Gordon Barnes and Robert Hadley
In the wake of the most recent mass shootings in California and Colorado, once again there is a reflexive push for national gun control legislation. Unlike the now quite common school shootings, these most recent acts were directly political – an attack on an abortion clinic and a coordinated attack on random civilians at a disability center, purportedly inspired by the Islamic State. Because these recent attacks have significant political ramifications, gun control advocates appear to sense that by connecting their advocacy to other discourses – the desire to defeat “terrorism” and to protect women’s reproductive rights – they can expand the popular base for gun control, and overwhelm the right-wing argument for gun ownership as the right of a “free” people. Only a few days after the San Bernardino shooting, the New York Times printed its first front-page editorial in ninety years, advocating gun control as a way to check “spree killings,” which “are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.” This new discourse for gun control – preventing forms of political violence that both the Left and the Right abhor – indirectly reveals the strongest argument against gun control: an armed population serves as the only political check against the greatest purveyor of violence and terrorism of all, the bourgeois state itself. Leftists, who claim to be distrustful of the present state which is constantly engaged in class warfare, must not be carried away by this line of argument. Rather, they should embrace widespread gun ownership, especially by proletarians and sectors of the working poor, as a necessary condition for social revolution.
The current debate around gun control in the United States has been framed in terms of juxtaposing the desire to mitigate wanton acts of gun violence with the democratic rights won during the American Revolutionary War. On the one hand, the center-left, represented politically by the Democratic Party, have frequently called for stricter gun control measures. After the recent mass killings in Colorado and California, they quickly renewed past proposals to ban automatic weapons and to install tighter regulations on ammunition sales. At the same time, the right-wing in this country, typified by the Republican Party and buttressed by even more unsavory political actors, have consistently upheld the apparent rights granted to US citizenry in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. However, the ratified version of the amendment, “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,” is arguably devoid of any notion of individual rights to bear arms.
Although an honest review of American history shows that this provision was intended to support a collective militia under the guidance of elite political power, the US Supreme Court has ruled that this right does in fact extend to individuals. When the amendment was adopted on 15 December 1791, the logic of the measure was not, as conservative positions often espouse, to check against the power of a potentially tyrannical state. Rather, the amendment was put in place to bolster the state’s propensity for proactive violence. Indeed, the “militia” was theorized as a tool to help supplement the military regulars in times of war and social strife. This is most effectively evidenced when one considers the brutal and genocidal westward expansion of the fledgling US state in the aftermath of independence.
Yet, with the Supreme Court ruling that the right to bear arms extends beyond the formation of militias to individuals, the original purpose of the Second Amendment has become irrelevant. The individual right to arms is an enfranchisement that opens up a reinterpretation of the Second Amendment, grounded in a logic that stresses gun ownership as a means to check the potential tyranny of the state. This formulation is ubiquitous in Republican and right-wing political discourse. Most rightists either support the status quo in the United States or have a reactionary ideal that they wish would come to fruition, and they consciously support the individual right to bear arms as a political means to establish their coercive power as a group. The Left, particularly the radical and revolutionary Left, must eschew any liberal notion that the right to bear arms is anathema. On the contrary, the right-wing embrace of individual rights to armaments should likewise be championed by the Left, albeit for dissimilar reasons and for a distinctly different end.
Historically, the right-wing argument for popular gun ownership has been almost entirely reactionary and racist, for example, enabling genocide against Indians or White supremacy under Reconstruction. In spite of this history, there is a potential for the radical Left to win over portions of pro-gun right-wingers. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and bank bailouts, many, mostly White, working-class and lumpenized right-wingers organized Tea Party gatherings in protest that blended outrage at Wall Street with strong defenses of gun ownership. Frequently, they showed up to rallies with loaded guns in hand, and they were ridiculed by liberals as a dangerous reactionary force. But where was the left-wing reaction to the abuses of Wall Street? Why didn’t the Left see this defense of violence, exemplified through the American mythology of the “Tea Party,” as a viable option or as a route to challenging the power of the superordinate elite? Certain layers from the Right, typified by the archetypal “redneck,” can and must be won over to the Left if viable social transformation is to be achieved. What we are talking about here is organization along class lines, permitted that White rightists are not involved in organized racism (such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Brotherhood, or any of the myriad White-pride and racialist political groups in the United States).
