Guns, Violence, and Liberty

George Orwell, writing about the Home Guard in 1941, declared “That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.” Firearms in the hands of common people have been used to uphold personal autonomy and community safety. This does not change the fact that gun violence is a serious problem, and it is reasonable to respond with legislative action and essential to respond with social activism. In any discussion of gun rights and gun violence, racism and violent hierarchies in society should be addressed.

Privately held firearms have been tools in liberation and community defense. Miners in West Virginia used them in the 1920s to fight back against violent exploitation by bosses, hired goons, and corrupt cops. Charles E. Cobb describes how activists in the civil rights movement kept firearms to protect themselves and each other as they organized non-violent action against racism. In recent years a number of groups, including Redneck Revolt, Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club, and the National African American Gun Association, have taken to firearms training in response to increased threats against marginalized people.

The amount of firepower needed to gain personal and community protection is not unlimited. Keeping personal arms including semi-automatic rifles and handguns with limited capacity magazines is sufficient for this purpose.

Any reasonable gun control would also apply to police officers, as they are also civilians and should not be given the role of occupying army. A worthwhile movement against violence in society would also address violence by police. If you are not concerned about black men being killed by agents of the state for merely holding something that might look like a gun, you are not defending the right to keep and bear arms for everyone. If you are not concerned about police violence, you are not fully committed to reducing gun violence. Philandro Castile was shot seconds after informing a police officer during a traffic stop that he had a weapon he was lawfully permitted to carry. Tamir Rice was shot while holding a pellet gun in a state where open carry of firearms is legal.

Part of reducing violence in society would involve working for fewer violent encounters between police and the rest of the public. Listen to people in communities affected by police violence. Reduce the role of police in responding to mental health emergencies and minor conflicts. End the drug war that provides limitless opportunities for aggressive policing and mass incarceration. Reduce police militarization and programs that train them to see the public as a dangerous enemy.

It is not unreasonable to support universal background checks or requiring a permit to purchase firearms. However, longstanding injustices and inequality will be perpetuated with new laws if they are not addressed. Discrimination in the justice system leads to discrimination in background checks. Inequality in firearms access is an issue of civil rights and political power. People convicted of non-violent felonies should not face a lifelong loss of a constitutional right. Gun control laws have often targeted ethnic minorities, people of color, and poor people, and gun control enforcement is often used against people in these communities. This is a legacy that any legislation will perpetuate if it is not addressed. Laws against possession create opportunities for intrusive enforcement, a problem that is not as prevalent in laws against new sales. A permit system can easily become arbitrary and discriminatory without oversight.

Gun control has long had associations with racism, but gun rights advocacy is not untouched by racism either. AR15s and other semiautomatic rifles – especially those with a modern tactical appearance – surged in popularity when Obama was elected. It would be nice to believe this was just partisan fear of a Democratic politician who was not gun friendly, but at least for some of the customers, there was clearly a fear of a black president talking about change. I worked at a sporting goods store around the 2008 election and saw many nervous white men increasing their firepower. Some called Obama a Muslim, and one stated that a cop told him “If he wins, they’re going to riot. If he loses, they’re going to riot.” Journalist Shane Bauer documented racial slurs thrown around by militiamen supposedly defending the Constitution. The NRA gave Trump an early endorsement in the Republican primaries as he ran a campaign stoking bigotry and advocating authoritarian governance.  During Trump’s presidency the NRA  produced a video stoking fantasies about shooting protesters and political opponents.

Rigid social hierarchy goes hand in hand with violence as people who want to be on top commit violent acts for performance or for a sense of redemption. Since Columbine, popular discourse has conveniently written off mass shooters as one of several available “other” types, deflecting the problem onto a marginalized population instead of examining the violence woven through society. The Columbine killers were not bullied social outcasts fighting with the popular kids. Omar Mateen worked for a government security contractor while abusing his partner and plotting to massacre LGBTQ people. Stephen Paddock was seemingly an otherwise typical conservative middle-aged white guy, yet he decided to dedicate his life to one final act of domination over fellow human beings. If the perpetrator of a mass attack is not from a demographic supposedly full of “thugs” or “terrorists” they must be “disturbed” “outcasts” or something else that the target audience of commentary can feel separate from, and not someone who learned common ideals of domination and violence but applied them in a frightening way.

It should be no surprise that violence or intimidation against women or family members is frequently in the life history of people who commit mass public shootings.  This is an issue to take seriously, but it will be challenging to address this issue without putting further burdens on survivors of domestic violence.

The biggest mass shootings in history were carried out by groups of men who apparently believed they had a duty to murder. Men armed by the Nazi regime systematically shot millions of their victims. At Babi Yar, 33,771 Jews were shot to death over a period of two days, and thousands more would be shot later. The perpetrators were not mentally ill outcasts from society, nor were they from a culture alien to the Western tradition. Yet they learned to value innocent lives less than they valued their own places in the hell they were making.

School shooters might have a lot in common with each other, and they might have different motivations, but we will not know if we do not ask the questions and instead rely on the incorrect answers we have. Nikolas Cruz, previously photographed in his Make America Great Again hat, had etched swastikas into magazines for his AR15 . Perpetrators of mass attacks are sometimes glorified among the far right.

While school shooters will never gain much political support, there are many instances of violence and intimidation by committed right-wing authoritarians. It is worth remembering that fascists have historically been handed power and weapons by supporters in government. It must be clear that giving power to fascists will be politically untenable, and that people will defend themselves and each other from those whose political action centers on violent attacks on designated enemies.

Mass public shootings are only a fraction of gun deaths. The majority of gun deaths in the United States are actually suicides.  People with little access to mental health care will see an accessible gun as an easy solution. They will not be encouraged to seek help if doing so means they will lose their constitutional rights.

Urban violence has roots in discrimination. Communities already lacking resources are shaken by the hostility of authorities, police raids for non-violent drug crimes, and mass incarceration. Building community is important to reducing violence.

We should be asking inconvenient questions. Does pursuit of profit over other values contribute to insecure living and devaluing of other lives? Do men who commit mass shootings in the US and those who join ISIS have something in common, and is there a fault in society that can be addressed? What kind of gun cultures and gun laws exist in countries where gun violence is rare?

In Canada, a holder of a firearms permit can buy semiautomatic rifles with limited capacity magazines. In Finland, guns and hunting are popular. The government of Lithuania encourages citizens to train in paramilitary organizations. The NRA will not discuss other gun cultures because they are ideologically and financially committed to the one they dominate in the United States.

Responding to those who would assert power over our lives through violence with the violence of making society more prison-like is not an acceptable solution.

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