Beyond Gun Control
How U.S. imperialism fuels domestic mass shootings
I drove past a house in my bourgeois neighborhood, a few days ago, that offered conflicting political messages. A lawn sign in front of the house read, “End Gun Violence.” Yet, attached to the front door was the ubiquitous Ukrainian flag — displaying the homeowner’s support for the U.S.’s proxy war with Russia.
This image, comrades, perfectly encapsulates liberals’ cognitive disconnect when it comes to gun control. Put more simply, the same liberals calling for a complete ban on assault weapons in the wake of the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, are absolutely “giddy,” to use Chris Hedges’ phrase, over America’s military support for Ukraine. This is social-chauvinism at its worst.
“Gentlemen! You Can’t Fight in Here! This is the War Room!”
The issue of U.S. imperialism is a major blind-spot when it comes to debates over gun control. We cannot seriously address the seemingly interminable mass shootings and school shootings here at home without acknowledging the outsized role the United States plays in facilitating violence and militarism throughout the world.
Indeed, even the timeline of recent mass shootings is significant. Consider:
On May 30 — six days after Salvador Ramos murdered 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde — Americans participated in a grotesque celebration of militarism and empire more commonly known as Memorial Day.
This is no mere coincidence, nor do I believe I am overstating the close proximity of these events. The United States’ pervasive glorification of war and empire has permeated nearly every aspect of our culture to such a degree that, I suspect, many citizens no longer even recognize this fetishization of All Things Military as inherently “political.” (The annual Memorial Day parade in my bourgeois hometown of Kennebunk, Maine is facilitated by the local chapter of the American Legion — a pro-war reactionary group originally established to attack communists and other antiwar leftists.)
Even sporting events are punctuated by aerial displays of F-16 fighter jets during halftime shows. The recently released Hollywood blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick is little more than a two-hour recruitment commercial for the military. (The sequel to the 1980’s Tom Cruise film is, as of this writing, the number one movie at the box office.) A young coworker at my retail job recently left to enlist in the marines. She received nothing but effusive praise from coworkers and customers for this decision.
Should we really be shocked when a culture that celebrates and reveres imperialism to such a degree then sees that same violence unleashed on its own soil — by its own citizens?
We are a nation and culture steeped in violence. Indeed, one cannot speak honestly about American history without acknowledging the pivotal role of genocide, slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow. As Thaddeus Greene writes of the “March for Our Lives” protests in a Feb. 2018 piece for Left Voice:
… [T]he U.S., and the 13 colonies before it, was founded on the extermination of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. While the horrors of slavery ended after the Civil War, state and institutional violence continues to be normalized and perpetuated. Society as a whole witnesses Black and Brown people daily brutalized and often killed by police officers who are rarely punished. Hundreds of thousands more are locked up in violent, often overcrowded prisons. In addition, the U.S. government long ago normalized the killing of foreign-born people, whether in the form of George Bush Jr.’s “Shock and Awe” bombing and invasion of Iraq or Obama’s Orwellian drone strikes.
Washington’s Warring Brothers
U.S. military-spending amounted to $801 billion in 2021. We spend more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined. According to a Sept. 2020 op-ed in Scientific American, military spending in the U.S. in fiscal year 2019 was “nearly three times bigger than China’s defense spending and more than ten times larger than Russia’s.” More than 53 percent of our federal tax dollars go to the military.
Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of “Defense,” announced an additional $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine, on June 16. This comes at a time when working-class Americans are struggling just to pay for food and gas.
And America’s addiction to war transcends the two capitalist parties’ partisan “disagreements.” Both the Republican and Democratic Parties dutifully vote in lockstep for congressional military-spending bills — with nary a peep about the exorbitant cost. Yet, when it comes to any sort of program that might grant working-class Americans a modicum of social uplift, members of the bourgeois parties inform us that such bills are “too expensive.” This was essentially the Democratic Party’s entire argument against Bernie Sanders’ two presidential runs.
For all the Democrats’ rhetorical “resistance” to Donald Trump during his presidency, a majority of Democrats nonetheless turned around and voted “Yea” for every single one of his Pentagon spending bills. Even the supposedly “progressive” members of the DSA-backed “Squad,” have largely fallen in line to support congressional military-spending bills, and demonstrate deference to Israeli apartheid. It is, sadly, another example of how the recent renewed interest in socialism — while no doubt exciting — has not yet led to a resurgence in the antiwar movement.