Certainly, the discursive threads around the Second Amendment at present do have a racist core, and it would be naive to think that these widespread White gun owners are a revolutionary vanguard in waiting. But how would new gun control legislation restrict gun ownership by these feared sections of the populace? In practice, any new legislation is likely to grandfather the present-day distribution of gun ownership. Rural and suburban populations will have a vast arsenal for the foreseeable future, and the urban poor would be locked out forever. Thus, the Black proletariat, inevitably an integral part to any revolutionary struggle in this country, will be put at a severe tactical disadvantage. The only logical strategy for the Left then is to politicize White working-class gun owners, whilst simultaneously encouraging the urban poor to be armed in conjunction.
The Left, typified by centrist liberals, but also by purportedly radical elements, engages in racism when it implies that gun ownership in urban areas would only embolden gangs. In reality, gangs are essentially commercial enterprises that enable the poor to survive by exploiting unfulfilled markets. The illicit drug trade is the most commonplace example. The popular television show The Wire humanized gang members by showing how, in the end, they are not that different from other organized institutions like the police, corporations, and the mafia. Gang members are well aware that they are only at the bottom of the extant economic system, fighting for the scraps, and we cannot assume that their armed power will always remain politically irrelevant and counter-productive. On the contrary, looking at the historical formations of Black and Latino gangs in urban quarters in the mid-twentieth century reveals quasi-Leftist associations for self-defense against racists and the police.
The right-wing itself is increasingly attempting to align itself with non-gang-affiliated racial minorities in the urban poor by suggesting that they too have the right to gun ownership in order to protect themselves against gang and inner-city violence. This argument is especially pronounced in cities like Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C., where gun control laws are particularly draconian. While liberals remain largely patronizing and obtuse on this question, the radical and revolutionary Left must recognize this popular desire for gun ownership and struggle to expand access to weapons. They should not abuse the rightist logic of self-defense from some nebulous, racialized boogeyman, but should advance gun ownership as a form of self-defense against the capitalist state and its arbiters of power, categorized most concretely in the form of the police.
Therefore, the Right would be wise to be more careful in its push to expand gun ownership in urban areas. Given the recent prominent cases of police killings of young Black men, Black activists are increasingly stressing how many Blacks feel as though they must be armed to deter an openly racist police force that minimizes their lives and has no compunction about killing them. The leadership of the largely liberal Black Lives Matter movement, of course, is attempting to co-opt these voices back into the traditional Democratic Party platform, but it may be too late. Black gun ownership is becoming politicized again, and this is an important development in American politics. Politicized Black gun ownership is by no means new. Liberals have essentially attempted to curtail any justification for gun ownership in Black communities in order to prop up and bolster the gun control agenda.
To be clear, gun culture in the United States lends itself to extreme paranoia and is often inflected with overt racism. The National Rifle Association’s political line is a prime example of this. For the NRA, gun ownership should be provided for the White working- and middle-classes, and their rhetoric is suffused with a division of “good” and “evil,” constructing fears of brutish non-White criminals who would invade the homes of White families and kill them. This is, of course, nonsense and an implicitly racist formulation, and it is understandable why such politics would be rejected and mocked. Therefore, the Left, and especially liberals, are seemingly content with the established dichotomy of gun ownership as backwards and reactionary, and they support gun control measures as some sort of “progressive” position. Yet, if we consider the history of politicized gun ownership from a left-wing vantage point, it is abundantly clear that access to arms is integral to rapid social transformation, particularly in regard to Black political mobilization.
