Arms and the man
The question of gun control is not as straightforward as it may appear, writes Mike Macnair
Another month, another shooting massacre at a US school. The latest - on February 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida - has displayed a few unusual features in its political impact.
On the one hand, in place of the usual presidential hand-wringing, Donald Trump has pushed hard for the National Rifle Association’s line that the solution is for more teachers to be armed with handguns and trained to “take down” shooters. This line has encountered a certain embarrassment when it turned out that the school had, in fact, an armed deputy stationed on the door - who, for whatever reason, did not go inside to attempt to “take down” the gunman. Trump responds that he would have attempted to do so even unarmed (a fantasy which might be popular with his more extreme opponents, since it might well have added Trump to the casualty list). In fact, the deputy’s pistol might not have been sufficient to defeat a shooter armed with an assault rifle, but nobody seems to be proposing that teachers should wear body armour and carry assault rifles ...
On the other hand, gun control advocates have been cheered by several firms limiting their associations with the NRA in response to the shooting1 - if, as usual, they are probably overstating the significance. There has been a spike in opinion poll support for ‘gun control measures’ since the shooting; but disaggregation of attitudes to particular measures makes matters appear less clear (and similar spikes have happened after previous school shootings, but later ebbed away).2 Every time there is a mass shooting - especially a school mass shooting - the story comes up that this is the product of widespread gun ownership and availability in the US, and that the solution is better control.
The Washington Post and other sites dramatise the issue with a table showing ‘world leagues’ of gun ownership and gun-related homicides.3 The result is not quite as comforting for gun-control advocates as might be imagined: the US has exceptionally high gun ownership, but it is only “the highest per capita rate of firearm-related murders of all developed countries” - a slippery expression, which excludes, for example, South Africa or Mexico (both of which have much higher gun homicide rates than the US). On the other side, among countries with high gun ownership, Switzerland, Finland, Serbia and Cyprus have substantially lower gun homicide rates than the USA.
Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that if the US had UK-style, very tight gun licensing laws the rate of gun homicides would fall from the US’s 3.2 per 100,000, to around the 0.07 per 100,000 in England and Wales.4 In practice, however, to actually implement such a policy would involve fighting a civil war, firstly in order to overthrow the commitment to the right to keep and bear arms in the second amendment to the US constitution, which provides that “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”; and secondly to extract from their owners the millions of guns which are already in private hands. It would thus involve at least a temporary very large spike in gun homicides ...
The consequence is that the mantra according to which gun control is the necessary solution inevitably turns into handwringing by senior public officials and media figures, ending with nothing of substance done.
There is, on the other hand, a certain amount of literature which starts from a different place: that shooting incidents may be driven by dynamics which do not rely simply on the availability of guns. The 2004 book by Katherine Newman and others - Rampage: the social roots of school shootings - points out that such events usually take place in rural or suburban schools; the shooters have usually had lack of success in obtaining social integration; and have displayed increasingly threatening behaviour in the run-up to the attack. Similar conclusions are reached in the 2013 Rural School and Community Trust pamphlet, Violence in US K-12 schools, 1974-2013. The pattern which appears to be involved is one of extreme forms of kick-back against a history of bullying in the dominant high-school culture - a bullying culture which is more powerful and exclusive in small-town and suburban schools than in urban ones.
From these studies, their authors are able to make concrete recommendations to mitigate the risks of school shootings, while the gun control advocates are unable to propose anything really concrete - the NRA and its supporters are in reality advocating more school shoot-outs through the arming of teachers.
More generally, US culture tends to favour higher homicide rates. It is culturally recognised that all branches of the government, central as well as local, are corrupt - and has been so recognised since the late 19th century. This cultural recognition is reflected in the celebration of ‘lone avenger’ figures working outside the official order: the ‘virtuous outlaw’ gunslinger, the private investigator, the maverick cop, the superhero. Mass shooters seek to claim this form of celebrity and to avenge themselves on enemies, who they imagine are backed by dominant forces in the society. It is the absence of normalised corruption which allows Finland or Switzerland to have high gun ownership, but low gun homicide rates.
