Too young to buy a drink but not too young to buy an assault rifle

Guns, class and social decay

After the Uvalde school massacre the question of gun control has once again topped the political agenda. But, argues Daniel Lazare, do not expect anything much to change

With US gun fatalities running at more than 45,000 per year, the 19 children and two adults who died in the May 24 school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, were barely a blip on the radar screen. Nationwide, six times as many Americans die each day from gun violence, while 27 times as many kids aged 14 and younger die per year. Sixty-nine times as many children perish in road accidents, so what’s the big deal?

The answer, of course, is that it is not just the deaths that are so upsetting, tragic as they are. Rather, it is the fact that Uvalde is a milestone in an ongoing political crisis that is clearly reaching breaking point.

The shootings have left the country in state of shock for at least three reasons. One is the fact that, even though the shooter was too young to buy a beer - the Texas drinking age is 21 - he was able to visit a gun store and, with no questions asked, emerge with two assault rifles, plus 375 rounds of ammunition, within days of turning 18.

A second is the Keystone Kops response. In a state that romanticises the Wild West gunslinger, more than 140 police officers ended up standing around for as long as 77 minutes, twiddling their thumbs, while parents raged and screamed and bodies continued piling up inside. Communications broke down, the police chief did not even have a radio and, although state police, border agents and local officers were all on hand, responsibility somehow fell to a tiny department of school cops, consisting of just half a dozen officers, that was plainly out of its depth.

Finally, as a terrified girl dialled 911 (the emergency dispatch number) and whispered that children were dying all around her, an ad hoc group of officers disobeyed orders and charged into the classroom on their own. The last thing they heard before unlocking the door and shooting the gunman was a command crackling in an earpiece saying: do not breach.1

Another detail has drawn attention as well. Even though gunman Salvador Ramos was so obviously troubled that co-workers at a local fast-food outlet nicknamed him “school shooter”, no-one intervened. No social worker contacted his parents, no psychologist sat him down for a talk, no-one did anything. Republican governor Greg Abbott, who has made removing gun restrictions his trademark, told a press conference a day after the killings that “we as a state … need to do a better job with mental health”. What he forgot to mention is that, a month earlier, he had slashed $211 million from the Texas mental-health budget in a state that was already dead last in the US in terms of access to mental healthcare.2

As the voiceover says in Blood simple, the classic 1984 Coen Brothers movie about Texas carnage, “Now in Russia they got it mapped out, so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. Down here, you’re on your own.”

The state lacked any ability to spot trouble beforehand, it facilitated the rampage by providing instant access to advanced weaponry, and it failed to intervene, once the blood started to flow. State officials have no answer to such slaughter except to extend the usual “thoughts and prayers” - and to keep their fingers crossed that the next massacre happens on someone else’s watch.


Meanwhile, the gun epidemic continues to rage. Gun sales in the US have tripled over the last 20 years, the gun fatality rate has risen 35%, while an estimated 390 million firearms are now in private hands - three guns for every two adults. Internationally, America’s gun fatality rate is off the charts: ie, five times that of France relative to population, six times that of Canada, 14 times that of Australia, and 15 times that of Germany.3

Bullets are flying as a consequence. Including Uvalde, 12 ‘mass murders’ (defined as any incident in which four or more victims are killed) have occurred so far this year. There have been 246 ‘mass shootings’ (any incident in which four or more victims are killed or wounded) over the same period. Last weekend alone saw 11 mass shootings; a gun battle in Philadelphia that left three people dead and a dozen wounded; a shooting in Saginaw, Michigan, that killed three and wounded two more; a bar shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that claimed two other lives; and so on.

Yet nothing can be done. Newspapers ask priests and rabbis for words of wisdom about “a nation that has learned to live with mass shooting after mass shooting”, yet no-one has anything remotely sensible to say.4 Joe Biden is also at a loss. “Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” he asked shortly after the news arrived. “Why do we keep letting this happen?”

The reason is simple: no-one knows how to make it stop. Even though Congress is now going through the motions of hammering out yet another bipartisan gun deal, it is a foregone conclusion that it is all a charade and that whatever it comes up with will be ineffectual at best. Washington has no problem allocating billions of dollars for the neo-Nazi Azov battalion in Ukraine. But, when it comes to preventing murder and mayhem at home, it is at a loss.

So why is the United States so helpless? The reason is not that Americans are weak and foolish or lack “backbone”, as Biden put it. Rather, it is a political structure that is in growing disarray. Congress has been gridlocked for a generation, an ancient artefact known as the Electoral College has overturned the popular vote in two of the last six presidential elections, Washington has already seen one attempted coup d’état, and speculation is growing that a second is on the way.

The parallels with the 1850s are striking except for one thing. Where secession might once have served as an escape hatch, the Civil War of 1861-65 effectively closed it off. As a result, there is no way out, as a second war between the states reaches fever pitch. The two sides are like scorpions trying to sting one another to death inside a closed bottle.

Otherwise, the issues are much the same. There is racism, which is still rampant. There is urbanisation and all that goes with it - unions, immigrants, avant-garde social movements, apartment blocks instead of wide-open spaces, etc. There is federal authority versus states’ rights. There is democratic majority rule versus a constitutional structure riddled with provisions that allow intransigent political minorities to block any action they do not like.

Second amendment

And then there are guns. As this writer has pointed out, guns have acquired a symbolic importance almost impossible for outsiders to comprehend.5 The reason is not only the right to bear arms set forth in the second amendment, but a 235-year-old constitution that is hardly less sacred than the Bible or the Qur’an.

The amendment states in its entirety: “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.”

