How Do We Stop Gun Violence?

Transcript of a talk given by UVM student and ISO member Robin Chadwell, March 8, 2018

I’ll start off by providing just the very basic facts of the latest mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, so that we’re all entering into this talk on level ground. On February 14th, a 19 year old white man named Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 people––fourteen were students, seven of them were only 14 years old. The shooter has routinely engaged in anti-semitic, homophobic, white supremacist rhetoric, and was trained in combat by the ROTC program at his high school. This will prove very relevant later in my presentation.

The ISO agreed to host this meeting and discussion because when groups like Turning Point take up space like they have tonight, it is imperative that activists in the fight for justice not only contest their presence but also provide an alternative conversation for people to join. So with this latest act of mass destruction, we’ve all seen the mainstream responses that tend to take over our news feeds. It’s generally an echo of past pleas, as liberals demand stricter gun control and conservatives claim the guns are innocent, so let’s touch on those a bit.

There is no doubt that the NRA’s approximate $50.4 million contribution to GOP candidates in the last election cycle contributed to the fact that Cruz was able to use an AR-15 that he purchased legally in 2017. But I want to note that there is a huge disconnect between the working class republicans who defend their right to bear arms in social media posts and the GOP senators who represent those interests. In other words, the motivation for people like Florida senator Marco Rubio to defend the right to bear arms is related to ensuring he receives funds from the gun lobby––it is unrelated to his deep concern for the 2nd amendment and the liberties of the individual. I wanted to note that, because it’s important to acknowledge that there is a common oppressor even between folks in this room and some of the folks who chose to attend the Turning Point event. In building a mass movement, we’ve got to remember that.

Then, of course, there is the other popular opinion in response to horrific events like this: something along the lines of, “these politicians need to step up and pass common sense gun reforms so that our kids are not killed in school.” This is the prevailing argument among the non-radical left, and of course, it is a compelling one.

What neither stance offers, though, is a historical understanding of the origins of gun control nor the roots of prolific violence in the United States––the truth of which has the potential to reorient the conversation and provide a way forward. And this is what the socialist perspective brings to the table––that necessary nuance that is otherwise lacking.

On that note I’ll go into the history of gun regulation a little bit.

It must be made clear that gun control in America originated with the state trying to disarm black people and maintain racial oppression. In 1865, several southern states adopted “black codes” that prohibited black people from possessing firearms in an attempt to maintain white supremacy after the Emancipation Proclamation had––in the formal sense––ended slavery.

We can look to the Nixon administration in the 1960’s, while the black liberation movement was on the rise. The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, explained in their Ten-Point Program that they believe “all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”––a reasonable belief given the deadly brutality exercised by the police. Shortly after the BPP formed in Oakland, California, governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, prohibiting open carry. The idea of black people who could defend themselves rather than surrender to the violence of the state was terrifying for the bureaucrats in office whose job it was to maintain the status quo. Then came the 1968 Gun Control Act, which was actually supported by the NRA. In fact, the NRA was pro-gun control for most of the 20th century––that is, while white Americans were concerned about the implications of armed black revolutionaries.

We can jump to 1994––the ‘94 Assault weapons ban––a subsection of the Biden and Clinton approved Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. We know this legislation effectively introduced the new Jim Crow, allocating close to 10 billion dollars to the prison industry and police force. We need to argue against the idea that the militarization of the state and more prisons are solutions to violence––we have stand in steadfast sureness of the fact that those things are part of that violence, and that they are part of what we are fighting against. When socialists talk about gun violence, we don’t just mean that which occurs in schools––we also mean police brutality. In 2017, police killed more citizens than mass shootings did––1,129 compared to 428.

To summarize these first few points, one of the underlying misconceptions that is stifling the conversation around this issue is that the U.S. government is a neutral entity––immune to the biases that capitalism requires to survive. But in the days of #BlackLivesMatter, and while black and brown people are being shot by a militarized police force, history can’t be ignored. Gun reform in the way it is currently being talked about will not serve justice for black and brown people who are being targeted by state-sanctioned violence. We know this not from speculation but from history, in the examples I just detailed. And just so that we remember that this isn’t a thing of the past, some forms of gun control being proposed right now––like the background check that would bar people with criminal records––would overwhelmingly discriminate against people of color. That is because people of color have been the targets of unjust incarceration and arrest for centuries. The deeper we look, the more we see that there is much more discussion to be had and problem solving to do than to just push through what is referred to as “common sense” laws. It’s not common sense to the most vulnerable and oppressed people in this country.

All the while, this is not to say in any way that the gun control legislation proposed by the enduring parents of Sandy Hook victims, for example, isn’t rooted in a benevolent desire to protect children from harm. It is, without a doubt, an admirable pursuit. It is pertinent, however, that these advocates recall the racist history of such things, the potentiality of racist gun reforms today, and fight against that––which will, in turn, require fighting for the demilitarization of the police.

Part two of this take on gun violence: I just talked about the complexities of gun control and how there has to be a critical understanding of how it has been and can still be used to repress people of color. But even with that said, and although nuanced gun regulation may be a short-term reform worth supporting, reforms will not put an absolute end to these kinds of tragedies. That is because they stem from a culture of violence, of war, of white supremacy, of toxic masculinity, of economic disparity, wherein profit is prioritized over wellbeing: our government puts prisons, police and deportations, over schools, housing and healthcare.

