Our gun rights too
Despite Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, Paul Demarty raises three cheers for the US constitution's second amendment
The outcome of the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial has reopened a lot of political wounds in the United States.
The teenager’s acquittal on self-defence grounds, for shooting two men to death and injuring another, is - given the facts of the case and of the applicable laws in the state of Wisconsin - not terrifically surprising. The fact that he was immediately catapulted to celebrity on the American right, bringing forth endless donations towards his legal defence, gave him a leg up denied to many on comparable charges. It is true, as American rightists have complained, that the presentation of the case in liberal media was often highly misleading. Even granted all that, it offends any meaningful idea of justice that one can be hit by a skateboard, hit back with a fatal AR-15 bullet, and walk free of a murder rap. But so it seems is the case in Wisconsin.
It is the AR-15 angle that most interests Daniel Lazare, writing in last week’s paper. For him, the underlying pathology lies in the US constitution, and specifically its second amendment, which declares that the “people’s right to bear arms shall not be infringed” (‘Rittenhouse and white backlash’, November 25). Despite some insights, his account is dangerously one-sided.
Comrade Lazare notes that defence of this amendment has “emerged in recent decades as an ideological framework for vigilantism and white backlash”. He states: “According to enthusiasts, the second amendment does not merely allow Americans to arm themselves with semi-automatic weapons: it fairly compels them to.”
But everything seems to be behind the gun-nuts. Congress is paralysed, with the Senate in particular having a spectacular bias towards the Republican Party and therefore the right. The Supreme Court, with its six-three conservative majority, is “not only … loosening controls, but it is now hinting at extending ‘open-carry’ gun laws to New York City, so that subway riders can enjoy the thrill of an occasional shootout just as if they were at a Wild West theme park”.
This is a rather remarkable change, according to comrade Lazare, from earlier decades. Half a century ago, the second amendment, according to consensus opinion, “confer[red] nothing more than the right to join a state unit of the National Guard”. This theory ultimately perished in the 1980s, when originalists and others began to interpret the thing more in its original spirit - defending a more populist interpretation of the “well-regulated militia” encompassing the whole people. “The connection of all this to the killing in Kenosha”, Lazare concludes, “is all too clear”. The idea of the “well-regulated militia” has ended up authorising the vigilante hysteria that now accompanies civil unrest, and which swept up young Kyle Rittenhouse last year.
It is difficult to work out exactly what comrade Lazare thinks should be the legal regime governing arms in America, from the point of view of the socialist goals he avows. That said, his spin is overwhelmingly negative. He cannot mention the second amendment without sounding like he has stepped in something. It is a matter of teenage vigilantes and wild-west shootouts on the New York metro. Invisible to him, apparently, is the role of the left in the present and obviously pathological situation, where the second amendment is admired - at best - by paranoid petty bourgeois and - at worst - by psychotic spree-killers.
With the broad outlines of comrade Lazare’s juridical history it is difficult to disagree, but for those of us on the revolutionary left there is a striking omission. That is, of course, the story of the earliest days of the Black Panthers in the Bay Area. As of the mid-1960s, California was an ‘open carry’ state: it was legal to possess a loaded gun in public, so long as it was on display and not pointed at anyone. The Panthers, having famously raised money by selling copies of Mao’s little red book, spent it on shotguns and pistols, and began tailing the police patrols around Oakland. The state authorities did not like this one bit, and in 1967 passed the Mulford Act to abolish ‘open carry’ in California - straightforwardly a result of the panic over the Panthers. It was signed into law by the then governor, a certain Ronald Reagan.
We should not romanticise the Black Panthers - an ideologically eclectic group that got sucked into criminality and was smashed to smithereens by FBI provocateurs and thugs before too long. Yet it rather punctures Lazare’s narrative of steady descent into petty bourgeois derangement that one of the first celebrated assaults on gun rights in the US after the World War II was directed against the left. The prevailing view of the second amendment as pertaining only to institutions like the national guard was not a kind of sanity from which we have fallen into madness, which seems to be Lazare’s take: it was a state response to the more militant wings of, especially, the labour and civil rights movements of the 1930s-60s.
Lazare concedes that
Socialists may call for the formation of workers’ self-defence units to beat back fascists and scabs, but a workers’ militia has nothing in common with middle class citizens filling their basements with AR-15s, body armour and ‘bump stocks’ that turn ordinary rifles into submachine guns. One is based on working class power; the other on individual ownership.