Although it did not begin with the conflagration over slavery in the United States, Afro-American adoption of arms as a form of politics reached its apogee in the years just prior to the outbreak of war, and during the Civil War itself. Free Afro-Americans as well as slaves swelled the Union ranks (either as a direct force within the Northern army, or as a supplementary/non-aligned force independent of it) and engaged in the military struggles that brought about a crushing end to chattel slavery and the social power of Southern slavocracy. After the conclusion of this Second American Revolution, Black men attained suffrage via the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. During this period of contention and at the apex of Radical Reconstruction in the US South, newly enfranchised ex-slaves armed themselves as they travelled to polling stations to protect their newly-won citizenship. Within a decade or so of the defeat of Radical Reconstruction in 1877, the question of Black gun ownership was answered with Jim Crow legislation. Blacks consistently lost their right to bear arms, and this process coincided with the meteoric rise of organized racism with the second wave of Ku Klux Klan organization in the early 1900s. Without access to guns, Southern Blacks were terrorized, lynched, and murdered in record numbers.
Access to arms was one of the main ways in which Afro-Americans in the U.S. South were able to defend themselves against the pervasive lynch-mob terror of the early and mid-twentieth century. It is pure liberal fiction that it was simply peaceful civil disobedience that was able to advance the civil rights struggle. Rather, it was the militant action of various groupings of Afro-Americans alongside mass mobilization and, at times, violent self-defense. The most concrete example of this was the formation of the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1964. The Deacons for Defense were an armed group of Blacks, organized out of the church, that had the direct aim of counteracting the state-sanctioned terror of the Klan as well as elements of the police (often involved with the KKK when not on the clock). Made up of various individuals from the surrounding area, many of whom had served in the Korean War, one of the first tasks of the Deacons was to disrupt the practice of “nigger knocking,” a fairly innocuous form of racial intimidation practiced by the Klan. But of course, as one would expect, the Klan, the police, and other racists deployed many other violent methods in order to intimidate Southern Blacks as well as those allied with the wider civil rights struggle. Another of the originating tasks of the Deacons was to defend the Freedom House run by the Congress On Racial Equality. CORE, like many liberal civil rights organizations, was devoted to the precepts of peaceful protest and civil disobedience. After a multitude of attacks on their offices, however, CORE acquiesced to the Deacons’ insistence that they provide armed protection from the incessant racist assaults. The Deacons would eventually drive out the Klan and help bring about equal hiring practices at the paper mill in Bogalusa (where many of their original members worked). This was successful only because the Deacons had access to arms. Without such access, the quick and decisive defeat of the Klan and the state apparatus that supported them would not have been achievable.
Examples of Afro-American gun ownership as a means of self-defense against organized racism as well as the state are abound. Robert F. Williams’ NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, organized a gun club in order to train members in armed self-defense in the face of increasingly violent attacks waged by the forces of reaction, specifically KKK nightriders. Going against the NAACP national leadership, Williams advocated armed self-defense in the face of violence as a logical solution to the problem of organized racism in the U.S. South. Other civil rights leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X also advocated armed self-defense and Black gun ownership as a way for those engaged in transformative social activism to protect themselves from individuals and groups from reactionary social stratas. Without guns, the victories of these stalwarts of the civil rights movement would likely have been truncated, if in fact they were to have any success at all. Furthermore, the possession of arms to defend and expand basic democratic rights has been deployed by other oppressed groups. The American Indian Movement is another prime example, as is the Lumbee Tribe in 1958. At the Battle of Hayes Pond, in North Carolina, some 500 members of the Lumbees defeated a contingent of Klansmen who had begun meetings in the Maxton area. Again, if guns were unavailable to these people, the Klan would likely not have ceased activity in the area.
