Intro: Tragedy, Violence and Bourgeois Discourse
Your average American is no stranger to murder. Periodically, we hear of another senseless crime, another mass murder, another tragedy taking innocent life. Like clockwork, whenever a high-profile shooting takes place in America, two sides of a ceaseless debate seize upon the broken pieces of the aftermath, opportunistically using these pieces in an argument related to legislative policy concerning firearms. On the one hand, you have a side advocating the restriction and prohibition of firearms, on the tightening of laws which confine the ownership and use of firearms, the capacity of their magazines, the level of government scrutiny in their purchase, sale and ownership. On the other hand, you have a group that resists these measures, seeing as the solution the total liberalization of firearms, arguing that the problems associated with firearms are the moral and cultural backwardness of those who use them for murder.
Both sides make themselves red in the face with emotional appeals, with one side envisioning the other as the face of pure evil, of being the side that puts handguns in the hands of children, or the side that burns the constitution and its protection of firearm ownership.
While this debate crops up, and while pop-psychology and cultural scapegoats are used to paint shooters as coming from another planet, the solution-oriented among us aren’t given much to go on as we endeavor to understand and change the phenomena of tragic violence. Sure guns are involved, but why are they picked up in anger for the purpose of homicide? Sure these mass murderers appear unstable, but is there something in the organization of our society that brings them to the breaking point, rather than into a situation where they can be treated? The gun debate will not, and cannot, begin to answer these questions. The reason for this is that the gun debate is a distraction, which purposefully ignores systematic understandings of our society for a convenient yet petty squabble. It is a squabble that ultimately serves power by ignoring the systematic violence and injustice inherent in capitalism.
The Gun Debate’s Two Utopias
Let’s examine the two positions of our “gun debaters” and their solutions for violence. The “anti-gun” crowd would endeavor to get rid of the means which people use to shoot one another by increasing the difficulty for shooters to procure firearms utilizing legal routes. By making it harder to get one’s hands on a gun, the argument may go, one makes it difficult to successfully commit a murder spree, and if the police and military are the only people able to have and use firearms, the would-be murderer may be easier to stop. If “guns are the problem,” then the society of the anti-gun utopians would be one where no civilian has had the opportunity to even touch a gun, let alone own one and use one, and thus be a safer society for the lack of the means to commit murder using firearms. This society, “free of gun violence,” is unlikely. The reason for this is simple: creating legal barriers will not prevent the illegal ownership of firearms. Even if firearms are outlawed, the main users of firearms will still be able to procure them, still find opportunity to use them and still have at their disposal a massive industry which exists to place guns in their hands.
The other side, when we examine the position of gun lobbies like the NRA, has it that guns are not so much a “problem” as they are a “solution.” The argument is that gun violence is the fault of “criminal elements” and that the solution is allowing more “good people” to own and carry firearms to protect themselves from “bad people.” They also argue that any infringement on the right to bare arms, as outlined in the second amendment to the constitution, violates their “freedom,” and as such, is reprehensible. Ignoring the “freedom” argument for a moment, and the implied racism of the “bad people” argument which we will explore more deeply later, let’s consider the “good people” “bad people” analysis and the implications of firearms on this equation. If the “good people” and “bad people” both have equal access to firearms, what necessarily is changed here? In his study on the correlation between gun ownership and gun violence, Gary Kleck found no strong positive correlation between gun ownership and rates of gun violence (meaning no strong trend suggesting that more gun ownership = more gun violence) yet on the same token, there was no evidence of a strong inverse relationship (meaning more gun ownership = less violence). So, despite the implied notion that more guns owned by everyday people will equate more safety for the rest of us by means of deterrence, we’ve no reason to suggest that this will be the case.
Essentially, what these two positions whittle down to is unrealistic “ideal worlds” and emotionalism, ineffective policies for curbing violence and purposeful ignorance of the essence of the problem. The anti-gun crowd will continue to bellow their simplistic analysis of the “gun problem” and the pro-gun position, as put forward by many a reactionary, say the problem is the “criminal element,” which will be solved by a combination of an expansion of our already bloated prison system and allowing those wealthy enough to afford an arsenal of guns to defend themselves from the “criminal element.” None of this solves anything or answers the harder questions. Rather, it regurgitates two ultimately tame and docile positions that are palatable for political discourse in capitalism.
An Argument that Ultimately Avoids the Issue
Let’s apply the logic of the gun debate to the issue of vehicle related death in the United States. In 2010, 32,885 people were killed in car accidents, compared to the 14,748 who were murdered in the same year. What if we had this debate every time a 20 car pileup killed a number of people? Let’s consider our hypothetical belligerents: the “anti car” and “pro car” side. The anti car side might want to raise the driving age to 25, place speed limiters and breathalyzers in every car, have cars guided by rails and rarely driven. The pro car side might find some constitutional argument, may argue that if more people drove cars, less pedestrians would be involved in accidents, and the problem is not cars but irresponsible drivers. Here’s the question that’s ignored, however: why do we have so many cars on the road to collide with one another in the first place?
The answer is several-fold. For one, urban flight and demographic shifts have lead to longer commutes for many workers, necessitating the use of automobiles to get to work. Powerful oil and automotive interests have worked tirelessly to protect their hegemony over transportation by battling efforts at improving public transit, supporting neo-liberal economic practices that prop up these enterprises and drain funding from programs which might offer solutions. Our transportation system, relying on cars as the chief means of getting people to and from work, is incredibly inefficient, pollutes the environment, drastically raises the cost of transportation for individuals through the need for regular vehicle maintenance and is profoundly unsafe, yet persists because of the profitability this system allows for a number of industries who play a key component of our economy. A “pro” “anti” debate in the realm of bourgeois political discussion is never going to result in the serious criticism of our political and economic system, of capitalism’s fault in the social problems that bring about the death and destruction that homicide and car accidents bring about.