As Paul D’Amato writes in his socialist primer, The Meaning of Marxism, “The disagreements between different administrations and parties in Washington have not been over whether the United States should militarily and economically dominate the world, but how…” (Italics his.)
It’s Not Just Guns. Capitalism is Violence
Liberals’ exclusive focus on guns ignores more subtle forms of economic violence perpetuated by capitalism. Poverty, homelessness, opioid and drug-addiction, lack of meaningful jobs that pay a living wage — these are all forms of violence, though we tend not to characterize them as such. These economic struggles have only been exacerbated in the last two and half years by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Remember COVID…? Contrary to popular belief, the pandemic never ended.)
Many young people feel utter hopelessness and despair over their future prospects. They know that they will never achieve the economic stability their parents enjoyed. And these economic fears are only heightened by the ever escalating climate crisis.
Millennials my age have already lived through two major recessions, a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and 20 years of war and imperialism. My Gen-Z coworkers — those born after 2000, in particular — have lived their entire lives with the U.S. at war with multiple countries. Most of these conflicts receive scant attention in the for-profit capitalist media. All of these circumstances have hit working-class white men especially hard. And in all of these shootings, the killer is invariably young, white, and male.
Of course, we cannot discount the role racism, sexism, and xenophobia plays in many of these shootings. Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old shooter at the Tops Friendly Market, in Buffalo, deliberately targeted black shoppers. He was, apparently, a believer in the racist, right-wing “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, routinely peddles this white supremacist fear of immigrants, people of color, and “The Other.”
Salvador Ramos, the Uvalde shooter, meanwhile, had frequently demonstrated a profound hatred of women in class and on social media. He shot his own grandmother in the face prior to leaving the house and heading to Robb Elementary School.
As economic conditions worsen and life becomes increasingly dire for working-class people, these reactionary white supremacist ideas tend to gain traction. It is capitalism — a system built on structural racism, misogyny, and oppression — not the easy availability of guns, that drives this right-wing hatred.
The Racist History of Gun Control
While I readily acknowledge that it is far too easy for angry, unhinged white men to get their hands on military-style assault weapons, I remain unconvinced that socialists should support gun control measures.
Historically, “gun control” efforts have had highly racist implications. State regulation of the sale and availability of guns has always had the effect of placing more guns in the hands of the police and white supremacists — while restricting their access among people of color and other oppressed groups. And this is entirely by design.
Following the Civil War, numerous states passed gun control laws aimed specifically at preventing black residents from arming themselves for protection. The Florida Legislature passed a law in 1893, which required a license to possess guns. This law came shortly after a group of armed black people thwarted a lynching by a white mob. According to a Florida Supreme Court judge, the law was “passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers.” It was, the judge went on, “never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”
California, likewise, responded to the armed presence of the Black Panther Party by passing a law prohibiting the right to “open-carry,” in 1967. The Panthers would challenge police arrests of black residents by offering them free legal services and constitutional advice. (The racist, hypocritical NRA supported this law at the time.) Not only were the Black Panthers forcefully disarmed, but today every member of the revolutionary group is either dead or in prison. Keep this in mind the next time someone tries to lecture you on how socialism is “authoritarian.”
While Marxists do not fetishize the Second Amendment as the white supremacist right does, we understand that the working-class must be armed if it is to defend itself. It is not for nothing that we speak of “class war.” Socialists understand, furthermore, that the myopic liberal focus on guns will not alter the social, economic, and imperialist conditions that drive mass shootings.
All of this is to say there are myriad, complex factor that motivate mass shootings. Guns — while no doubt an integral aspect of mass shootings — are merely one such factor. Only when we are willing to take a hard, honest look at the horrific violence the United States doles out across the globe can we begin to address similar acts of violence at home.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. garnered the ire of liberals and the state when, on April 4, 1967, he publicly declared his opposition to the Vietnam war. During the speech, titled, “Beyond Vietnam,” at the Riverside Church, in New York City, King proclaimed the United States to be the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Sadly, over 50 years later, King’s description is still entirely appropriate.