Workers Vanguard No. 1015
11 January 2013
After Newtown Massacre
Bourgeois Hypocrisy and Gun Control Schemes
Coming on the heels of the July 2012 killing of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by a deranged individual last month has predictably led to renewed calls for a further clampdown on gun ownership in the U.S. With President Obama intoning that there “can’t be an excuse for inaction,” the New York Times (19 December) called to restore and strengthen the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. On January 3, the first day of the new Congress, ten gun control bills were introduced. The measures would ban possession or transfer of high-capacity ammunition magazines and mandate a national database of those prohibited from buying firearms as well as background checks on firearms transactions at gun shows, among other things.
Just as reactionary “law and order” forces point to particularly heinous murders in pushing for greater application of the barbaric, racist death penalty, so do bourgeois liberals jump on killing sprees like those at Virginia Tech and now Newtown to urge ever-tighter restrictions or outright bans on gun ownership. The result in all these cases is that the population’s basic rights are trampled on and the capitalist state further consolidates and expands its murderous repressive powers.
Only sociopaths would deny the horror that took place in Newtown. But what is at stake now is a renewed drive by the capitalist state to enforce a monopoly of violence in its hands by further eviscerating the right to bear arms, which is codified in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Marxists oppose gun control laws and uphold the right to armed self-defense, a necessity for the working class, black people, other minorities and the populace as a whole.
A New York Times (17 December) editorial titled “Reason to Hope After the Newtown Rampage” offered up the population as more than willing to voluntarily surrender its rights, proclaiming: “Americans are ready to shoulder burdens—as we did after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by accepting increased security when we travel and military actions we might previously have avoided.” That’s what they say. President Obama continued his drive to “increase security” on January 3 by signing the latest National Defense Authorization Act—the annual military appropriations bill—which allows the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens.
The right to bear arms was born of the American Revolution and its predecessor in England the previous century. Throughout the bourgeois revolutions in Europe and North America from the 17th through the mid 19th centuries, the principle of arming the people, including the concept of the people’s militia, was seen as constituting a vital defense against tyranny. But as we noted in “The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (see page 8): “With the appearance of the proletariat as an independent actor on the scene, ‘the armed people’ became archaic as the population was polarized along class lines.”
Despotic regimes prefer to rule over defenseless subjects; an armed people can fight back. For black people, armed self-defense and other basic rights were won with the Civil War that smashed slavery—and soon thereafter came under attack. In the struggle to build and defend unions, from the West Virginia and Kentucky coalfields to the nation’s docks and trucking hubs, workers armed themselves against strikebreaking scabs and the police, military and private security outfits. Following World War II and the Korean War, black vets, arms in hand, formed the foot soldiers for the early struggles against Jim Crow segregation in the South.
The people who decide who will be given the privilege to exercise the right to bear arms happen to be the greatest mass murderers the world has seen—the U.S. capitalist class. Even as Obama declared in Newtown that “these tragedies must end,” his military and spy apparatus was preparing the next round of drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. In a commentary titled “Beyond Newtown,” class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal observed: “Across America, cities from coast to coast and in the Midwest experience small, silent, almost invisible massacres where dozens of parents lose their children; wives lose their husbands; and some husbands lose their wives. I speak of the plague of police violence against blacks in New York, in Chicago, in Oakland and beyond.”
For some time, class and other social struggle in this country has been in a trough. Nevertheless, there is enormous social discontent that prepares the ground for renewed struggle. Americans have guns and want to keep them. This is a sociological fact of life, and will be a useful fact when the mass of the population feels immediately and overtly threatened by a tyrannical government. For revolutionary Marxists, what is crucial is that the working class emerge as the champion of all those under the heel of the capitalist rulers.
The Capitalist State: Bearing Arms Against the People
Sheer hypocrisy has always marked calls for gun control emanating from the bourgeoisie. The now-deceased head of the Sulzberger clan, which owns the New York Times and is among the leading exponents of gun control for the masses, was known for keeping a gun in his desk to deal with potential hostile intruders. NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg certainly has no reason to fear state seizure of weapons: he has an around-the-clock personal police detail at his disposal.
Much fun has been made of recent pronouncements by the rather ossified National Rifle Association (NRA), particularly the speech by its president in which he raised the reactionary call to place armed security guards in all schools. Pupils in some one-third of the country’s public schools are already subject to searches and harassment by armed security guards and even cops, particularly in the ghettos and barrios. We would note that the NRA is currently providing the useful service of training teachers in some states in the use of firearms.
The liberal press, echoed by the reformists of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), lament that this is a violent society—an observation akin to recognizing that bald men lack hair. From Marine barracks where “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” is the watchword to church pulpits where abortion providers are deemed worthy of death, an undeniable truth is that violence “is as American as cherry pie,” as 1960s black militant H. Rap Brown put it.
Mass murder is a repeated phenomenon in the U.S.—and it is regularly carried out by the state. In 1921, police in Tulsa bombed the segregated black community, killing 75 people. In Philadelphia in May 1985, black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode, in concert with the FBI, ordered the bombing of the predominantly black back-to-nature MOVE commune, killing eleven people, five of them children. An entire black neighborhood was burned down. In 1993, after a 51-day siege, Bill Clinton’s Justice Department ordered an attack on the integrated Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas, killing over 80 men, women and children.
