Each mass shooting in the US is a sign of societal sickness, and their increased pace and deadliness shows the disease is becoming more severe. There was another tragic example even as this article was being written: a shooting rampage in Northern California that that took the lives of five apparently random victims.
But just as disturbing is the political reaction in the aftermath of these tragedies.
Republican politicians, beholden to the gun lobby, bend over backwards to deny the obvious fact that the country is awash in guns and gun violence, while the National Rifle Association brags about its ability to stave off even the smallest regulations, like banning the “bump stocks” that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire bullets continuously.
Radicals have a long history of being skeptical about gun control as a solution to violence, both because we oppose most government attempts at prohibition and because we don’t think that a government with a long history of violence against people of color, workers and the left should get more power over society, because it will use it in ways that increase repression and violence, not decrease it.
But it’s also important to understand that the context of gun debates is very different today then it was 50 years ago.
Then, gun control was an overtly reactionary strategy of criminalization pushed by Republicans like Richard Nixon and then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, as they confronted urban riots involving armed Black veterans of the Vietnam War and mass support for the Black Panther Party strategy of armed patrols to monitor and confront police brutality.
In part as a product of the success of that government-led backlash against the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the political provocateurs when it comes to guns today come not from the left but the right. And the vision they promote isn’t collective resistance against oppression, but paranoid individualism, toxic masculinity and racism — all of which happens to fit nicely with the worldview of their reactionary funders like the Koch Brothers.
As one of the most longstanding and influential forces on the hard right, the NRA is a menace that needs to be confronted by the radical left that is starting to grow in this country.
But that doesn’t mean we should embrace the political framework of gun control, which removes questions of oppression, militarism and workplace alienation from discussions of this country’s high rates of violence — in favor of supposedly “practical solutions” (which aren’t in fact solutions) that “we can all agree on” (even though we don’t).
Not all gun control measures are the same. Our opposition to gun laws targeting poor urban neighborhoods is direct and vocal, because these are about giving the forces of the state more power to victimize people of color. Measures to ban bump stocks have a different aim and should be approached as such.
But we still can’t shrink from this truth: Responding to a wave of white male lone gunmen — many of whom commit their crimes in militarized fatigues — with a call for background checks and bump stock bans is exactly the kind of technocratic proposal put forward by a Democratic Party that wants the only alternative to the ever-more reactionary right to come from an apolitical center.
The NRA famously distorts the meaning of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution — “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” — by only talking about the second half.
The NRA’s obsession with this amendment above all others is relatively new. It wasn’t until 2008 that the US Supreme Court — by then packed with conservative judges nominated by NRA-backed Republicans — ruled that the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual’s right to own a gun.
But that doesn’t mean, as liberals sometimes assert, that the intentions of the Founding Fathers had nothing to do with the NRA’s 21st century vigilantism.
In the context of the late 18th century, when the Constitution was being debated, “militias” didn’t just refer to the state military forces that battled the British for independence, but the posses of white men whose duties included slave patrols in the South and stealing land from Indians in the West.
The US has always had more guns and more violence than other countries in the industrialized world, and this “frontier ethos” — as it’s euphemistically referred to — which would later expand in the late 1800s to wars on striking workers — really does go all the way back to the Second Amendment, which didn’t create the violence so much as reflect it.
In other words, the origins of the Second Amendment wasn’t as an individual right to a gun, but as a way for states to enable some of their white citizens to be armed independently of a national army, in defense of the unjust and racist order.
It’s also why Attorney General Jeff Sessions can be wildly popular with the NRA even as he pushes to increase prison terms in a crackdown on guns and gangs in cities like Chicago.
The website of the prominent gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety indicates that it doesn’t have a very different worldview:
Support for the Second Amendment goes hand-in-hand with keeping guns away from criminals and other dangerous people. But it’s simply too easy for the wrong people to get guns, leading to all kinds of violence — from deadly domestic abuse to suicide and school shootings.
Research shows — and cops will tell you — that common-sense public safety laws reduce gun violence and save lives. We can put a stop to the more than 33,000 gun deaths that happen every year. And we can do it in a way that still respects the Second Amendment.
There isn’t really even a debate over the Second Amendment here. The main difference is that gun control groups want the push against the bad guys to come from police, while the NRA promotes the vigilante view that angry white men can’t trust the coddling government and must be prepared to act in their own defense.
In US society today, we’re confronted with two different wildly militaristic and gun-fetishizing cultures — the armed wings of government on the one hand, and the right-wing gun nuts on the other.
The former is far larger and more dangerous — more people are killed by police every year than in mass shootings. But the latter is creepy and potentially terrifying the more it’s drawn into the hardened ideological circles of the growing far right.
For now, it’s safe to say that both promote a toxic blend of white male supremacy and gun empowerment that can have horrible consequences for people struggling with alienation and other issues.
One question for the left is how to confront and counter the poisonous politics of the NRA as part of our larger political battle with the far right.
We can be opposed to many of their gun-related initiatives like open-carry laws, Stand Your Ground and protecting the legal immunity of gun manufacturers and distributors. But we should also understand that the fights over these measures are less important than building a left-wing alternative to the broader right wing the NRA is a part of.
And for the most part, the endless debate over guns sheds more heat than light — and does little more than fuel empty partisanship.
Gun violence is down by almost half since 1993, but most people don’t realize it. Trump and right-wingers talk about Chicago’s murder rate — which has, tragically, defied the national trend very recently — and “Black on Black crime” not because they care about the consequences, but to promote racist fear.
We should make sure that we’re not doing the same with the very different phenomenon of mass shootings — which are likely encouraged by round-the-clock media coverage — to play into partisan anger at Republicans.
Yet these mass shootings are clearly a sign that something is very wrong in US society — and the left ought to have something to say about it.
Let’s start with pointing out the fact that we live in a country that can’t afford jobs programs, mental health care and social services because it spends half its budget on a war machine that it laughably calls the Department of “Defense,” even though no country is at war with us.
Then let’s fight to hold killer cops like Wayne Isaacs, the NYPD officer who killed Delrawn Small in July 2016, accountable for their gun violence. That ought to lose us the support of those police chiefs who speak out for gun control.
Beyond that, though, we have to organize to revive the idea that the world isn’t full of evil people who need to be punished — but needy and hurting people who need to be helped, before they get hurt or before they hurt others.
In that sense, the effort to stop gun violence is directly tied to opposition to the fanatics of the right wing and their organizations like the NRA — by the need for a left-wing alternative to guide the struggle for a different world.