The left-wing political defense of gun ownership has historically not only been grounded in race. There is also an authentic class-based defense of gun ownership that liberals ignore. The White working class has also deployed firearms in socially progressive ways in the past. And while the current stereotype of the politically backwards “redneck” persists in liberal and broader Leftist discourses, this is an important history to remember. In the great labor struggles in the North and Midwest between the 1880s and the start of the Second World War, various union struggles implemented something akin to workers’ defense guards. These armed guards would prevent scab labor from undermining union struggles, and more importantly, would physically protect union members and cadres from the attacks of the police, company thugs, and the various security firms (most notably the Pinkertons). This pseudo-revolutionary usage of arms for progressive social gains and in labor struggles was a common tactic. Some of the highlights include the Haymarket Affair, the 1892 Homestead strike, and the 1934 Minneapolis general strike. It is essential that the working class, specifically the doubly oppressed Afro-American section of this class, have access to arms. Revolutionary minded folks must be able to adequately defend their gains and themselves against racist thuggery, conservative/reactionary political movements, and anti-labor tactics. In addition, the marriage of the capitalist state with many of these unsavory forces further underscores the necessity that the working class and revolutionary-minded allies be armed and prepared to defend themselves from the aggressive actions of state actors and reactionary forces alike.
Curtailment of gun ownership is a fetter to radical self-defense, and this seems completely lost on large swaths of the Left in this country. In fact, the origins of contemporary gun control legislation came from a “bipartisan” effort to disenfranchise Afro-American gun owners in California. When Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, in 1966, they recognized that an armed membership was central to their organizational operation. The Panthers adopted a political position, similarly to some of their ideological predecessors, wherein access to arms was central to the struggle for progressive social gains, both in achieving them and in defending those that were already won. The fear of armed Black men and women in government buildings, in public spaces, and at political events across California led the then Republican Governor Ronald Reagan to endorse stricter gun control laws. In an early attempt to eviscerate the Panthers’ access to guns, the California State Legislature began to enact stricter gun control laws, prohibiting them from being brought into public buildings and challenging existing statutes that allowed for open-carry. This last point is particularly salient as the Panthers utilized guns in their self-defense patrols, wherein they monitored police actions against the oppressed sectors of the Black community in Oakland. The federal government went so far as to implement the notorious COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) as a means to disrupt and negate the influence of the Panthers once they had expanded nationwide. Granted, the COINTELPRO program of spying, misinformation, and using agent-provocateurs did not singularly target the Panthers, but its existence and implementation was the direct result of the organization’s growing socio-political influence, particularly amongst lumpenized and working-class Blacks in urban centers. The centrality of armed self-defense for the Panthers’ political program was a direct threat to the status quo in this country. The combined liberal-conservative fears of a Black organization, formed mostly from the working poor and lumpenized and utilizing arms to achieve their political ends, have morphed into a wholesale attempt to enact draconian gun control legislation. Gun ownership for the Panthers was at times fetishized to the point that it became the organizing principle of politics for some of the cadre. Despite this issue, and other internal problems within the organization, namely the rampant sexism, the Fanonian and quasi-Maoist political programmes, and the Newton-Cleaver split, the Panthers’ use of guns as a tool to confront the egregious actions of the state is something that was integral to challenging elite politics and ideology in this country, even if incipiently. Unfortunately, large portions of the Left, particularly liberals, fail to see this history as part of the socially “progressive” aspect of struggles for and by oppressed peoples.
In response to these well-founded justifications for gun ownership by minorities and the working poor, liberal defenders of gun control will often argue that the times have changed. They affirm the bourgeoisie state’s propaganda that “resistance is futile.” They see how even their rather timid, non-violent protests like Occupy Wall Street or at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City were infiltrated by undercovers and were met by massive militarized shows of force, and they cannot possibly comprehend how some assorted collection of small arms could have any relevance against such state power. Looking at the weaponry possessed by the modern state – extensive electronic surveillance, sophisticated “non-lethal” weapons of area control, precision-guided weapons, unmanned aerial drones, and weaponized robots – they assume that any violent resistance to the state would be easily crushed. As a result, even if they concede that violent protest was necessary in the past, nonviolent mass movement appears as the only possibility now. Such an outlook, however, does not understand the dynamics of political uprisings. In situations of chaos, the state cannot necessarily rely on the loyalty of its own forces, and controlling large urban centers becomes a challenge even for elite units.
