind the U.S. state considering gun control as a response to Sandy Hook, sowing divisions within our class certainly is. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are using the gun control debate to push workers more solidly into their camp at the very same time they are pushing an austerity agenda on them. It is not each other that we must fear, but the Democratic Party. It is a sign of the political weakness of the Left that these arguments are making such easy in-roads.
Our job, as always, is to point out the hypocrisy of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the ruling class as they lecture us on violence and talk in somber tones of the need to do something to stop the violence while launching thousands of drones on the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our job is to point to a solution that is about jobs, education, access and social justice; not to strengthen the hand of the police and its grip around the throat of people of color and the urban working class.
Finally, as socialists, our job is to point out that their system is literally built on the violence of exploitation. The only force capable of making the kind of change that can end systemic violence, the working class, is the one that has been bearing it, not the one inflicting it! The hope for peace lies in us, in the self democratic organization of working people and oppressed populations and our struggle to dismantle a system that is designed to oppress, exploit, enfeeble and if it must, even kill us . It is that violence that undergirds all the violence we see around us. Day by day, hour by hour, even second by second, workers are being robbed of the wealth of their own labor so it can be piled into the obscene profits of corporations and mountain of wealth held by a few. Until that system is ended once and for all, we will not see an end to the violence that plagues our society. If we are to make progress towards constructing a different world, we will need to shine a light on the true sources of society’s violence while posing solutions that address the real needs of workers in the U.S. and throughout the world.