The mad killing of 20 first-graders and six of their teachers in Newtown, Conn., followed by the mayhem of the Boston Marathon bombs, has ignited passionate discussion about gun violence in the U.S.
Misery and death inflicted on the innocent, and especially children, are devastating. But the furor over these mass assaults by individuals — terrible, but rare — obscures the routine violence of a country spreading poverty at home and war abroad. And the mainstream debate doesn’t even touch upon the need and right of working and oppressed people to effectively defend themselves against an inhumane social order that is utterly dependent on armed force to survive.
For anyone concerned about reducing violence, these are very real issues.
Poverty kills. Of all the U.S. deaths in 2000, 36 percent were caused by social diseases such as racist segregation, income inequality, inadequate social services, minimal education, and poverty. So concluded an impressive Columbia University study reported in the American Journal of Public Health in 2011.
By comparison, just over 1 percent of U.S. deaths in 2010 were gun deaths. And three out of five of these were suicides, not homicides.
It’s clear that, first, these statistics hardly support tightening gun laws and, second, poverty and inequality are far more fatal than guns.
Joblessness, dangerous jobs, stingy or nonexistent healthcare, environmental ills, and systemic sexism and racism are taking a profound toll. Their cause is the capitalist economy, owned and run by a very few individuals of obscene wealth and power.
Integral to this economy is the weapons industry, with its arms lobbyists including the NRA. Now this industry’s profits are bolstered by the permanent “war on terror,” which has intensified the U.S. culture of militarism and provides justification for foreign wars and for repression, spying, and torture abroad and at home. They call it “national security,” but the intent is to keep rebellion at bay.
When armed self-defense is needed. The Freedom Socialist Party, like socialists historically, supports the right of the oppressed class to physical self-defense.
In the U.S., armed self-defense has been essential for colonial, working-class and civil rights fighters — from the U.S. revolution against King George’s military in the 18th century to the anti-slavery revolution of the Civil War 80 years later.
In his book Negroes with Guns, Robert Williams describes how Blacks in North Carolina who were organizing to integrate public swimming pools in the early 1960s had to fortify their homes with sandbags and train with rifles to stop night raids by the Ku Klux Klan. During the civil rights movement, guards for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were armed as well as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members and Black Panthers. Being prepared for self-defense prevented blood from being shed.
In a long, hard 1973 strike in Harlan County, Ky., coal miners and their wives refused to back down from gun-toting company goons and took up weapons. That same year, American Indian Movement warriors held off FBI and tribal cops at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation. Native Americans continue to take seriously their sovereign right to bear arms.
U.S. gun control has generally had as its targets the poor and oppressed, as with the disarming of former slaves in the South after the Civil War. Today, Florida is a case study in the double standard, with a “stand your ground” law protecting paranoid racists, but Black mother Marissa Alexander sentenced to 20 years for firing into the ceiling to stop her abusive husband.
Collective resistance is still necessary to protect against government and right-wing violence. For instance, Radical Women has called for armed self-defense training to protect volunteer guards against harassers of abortion clinics, who have a record of bombings and murders.
Striking workers who face armed cops and company mercenaries also deserve protection. So do activists who stand up to neo-Nazis or campaign against police brutality. So do those who are often prey to street violence: women, targets of racist and anti-gay thugs, people with mental and physical disabilities, the homeless. So do immigrants at the mercy of Border Patrol agents and vigilantes.
Communities could organize gun training with union members and neighborhood associations to defend all these groups, and many military vets would be willing to help.
The right to overthrow the system. Though guns are a small contributor to death and injury statistically, it’s still true that many communities live under a shadow of gun violence from within.
More gun control laws are not the answer. What would help, and help in a big way, is legalizing drugs, funding effective drug rehab programs, and involving gang members and trusted community leaders in supporting gang truces.
But what will make the most difference in people’s lives is attacking the violence of the system — which is at the root of most individual acts of harm to start with. Putting armed guards in schools has turned out to increase student expulsions, especially of kids of color. Instead, let’s fight for reopening and fully funding closed public schools while reducing class sizes, preserving and expanding ethnic studies, bringing back art and music, and hiring more teachers, counselors, and librarians — and paying them better. Let’s fight for generous funding to create productive jobs, restore social services, and provide quality physical and mental healthcare, including suicide prevention programs.
And let’s fight for the money to pay for all of this by shutting down the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon. That would take care of oceans of gun violence!
Capitalism is proving in its time of trouble that it is willing to let people starve in isolation rather than pay for collective human welfare. And that it will protect itself “by any means necessary,” in Malcolm X’s famous phrase. The U.S. ruling class will bomb foreign countries, strip away civil liberties at home, throw the poor to the wolves, and put more people behind bars than anywhere else in the world.
For socialists, the popular right to self-defense is not a legalistic thing, it’s a right of the working-class majority. It extends all the way from Mace in a woman’s purse or pocket right on up to revolution to overthrow tyranny.
And isn’t that exactly what we’re facing?
Kathleen Merrigan contributed research for this story. Send feedback to Monica Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.