At the beginning of the current revolution in Syria, for example, the state was unable to control many of its cities, despite possessing a modern military and sophisticated intelligence apparatus. Once there were defections from the military and theft of weapons from government armories, revolutionaries were able to seize large swathes of the country with small arms alone. Even the US military, with all of its technological superiority, had difficulty in urban combat and insurgency fighting in Iraq. In urban combat, for example, a single sniper can lock down and protect large areas. We cannot know exactly how resistance to the overwhelming inequality and political oppression in the United States will emerge, and there are a number of scenarios where all of the weaponry advantages of the state will be muted.
An armed populace also creates conditions that can protect social movements and radical political organizing outside of full revolution. The American state is now accustomed to using overwhelming force to break up protests against banks and against other corporate entities. While the Occupy gathering were disbanded by force, many people remarked at how the Tea Party rallies, despite the open carrying of weapons, were much more respected. If police had to fear that their violence against Occupy would have risked a shooting, they might be a bit more cautious in beating and arresting protesters en masse.
Liberals and even some radicals would articulate that social change should and can be accomplished via peaceful change. They invoke the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But they often elide the legacies of Bhagat Singh and Malcolm X, both of whom respectively led contemporary movements at the times of Gandhi and King, but who recognized and advanced the case for armed self-defense. It is increasingly typical of gun control advocates to simply assume that agitating for laxer gun laws is the sole position of the right-wing. This is patently false as there is a rich history, both “at home” and internationally, of the Left using arms to defend its socio-political gains. It must be recognized that all drastic social changes are accompanied by violent episodes, even most dramatically by war, as for instance in the case of the end to chattel slavery in this country. The argument we are making here is not for a culture of revolutionary violence or for an aggressive politics of violence or assassination that utilizes guns to achieve its aims. Rather, we must recognize that in response to mass mobilizations that press against the status quo or entrenched political norms, the state will crack down. This was highly evident during the struggles in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the many protests against recent police killings in cities across the country. The Left should shed any notion that guns are an inherently reactionary tool. Social change accompanies violence in most cases, and the Left must be prepared to defend social gains. The attendant ethical concerns around gun usage and ownership, exaggerating the chances of being the victims of mass shootings, for example, are those of the elite (specifically liberal elites) forced upon the lower echelons of society. So, we must ask ourselves, can significant social change occur in our lifetime without violence, and is it ethical to consider armed self-defense when engaging in such a process?
When something progressive is achieved without violence, then the forces that the movement(s) were struggling against will remain in position to continually attack the social gains, without any fears of personal injury. For example, the Women’s Suffrage movement (which linked to broader struggles in feminism, that is to have equality between men and women) was victorious, but women, particularly non-White women, still represent a subordinate position in society. They can vote all they like, as can men, but it makes no substantial social difference. Abortion rights for women are under constant attack and have been since the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade (which was only piecemeal in nature since it did not protect women from state encroachment on their bodies after the third trimester). The near constant attack on a woman’s right to choose what she can do with her body persists precisely because the forces that oppose women’s rights are not intimidated, and were not destroyed. The (mounting) restrictions across various states are evidence of this, from minors having to get consent, fetal “person-hood” laws, mandatory waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, bans on late-term abortions. The list goes on and on. Gay rights and gay marriage are still not universal, nor will they be anytime soon with such piecemeal reformism. Where there is success, there will be pushback and defeat, again and again, unless the powers prohibiting such advances are destroyed. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Black folks have been categorically better off after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The lynch mob now just wears blue, beige, or green instead of white. The success (if we can even call it that) of Lyndon Johnson signing the act came out of militant and violent struggle (of course, in addition, there was non-violent civil disobedience, but make no mistake, violence was a part of the movement and formed its threatening power). The exaggerated vision of a nonviolent Civil Rights movement is deployed by White liberals (and conservatives too) to elide the militant and violent struggles that were integral to the project of Black, Chicano, and women’s liberation.
