Should they have a monopoly on guns?

Guns are not the problem

Abolishing the second amendment would require a civil war and leave the state with a monopoly when it comes to the right to bear arms. Mike Macnair sees no reason why we should trust the capitalist courts, army and police

Uvalde is a temporary political gift to the Democrats. Joe Biden made a speech on July 2 calling for the restoration of the ban on “assault weapons” adopted in 1994, which lapsed in 2004, and other measures. On June 2 the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee adopted a suite of proposals along similar lines, over Republican opposition.1 In the Senate, a ‘bipartisan’ group proposes extended ‘background checks’ on gun purchases and a ‘red flag’ power to take away guns from people at risk of committing crimes. A story on CBS reports that a poll it conducted “shows 81% of Americans supporting background checks on all potential gun buyers, while 72% favour a federal red flag law and 62% a nationwide ban on assault weapons”.2 I said it is a ‘political gift’ to the Democrats, because, while the wound is still raw, the Republicans’ opposition to gun control loses them support. ‘Temporary’ because the pattern over 40 years of such events is that the broad support for new laws ebbs away with time.

‘Background checks’ and powers to withdraw licences equivalent to ‘red flag’ laws have been the centrepiece of British gun licensing rules since the Firearms Act 1920 (introduced with a view to disarming the working class after World War I, while leaving ‘respectable’ gun owners unaffected3); in this country the perpetrators of the 1987 Hungerford mass shooting, the 1996 Dunblane mass shooting, and the 2019 Plymouth mass shooting, all held gun licences after police background checks, and the Plymouth shooter had had his guns returned after an initial confiscation.

Every mass shooting revives the narrative that this is the product of widespread gun ownership and availability in the US, and that the solution is gun control. Various sites dramatise the issue with tables showing ‘world leagues’ of gun ownership and gun-related homicides. The result is not quite as comforting for gun control advocates as might be imagined: the US has exceptionally high gun ownership, but “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).4 On the other side, among countries with high gun ownership rates, Switzerland, Finland, Serbia and Cyprus have very substantially lower gun homicide rates than the USA.

Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that it was accepted 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 the 0.07 per 100,000 of England and Wales. This 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 were already significantly higher in the late 18th century and have remained consistently higher since.

Civil war

In practice, however, to actually implement such a policy would involve fighting a civil war, in order first 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 privately owned in the US. It would thus involve at least a temporary very large spike in gun homicides, on the scale of the level of casualties in 1862-65, as scaled up to the increase in US population since then ...

At the end of the day the US constitution does need to be overthrown. And that will probably, though not certainly, involve a new civil war. But the question posed is whether gun control is an issue worth fighting a civil war for. It is not comparable to ending slavery and the US escaping from indirect British control through the slave-owner states blocking protectionism, won in 1862-65. Nor to the partial political independence won in 1776-83. Nor to the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in Britain in 1642-51. (The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which involved few casualties in England, involved full-scale war in Scotland and Ireland in 1689-92 and, beyond these, in Europe in 1689-97). Getting the sort of gun controls which advocates seek would (at their strongest) mean getting merely features of the current British regime.

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 massacres may be driven by dynamics which do not consist simply in the availability of guns. Katherine Newman and others’ 2004 book Rampage: the social roots of school shootings points out that the 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 kickback 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,5 while the gun control advocates are unable to propose anything really concrete, and the NRA and its supporters advocate merely more school shoot-outs through arming teachers.

More generally, the political culture of the US tends to favour higher homicide rates. It is culturally recognised that all branches of the government, centrally as well as local, are corrupt; it 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 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 firearms being largely banned. We should, I think, expect to see a more extensive use of what we have already seen in the form of ‘Islamic terrorism’: improvised explosive devices, and attacks using vehicles.

Conversely, suppose that a constitutional revolution struck at the roots of the culture of normalised corruption - the free market in legal services, the advertising-funded media regime, and the system of unlimited private donations to politicians and commercial lobbying services. By doing so, it would necessarily undermine the basis of the cultural celebration of the lone avenger. It can reasonably be expected that the presence of numerous firearms in the society need not, under those circumstances, prevent gun homicide rates falling to the levels of other countries. Such a revolution would, of course, probably involve a civil war just as much as a revolution to overthrow the second amendment. But, since it would be a giant step towards political democracy, it would be far more worthwhile - more of a task worth dying for - than a revolution merely to overthrow the second amendment, while leaving the regime of corruption intact.

Benign cops?

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 are under the new regime to be trusted with a monopoly of deadly force, are wholly benign in their motivations.

We should not forget 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. Nor the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which ended in a massacre, when FBI tanks fired pyrotechnic CS gas grenades into the compound. It remains uncertain whether the Branch Davidians, or agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, fired first on February 28 1993.

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 1776-82 overthrew by force an undemocratic British regime. The second amendment in turn was derived from article 7 of the English Bill of Rights (1689), 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 7 is visibly - from its text and its context - a provision for the right to bear arms for the revolutionary wing of 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, Austria and Hungary in 1918-19.

But the question of 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 para-statal mobilisation. Indeed, the trap represented by “background checks”, shown by Hungerford, Dunblane and Plymouth, grows out of this: far-right shooters are likely to be seen by police as appropriate people to hold gun licences ...

Paradoxically, the militia could if pursued provide a more arguably ‘constitutional’ road forward in the US. Gun control advocates have argued at length that the second amendment means that the provision quoted above protects only militia weapons, and thus not private ownership of guns. The argument is, frankly, indefensible history. And if it was right, what should be protected is precisely ownership of military weapons, as opposed to cut-down civilian versions like the semi-automatics stigmatised as “assault rifles”.6

But, on the other hand, it is arguable on the basis of the text of the amendment not that only the (voluntary) militia have the right to keep and bear arms, but, on the contrary, that those who acquire arms are subject to mandatory militia enlistment - that is, to military training and service. The ‘originalist’ case for this approach is that English militia service was (prima facie) obligatory at the time of the American revolution.

It is unlikely that ‘gun rights’ advocates would wish to go down this path, which is broadly that of Engels’ argument in Can Europe disarm?, for universal military training in schools. The right wants to see voluntary militias of themselves and their friends - not actual universal military training and service, which would weaken the power of their landlord and capitalist backers.

In short, we should think about protection against ‘rampage’ shooters not in terms of the struggle for gun control - which will in fact prove merely to be a form of whingeing without practical effect - but in terms of other steps against the culture of corruption and bullying and the illusions of lone-avenger cults.


  1. www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/06/02/remarks-by-president-biden-on-gun-violence-in-america/. And: rollcall.com/2022/06/02/house-judiciary-committee-debates-gun-control-bill-amid-recent-deadly-shootings.↩︎

  2. www.cbsnews.com/news/gun-control-legislation-cornyn-optimistic-60-plus-votes.↩︎

  3. C Cramer, ‘Gun control: political fears Trump crime control’ Maine Law Review Vol 61 (2009), pp1-25.↩︎

  4. www.healthdata.org/news-release/six-countries-americas-account-half-all-firearm-deaths (2018); consider also: www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/02/03/what-the-data-says-about-gun-deaths-in-the-u-s/ (2022).↩︎

  5. Cf also ‘How to prevent gun deaths without gun control’: www.vox.com/future-perfect/23150764/gun-violence-prevention-gun-control-jennifer-doleac (June 3).↩︎

  6. Cf also M Macnair, ‘David Davis and democratic rights’ Weekly Worker July 9 2008, on DC v Heller as a political manoeuvre: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/729/david-davis-and-democratic-rights.↩︎