The homicidal individuals who have perpetrated mass shootings in recent years have been typically armed with semiautomatic weapons, including the AR-15, one of the most popular rifles in the country, which was used by the Newtown killer. So the gun control lobby is screaming about the need to crack down on “assault weapons.” A task force led by Vice President Biden, an author of the expired ban on such weapons, is due to come up with a proposal to renew it and to put forward other restrictions. Helping feed the liberal frenzy is the ISO, declaring in “How Does This Happen?” (socialistworker.org, 17 December): “Socialists believe guns are a symptom, rather than a cause of violence—but no one should ignore what this symptom tells us about a sick society where people can purchase thousands of rounds of ammunition off the Internet, including the kind of high-volume clips apparently used at Sandy Hook, whose only possible purpose is to ‘hunt’ human beings.” The ISO’s starting point is trust in the capitalist state.
The hand-wringing over AR-15s and the like is common coin for liberals in the U.S. and elsewhere who routinely point to Japan, Britain and other advanced capitalist countries where gun control is the norm. (By way of exception, in Switzerland, which trails only the U.S., Yemen and Serbia in guns per capita, only 40 people were killed by firearms in 2010.) Whereas in U.S. cities the cops round up black and Latino youth on the pretext of drug and/or gun possession, in Britain the cops sweep up black and Asian youth for drugs and/or knives. In both cases, the cops brutalize and kill with impunity.
Pathological violence takes place irrespective of whether guns are readily available. The same day as the rampage in Newtown, a deranged man in China, where the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy maintains strict gun control, invaded an elementary school, stabbing 22 children and a school guard. In all cases, the bottom line is that working people must have the means to defend themselves and others.
Black Rights and Gun Rights
Although nearly half of American households possess at least one gun, those standing up for Second Amendment rights are perceived as the racist, anti-immigrant, right-wing fringe. Yes, there are gun-loving reactionary lunatics who believe that the U.S. is facing an invasion by Mexico or perhaps by black United Nations helicopters. But the basic truth of the matter is something that used to be common wisdom among labor and black militants: if guns are outlawed, only cops, criminals and Klansmen will have them.
The particular violence that is woven into the fabric of American capitalist society stems mainly from the special oppression of black people, the legacy of chattel slavery. And any serious reading of the history and social reality of this country makes clear the utter necessity of black self-defense. As race-terror swept the Jim Crow South in the late 19th century, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells wrote:
“The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.
“The lesson this teaches and which every Afro American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
—quoted in Jacqueline J.
Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The
Anti-Lynching Campaign of
Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (1997)
This isn’t just a matter for the history books. In June 2011, seven white teenage thugs brutally beat and killed 49-year-old black auto worker James Craig Anderson in Jackson, Mississippi, while chanting, “White Power.” Had Anderson been armed, he might well be alive today.
Black self-defense has historically been met with frenzied state repression. The earliest 20th-century gun control laws were passed in states like South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi as a way to disarm blacks in the face of KKK terror. With the rise of the civil rights movement, gun control again became associated with ruling-class fears of black militancy. Robert F. Williams, the head of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina, was hounded out of the country for organizing a defense squad against racist attacks. In Louisiana and a few other Southern states, the Deacons for Defense and Justice were successful in using firearms to protect the civil rights movement from Klan attack. Among the Deacons’ standard weapons was the M-1 carbine, an “assault rifle” that they had learned to use in the Army.
An article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker (23 April 2012) pointed out, “In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. than of black nationalists.” In 1965, the New York City Council passed a bill especially to prevent Malcolm X from carrying a carbine for his protection; he was assassinated shortly afterward. In 1967, the California legislature banned the carrying of a loaded gun after a demonstration by the Black Panthers, who were legally carrying guns, at the state capitol in Sacramento. The Panthers had been patrolling the streets of Oakland, where police terror was rampant. The state ban was followed by gun control laws nationwide, especially after the ghetto upheavals that broke out following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
Today black people, who are disproportionately the victims of gun violence, are those most in need of means to defend themselves. Yet in many urban centers, ghetto residents are increasingly likely to support calls by black Democrats like Congressman John Lewis and Al Sharpton for strict gun control. These calls give further fuel to the humiliating and often life-threatening stop-and-frisk programs carried out by the NYPD and cops in other cities across the country.
Violent crime in the ghettos and barrios is a direct outgrowth of the rampant unemployment and hopelessness created by the workings of the capitalist profit system. Impoverished youth thrown on capitalism’s scrap heap see little chance of a way out short of risking their lives in the military or perhaps grabbing a piece of the drug trade. Marxists call for the decriminalization of drugs, which would remove the basis of the superprofits that fuel the illegal drug trade and its attendant violence.
Above all, the situation cries out for a class-struggle fight for jobs and quality housing and education for all. That task demands the building of a revolutionary workers party that would fuse the anger in the ghettos and barrios with a revived labor movement and point the way toward overturning the racist capitalist system through socialist revolution.