Those 27 words have transfixed America ever since the gun wars broke out in the 1970s. Previously, liberals interpreted them to mean nothing more than the right to join “a well-regulated militia” in the form of the US National Guard. But subsequent decades saw a sea-change in academic opinion - not only among conservatives - in which the amendment was re-interpreted more sweepingly as a blanket right of individuals to arm themselves against incipient tyranny. The purpose was not only a well-regulated militia, but “the security of a free state”; and a well-armed citizenry, according to the prevailing theory of the day, was the only way to achieve it.

The effect was to return the amendment to the late 18th century, when a musket on a wall was a symbol of liberty and a well-regulated militia was what farmers formed when they took down their weapons and mustered on the village green à la Lexington and Concord - on their own volition, that is, and under their own direction.

This did not make the amendment right in the modern utilitarian sense. In fact, it made it the opposite - but rendered it constitutionally valid and hence imbued with all sorts of moral significance. Gun ownership was now more than a right: it was a patriotic duty. It was how the founders wanted Americans to respond when their liberties were under threat. Indeed, the greater the threat, the more patriots should arm up - which is why assault rifles outfitted with high-capacity magazines containing a hundred rounds or more are increasingly de rigueur.

So the logic of a reinvigorated second amendment seemed to dictate. The upshot is a vicious cycle, in which more guns lead to more calls for greater control, which lead to cries that tyranny is on the march, which lead to more citizens arming themselves to the hilt. It is a self-fuelling crisis that intensifies every time some troubled youth exercises his ancient constitutional right to mow down a class of 10-year-olds.

There is nothing progressive that can emerge out of such a frightful bourgeois mess. While the right drifts toward fascism, the only thing liberals have to offer is nostalgia for the golden age of chief justice Earl Warren (1953-69), when celebrated judges used semi-magical means to turn an ancient plan of government into an instrument of modern democracy. It did not work then and it is working even less now. But, since liberals cannot come up with an alternative, turning back the clock is all they have to offer.

Quite inadvertently, the famous trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz summed up the problem in the 1990s. A former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a Harvard professor who “hates” guns, Dershowitz nonetheless assailed

foolish liberals who are trying to read the second amendment out of the constitution by claiming it’s not an individual right ... They’re courting disaster by encouraging others to use the same means to eliminate portions of the constitution they don’t like.6

It is all or nothing, in other words. Even though Dershowitz says he would like to see the second amendment repealed, that is out of the question, since the constitution’s amending clause allows tiny minorities (just 13 states representing as little as 4.4% of the population) to block any constitutional change - a barrier that is effectively insuperable. Fans of the first amendment - the one that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ... or abridging the freedom of speech” - must therefore make their peace with the second, even though it encourages a growing portion of the population to outfit themselves with Uzis and AR-15s. Although the constitution’s preamble says that the goal is “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, [and] insure domestic tranquillity”, the rest of the document is doing the opposite by fuelling an orgy of violence. Yet both Dershowitz and the National Rifle Association are of one mind: that the price of civil liberties is deepening social decay and that there is no way out of the bind.


What is the socialist response? Here we have confusion as well: Paul Demarty, on the one hand, who is so taken with the second amendment that he writes: “I, for one, would be happy to have it verbatim in any socialist constitution”; and, on the other, Tony Greenstein, who says that “the problem isn’t gun law, but America’s violent, racist society - gun law reform won’t change that”.7

One argument is atavistic - a call to return to the 18th century in socialist guise. The other reflects a pseudo-left tendency to reduce all problems of capitalism to the r-word. Yes, America is racist, violent and increasingly unstable. But the real problem is an increasingly undemocratic structure that effectively bars the working class from tackling such ills in a comprehensive manner. The more the structure prevents the proletariat from mobilising, the more violence and racism will grow. Both are part of a complex of disorders generated by a politico-economic crisis that is increasingly acute.

Pace Demarty, the second amendment’s right to bear arms is the opposite of the workers’ militia he claims to endorse. Instead of an individual right, socialists believe in a collective right on the part of the working class as a whole. As the proletariat advances toward to the seizure of power, the right to form a workers’ militia transforms itself into a collective right to impose a monopoly on gun violence on society in general. Arming the working class means disarming the bourgeoisie and, in the process, disarming all those petty-bourgeois individuals whose rec rooms and basements are now bulging with guns.

This does not mean that the working class will necessarily take those guns away. Conceivably, it may still allow private ownership. But it will never recognise a supra-political right to bear arms, because that means recognising an authority higher than its own. And if a working class government decides that - basta! - enough gun violence is enough, then it will be time for them to go.

Workers will have their work cut out for them, as they set about repairing America’s broken-down society, and effective gun control will likely be a top priority. If people persist in using them to murder innocent children, then the only solution will be to take them away. This is a reform that the American ruling class is incapable of achieving. But it is one that the international proletariat will be able to accomplish in a flash if it so chooses.

  1. www.nytimes.com/2022/06/03/us/uvalde-police-response.html.↩︎

  2. mhanational.org/issues/2022/mental-health-america-access-care-data.↩︎

  3. D Lazare, ‘Designed to shorten lives’ Weekly Worker May 26: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1397/designed-to-shorten-lives.↩︎

  4. www.nytimes.com/2022/05/31/us/america-life-uvalde-covid.html.↩︎

  5. See, for example, ‘Rittenhouse and white backlash’ Weekly Worker November 25 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1373/rittenhouse-and-white-backlash.↩︎

  6. Quoted in D Gifford, ‘The conceptual foundations of Anglo-American jurisprudence in religion and reason’ Tennessee Law Review No62 (1995), pp759, 789.↩︎

  7. P Demarty, ‘Our gun rights too’ Weekly Worker December 2 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1374/our-gun-rights-too; T Greenstein, ‘What happened in Uvalde is why the police should be defunded’: azvsas.blogspot.com/2022/05/what-happened-in-uvalde-is-why-police.html.↩︎