When we look at the facts of gun violence, we see that it goes far beyond mass shootings in schools. Most gun violence happens in the poorest neighborhoods in the country, where school systems lack funding, there are high rates of unemployment, and extreme over-policing.

Because of the way capitalism and racial oppression are intertwined, these low income neighborhoods are also the most racially-segregated. And so 15 out of the 30 Americans killed by guns every day are black men. The establishment’s solution to this is always to send in more police. This, of course, only brings in more guns, and as we know, an increase in police presence does not translate to an increase in protection for black and brown people. In the meantime, congress has passed a $716 billion “defense” budget that will fund more police, more guns, and more war. Danny Katch, a member of the ISO and writer for Socialist Worker, spoke to this in one of his recent articles:

“We have to organize to revive the idea that the world isn’t full of evil people who need to be punished–but needy and hurting people who need to be helped, before they get hurt or before they hurt others.”

Heavily armed police are not the solution for impoverished neighborhoods––the solution would be to take the funds that we’re allocating to over-policing, and put those toward meeting basic human needs, like food, education and healthcare.

Continuing with the idea of social causes of violence…The discovery that Cruz was engaged in racist, homophobic, anti-semitic dialogue cannot be separated from his destructive actions. The implications of this information are that violence is not a surface issue. Hateful thoughts and acts are learned behaviors, Nikolas Cruz’ ideology was fostered by a society built on war, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity. 98% of all mass shooters are men, most commonly white.

These events no longer seem like random acts of evil if we understand that our culture is one that establishes violence as a justifiable means to achieve one’s goals. In another one of Danny Katch’s articles, he noted that the U.S. has been at war for 93% of its existence, and that has created a mindset in which violence has been justified abroad in the name of patriotism and national safety. This mindset has been replicated domestically and justified in the same way. And then, of course, there are smaller examples of how society raises boys to be emotionally suppressive, and physically aggressive––the fact that women, who are not so emotionally suppressed in our culture in the same ways, don’t engage in this violent behavior is not because they are not capable––it is because there are different societal expectations and pressures shaping their psyches. The patriarchy hurts everybody, and it has a place in this conversation. Additionally, we must acknowledge the recent rise of right wing white nationalist activity in this country. Cruz was raised in a society that taught him white supremacy. He attended a school that trained him in combat. Gun manufacturers armed him. And on top of all of this, he grew up to follow his government’s example, and thought that violence was an effective means for achieving his goals.

We must organize to redress these social causes of violence, in addition to supporting the fight for nuanced gun reform. We need a comprehensive struggle against U.S. imperialism, horrific ICE raids and deportations, police brutality, prisons, and shootings, because their causes don’t exist in isolation from one another. We’ve got to do it because the capitalist elites clearly cannot afford to do away with violence if it proves profitable for them––that is, if doing away with it would entail a change in the status quo. GOP candidates will not refuse funding from the NRA if it ensures their seat in congress, nor will they divest from violent industries if they bring in revenue.

That is the situation.

The aftermath of the Parkland shooting is a step in the direction of radical struggle. This school shooting has been different than any other in the past. Students are voicing their discontent with the status quo, not in whispers, but in shouts––on national television and online platforms that reach millions of people. They are galvanizing the left around this issue. They are calling for a national school walkout on the 14th, a march for our lives on the 24, and another walkout in April. The rhetoric is shifting from that which leaves all power in the hands of politicians, to that which puts the power in the hands of students and those who actually feel the effects of these violent patterns. A recent article from the Outline came out talking about David Hogg, a student and survivor of the last shooting. He makes a great point:

“It’s like when your old-ass parent is like, ‘I don’t know how to send an iMessage,’ and you’re just like, ‘Give me the fucking phone and let me handle it.’ Sadly, that’s what we have to do with our government; our parents don’t know how to use a fucking democracy, so we have to.”

He got it exactly right. We have to take things into our own hands because that’s how we win victories––we can look to the teachers in West Virginia who struck, who shut down every public school in the state, and won what they came out to win, as an example. That is how we will win.

Coming to a close here, I want to emphasize once more, for all the reasons we’ve gone through, that this movement needs to take up the struggles of other movements for liberation. Ending violence is a broad task. That means taking up the West Virginia teachers who are fighting for education, because we know that gun violence is most prominent in neighborhoods with no funding for schools. That means taking up the the #BlackLivesMatter movement, because police brutality is gun violence. That means taking up the #MeToo movement, because on average, every month, 50 American women are shot to death by their intimate partners. These warriors, these survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, belong in the struggle.

Because that is where our power lies. In the dissent of the masses––in solidarity and collective protest. At the beginning of this presentation I mentioned how we have something in common with some of the folks over at the Turning Point USA meeting––a common oppressor. That oppressor is the ruling class that has over and over again, put profits in front of people, and refused to act in our interests. Looking forward, we must collectively contest the ultimate source of violence in the United States that lies at the root of all these horrific events; and that is the drive for profit. That is the disregard for human life in the name of revenue. That is capitalism as it exists in our world today, and as exercised by our politicians.