Let us imagine for a moment this US culture of normalised corruption and the celebration of the lone avenger as an alternative - but combined with the banning of handguns. We should, I think, expect a more extensive use of what we have already seen in the form of ‘Islamic terrorism’: improvised explosive devices, and attacks using vehicles.
Can you trust them?
Besides the practical difficulty of getting rid of all the existing guns in the US, the other side of the ‘gun control solution’ is that it supposes that the law enforcement agencies, who under the new regime are to be trusted with a monopoly of deadly force, are wholly benign in their motivations.
February 28 - the day I am writing this article - is an appropriate date to call this idea into question, being as it is the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. It ended in a massacre, when FBI tanks fired pyrotechnic CS gas grenades into the compound, although it remains uncertain whether it was the Branch Davidians or agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who fired first on February 28 1993.
A few years further back is the May 1985 bombing by Philadelphia police of a row house occupied by the black radical group MOVE, which burned down the row, killing 11 and making 250 homeless. Further back still is the black civil rights movement. It is celebrated for non-violence; but Charles E Cobb’s 2014 book, This nonviolent stuff’ll get you killed: how guns made the civil rights movement possible, complicates the story considerably. The southern whites normally held the blacks down by the use or threat of extra-legal violence (and had done so since the end of ‘reconstruction’). Self-defence was needed alongside non-violent action. Gun control advocates also invite us, in effect, to forget the steady trickle of rather more recent police homicides - effectively unprosecutable, thanks to the corrupt quality of the US judicial system - which led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Not trusting the state more than we have to is the point of the second amendment. It reflects the fact that Americans in 1776-1782 overthrew by force an undemocratic English regime. The second amendment in turn was derived from article seven of the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which asserts: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” The background to this provision was the royal government’s 1680s seizure from Whig landowners of stocks of arms for whole infantry and cavalry regiments, and pieces of artillery. Article seven is visibly - from its text and its context - a provision for the right to bear arms for the revolutionarywingof the capitalist class. It was transparently connected to the right to overthrow the government by force in case of tyranny, claimed by Whig theorists.
At the end of the day, the overthrow of a modern state will require not militia resistance, ‘barricades’ or ‘Lexington and Concord’, but that the state’s armed forces are broken up along political lines. This was a point already argued by Friedrich Engels in his 1893 Can Europe disarm? and his 1895 introduction to The class struggles in France. The possibility Engels identified was confirmed by the course of the revolutions in Russia in 1917, and in Germany and Austria in 1918-19 (if the latter two did not go as far as those in Russia).
But the question of a militia remains posed as an alternative to the professional police force. The malign conduct of law enforcement officials, mentioned above, is far from unique to the USA. The phenomenon of fascist bands, which have appeared episodically elsewhere, invariably depends on support from the professional police force (and commonly on support from the judiciary). Indeed, fascism is arguably a political ideology based in the cultural ideas of professional police forces, and extended from this core to parastatal mobilisation.
The consequence is that we should think about the struggle against ‘rampage’ shooters not in terms of the struggle for gun control - which will in fact prove merely to be a form of whinging without practical effect - but in terms of other steps against the cultures of corruption and bullying and the illusions of lone-avenger cults.
1. ‘NRA faces increasing backlash after Florida school shooting’ Time February 24; ‘NRA calls companies’ Florida shooting boycott “political and civic cowardice”’ The Guardian February 24.
2. See also ‘American attitudes towards gun control’ Economist blogs February 23; ‘CNN poll: seven in 10 favor tighter gun laws in wake of Parkland shooting’, CNN February 25.
4. It is questionable, since the overall homicide rate in England was already one per 100,000 in the later 18th century, well before gun controls were introduced (and has not risen dramatically since then). In contrast, US homicide rates have been consistently higher over the same period. See www.vrc.crim.cam.ac.uk/.../manuel-eisner-historical-trends-in-violence.pdf.