Nothing in common, comrade? If we are to have an armed response to fascists and scabs, then the arms will be stored somewhere - maybe in some comrade’s basement, or maybe the back room of a union headquarters. And since we currently live under a capitalist society, the arms will be purchased by individuals, and the ‘working class power’ involved will take the juridical form of a free association of individuals (a party, union, trades council or whatever). The right of Kyle Rittenhouse to his AR-15 is the same as the right of any working class or left organisation to its own defensive armaments, as dramatically illustrated by the Panthers and the Mulford Act. Suppose socialists do call for such a militia, for such purposes - where is that need easiest to satisfy? In a country like America, where firearms are generally available to private citizens, or in a country like Britain, where they are not?
It has been a long time, however, since serious numbers on the left have raised even the one-and-a-half cheers for the workers’ militia managed by comrade Lazare. As a result, it is not only the case that the right enjoys hegemony over the elementary democratic principle embodied succinctly in the second amendment (I, for one, would be happy to have it verbatim in any socialist constitution): we have the far more serious problem that this hegemony is unchallenged. The only people who might challenge it - which is to say, the only people apart from the far right to have a good reason to distrust the armed forces of the state: the far left - have abandoned the fight.
This does tie into the wider issues around the Rittenhouse case and the violent vigilantism increasingly endemic on the American right. Its ideology, so far as it touches on guns, has two elements: one, the ‘Lexington and Concord’ revolutionary mythology, which is a dream of comradeship and heroic sacrifice; the other, the obsessive fear of home invasions, of looters and rioters and lawlessness, of the anonymous lumpen mass. The rightist militiaman fears tyranny; the petty bourgeois pater familias fears anarchy. These are very often the same people.
The contradiction proves irresolvable in these terms - their petty bourgeois class interests, or even just petty bourgeois aspirations, both demand the defence of property by the state and resent the interference of the state. They can no more realise such a programme than they can draw a square circle. The tendency - all things being equal - is thus towards greater confusion, absurd adventurism and (in the end) pure nihilism, as glimpsed in spree killings.
Working class power, as comrade Lazare points out, offers a very different prospect. Yet the flipside to power is, precisely, self-defence. The moment we have need of defence against scabs, we have need of defence against that other population so richly implicated in the Kenosha shootings: the police. The police back the scabs; it is from the police that the threat of violence flows. Indeed, that is typically the case when it comes to fascists as well, who routinely enjoy support or ‘friendly neutrality’ from the armed detachments of the state (as illustrated by the Kenosha cops’ polite treatment of the vigilantes).
But that in turn poses the question of policing. If cops cannot be permitted to enter working class neighbourhoods, on grounds of self defence, then before long somebody must deal with domestic incidents and apprehend murderers. That somebody must either be a permanent professional police force or a militia; and, in the latter case, individuals are compelled to carry out this duty as part of their elementary citizenship. The militia is not a temporary expedient to defend a picket line - not in its inner essence; but its essence will never be realised except through conscious political action. This means, in the end, that political actors on the left must demand it, and its necessary corollary: “that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.
The silence of the left on the question of arms not only condemns it to strategic incoherence, but disarms it tactically. The principal demand of progressives and lefts since last year’s protests has been ‘Defund the police’, or sometimes ‘Abolish the police’. So far, attempts to get such politics passed in local plebiscites have been widely unsuccessful, but that, in itself, need not discourage us. The problem is that the left cannot pose a meaningful alternative because it cannot face the fact that there is an irreducible part of policing which involves the forcible submission of criminals. Since the left will not touch guns with a barge pole, a truly radical shift in the organisation of such forcible action is precluded in advance, and so we get a sort of ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ situation, in which marginal reforms are dressed up in very r-r-r-revolutionary sounding slogans and presented to atomised voters - with predictable results at the ballot box.
We conclude with one of the odder moments of the 2020s protests. Many voices were raised in support of Black Lives Matter, but perhaps none so unlikely as one Ammon Bundy - the scion of a notorious family of rightist ‘wingnuts’ with a habit of armed occupation of federal lands. He declared that you had to have something wrong in your head to believe BLM were a bigger threat to life and liberty than the police, and even offered his group as armed security for protests in cities in the northwest. The offer was declined – understandably so, given the unsavoury associations of the Bundy clan and their habit of getting into armed standoffs.
But so long as the left fears the Bundys more than the police, it offers the victims of arbitrary state violence no serious prospect of redress.