Universalizing ethical standards about violence lacks coherence and is devoid of any relation to temporal or spatial realities. There is a domineering logic that is forced upon people and endorsed by many to be sure, which posits that right or wrong is based upon the ruling elite’s preferences and that individuals as well as groups that go against the dominant logic should be castigated. It is no accident that the current gun control push is being bankrolled by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has set up “Moms Demand Action,” “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” and “Every Town for Gun Safety,” as astroturf social organizations. Money and power are trying to shape the terms of the gun control debate. And yes, drastic social transformation will be categorized as “wrong” and “violent” if it involves guns, but this is due to the prevailing logic established by the powerful. Simply put, the point of social change, particularly revolutionary change, is to strip the prevailing ideologies around how social relations, politics, and economics should be manifest and replace them with something new, something better, something that is more equitable and demonstrates parity for all. So yes, social change (particularly radical metamorphosis) is always “wrong,” and particularly so when the use of guns is involved, but it is only always “wrong” for a specific group, namely those individuals and groups that maintain power. Until we can collectively create a society that is truly egalitarian, progressive social change will always be “wrong.”
Gun culture in the United States is, of course, disgusting and largely reactionary in nature. Not many on the Left, even those who endorse gun rights, would argue against this. However, the problem that is becoming increasingly commonplace – the phenomenon of mass shootings – is not a product of access to arms, but a result of the conjuncture between a flawed understanding of how guns should be used socially (individual and familial defense, rather than radical, class-based self-defense) and a broader cultural degradation that includes social isolation and a flailing mental health apparatus. These issues should rightly be addressed by the Left, but in such a way that it does not treat the right to guns as something antiquated. One need look only at Switzerland, France, Norway, Sweden or Canada as examples of countries with widespread gun ownership that do not suffer from daily mass shootings. The issue is not the gun, but the culture. And culture, at least the dominant culture, will not change except through the transformation of material realities. So the choice remains to restrict access to arms in order to treat a symptom of a sick culture or to employ a different, more radical and egalitarian rhetoric in order to secure gun rights for the oppressed in their struggles against the daily aggression of the capitalist state. The latter is what the Left needs to do. And even if guns prove to be only an infinitesimal advantage in the struggle to transform society (this, of course, is highly unlikely), they will be necessary in defending any gains the broad swath of “progressive” political actions may conquer, particularly as US society and politics becomes increasingly polarized.
So what is at stake with this renewed push for gun control? Quite a bit actually. Honestly, one of the few socially progressive measures to come out of the first bourgeois revolution in this country was the Second Amendment to the Constitution and its now legal extension from militia to individual. We, on the Left, must use this circumstance as a strategic advantage in our struggles to transform society. This is not to say that rightist arguments are “correct” in their support and agitation for expanded access to guns. Indeed, as mentioned earlier in this article, they often advance racist and contrived views about selective “liberties” and about the protection of the (White) family from racialized social menaces. But, the basic tenets of rightist discourse around gun control are something that the Left should consider, albeit in a different fashion, for a vastly divergent set of end goals. The liberal position, which upholds guns and gun ownership as something inherently reactionary and politically backwards, implicitly assumes that the general populace should and can trust the state to be beneficent and just. If the post-9/11 security and militarized order is anything to go by, it would be laughable to assume that the US is such a trustworthy state. And, to be clear, it never was. Past social activists and revolutionaries have recognized the need to promote gun ownership; we should as well. In the final analysis, the Right is indeed right, but for the wrong reasons.