The “Usual Suspects” – Scapegoats in Capitalist Discourse
Rather than viewing tragedy as the natural result of systemic problems, bourgeois analysis and debate has prepared a number of scapegoats for us to attack and scrutinize. Outside of firearms, violent video games and violent music culture and movies are blamed as a cause for motivating to action and desensitizing those people who end up shooting others. If it isn’t one of these, it’s the problem of one individual’s psychology, or it’s a problem of a neighborhood, bad parents or bad schools in bad communities. When racial chauvinists want to use tragedy as a pretext for spreading their bile, they’ll say its immigrants, blacks or other groups stereotyped as being “thugs.” The previously mentioned “bad people” are the seen as being culturally, morally and intellectually backward, unwilling (but not unable) to take advantage of “the American dream.” In addition to these, the scapegoats are the sides of the “debates” themselves, whether its “gun-control liberals” attempting to “criminalize self defense” or “gun nuts” trying to “flood our streets with weapons.” The daily controversy as presented within bourgeois media unravels and is engaged with precise choreography, like a well-rehearsed scene in a soap opera.
Each of these scapegoats is taken from an ideological disposition that benefits capitalism. Individualism, racial chauvinism, “politicians” being the problem (as opposed to the class they inevitably serve), “freedoms” being threatened (and a subtle nod to nationalism) – the cards being shuffled in this deck every time a tragedy becomes the topic of debate are as old as the United States itself. Every time this happens, there is a similar result: much talk, some bills shuffled around in the legislature, a protest or two followed by silence in the wake of the next tragedy or issue. A new day dawns on each and every issue, while the true causes remain obscured and the true solutions lie out of reach. This is a function, not a malfunction, of bourgeois democracy. Deeper questions are perceived as the realm of “out of touch” radicals, because the answer to the problems of a system do not lie within the preservation of that system.
The Unquestioned Guns and their Sanctioned Body Count
To illustrate this point, let’s consider some of the boundaries of the “gun issue” as observed by its debaters in the public realm. When Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians in an act of unprovoked, pre-meditated murder in cold blood, the debate didn’t turn to the idea that having the weapon was the problem. Hell, the question of what he and his fellow soldiers were doing in Afghanistan wasn’t taken as seriously as it must, despite a recent poll which suggests that 53% of Americans think we shouldn’t be there, and 68% who see the endeavor going “badly.” Though, the reason that this issue didn’t turn into a gun issue is that it is assumed that, for soldiers and police, gun ownership and use “isn’t the problem,” whether they commit murder or not.
Let’s recall Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back and killed by a police officer while he was cuffed and laying on the ground. The gun isn’t the issue for a cop, even if the cop decides to make an innocent person a murder victim. The United States is a leading manufacturer and exporter of weapons, giving guns to the Libyan rebels which they promptly used to murder blacks in Libya. Is there a gun problem there? No, of course not, since the United States is a “beacon of freedom and democracy” and anyone receiving weapons from them has to be a good guy, whether they are the armed forces of Suharto’s Indonesia, Nicaragua’s Contras, Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, South Africa under Apartheid, Israel (who has used US made white phosphorus to murder civilians of any age). The list goes on.
The gun debate knows certain boundaries because, were it to cross these boundaries, sides in this debate may end up upholding a position that is against the interests of the US government and the ruling class. If we look at the profits of and spending on the U.S. arms industry, making weapons large and small, and how those weapons are spread all over the world and are used in genocide, state repression and general crimes against the world’s people, wouldn’t we have to question the very system that the United States is built on? Wouldn’t we have to question imperialism, colonialism, chauvinism and exploitation? The answer is that we would, and it is for this reason that we can’t ask certain questions within capitalist discourses’ “polite discussion.”
Conclusion: Systems of Violence, Alienation and Oppression are the Problem
In order to understand the problem, and move in the direction of a solution, we need to understand these larger systems which cause the problems, and understand the role they play in protecting the capitalist system and its profits.
Poverty, which is a product of our system and is necessary for the preservation of a reserve army of workers essential to keep wages down, is a major component in violent crime.
Racism is also a force that motivates violence, which we can see from the recent example of Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin for being black, young and in the wrong neighborhood.
Imperialism requires weapons and munitions of all sizes to expand its hegemony, and the industries themselves have a profit incentive to put weapons in the hands of anyone who can afford to buy them, regardless of their intentions.
The alienation and pain that our capitalist system brings about leads people to act out, whether they do so by harming others, or by using a gun to end their own life, like Dimitris Christoulas, who killed himself in in public while carrying a suicide note detailing the pain that Greece’s austerity measures had brought him. These forces aren’t things you can legislate away, can’t break by having a new suit in the White House, can’t ignore, and most certainly, can’t solve by having more or less guns.
Understanding the origins of a problem are where we must begin. It might not give us a simple or convenient answer, but it will point us in the right direction. Gun violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum, where the only factor bringing about or preventing violence are guns themselves. Our world is not a world of floating independent issues, opinions and actions divorced from everything else. Larger systems, be they economic, political, ideological or cultural, have bearing on what happens in our world. If we pretend that this is not the case, that a utopia can be found by implementing the right reform, or preventing a legislative effort, we blind ourselves to the mechanisms behind everything. When we do the opposite, when we work to understand our world for its component parts, for its class nature, struggles and change, the solutions to problems come into view.