Editors’ note: In the wake of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed at least 58 and injured hundreds, there has been considerable discussion in the mass media about gun violence, with some kind of gun control often proposed as the solution. In light of this, we are re-posting a letter from a reader that was written shortly after the shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015. The points in this letter continue to be very relevant, especially with the Trump/Pence fascist regime in power.
Look up mass shootings in America on the Internet and you see picture after picture of people of diverse nationalities holding each other, eyes wet with tears over the loss of loved ones, and a painful loss of life. Americans shoot each other far more than in any other “advanced” country. While the recent horrific shooting in San Bernardino—leaving 14 people dead and 21 wounded—is also throwing up big questions about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the world (however that did or didn’t play a role in this as a motive), this is giving rise to many asking why these mass shootings keep happening on American soil and why there is such a high level of gun violence in the U.S.
But to really understand this, you can’t just look at the question of guns; you have to look more deeply at the character of the society that is shaping the people who are turning those guns on each other.
American Massacres Founded American Society
The U.S.’s particular relationship with violence in “the homeland” has everything to do with slavery, genocide, and the theft of land from Mexico. The idea of the “rugged American individual” or being a “self-made man” is built on all that—armed with the ideology of “my right to prosper above all else” (and profiting from all of what that sat on) and the weaponry to back it up.
The American mythology of the individual small farmer striking out on his own actually rested on the wealth created from the enslavement of Black people and the genocidal, land-robbing assault on Native American Indians.1 This could not have taken place without white men owning and using guns on a mass scale, at the same time as they used their guns on each other to settle disputes. All this got enshrined in the culture and has shaped the “American ideal of individual freedom.” (The typical Western film being a celebration of American, read: white male, individualism.)
At the same time, white supremacist violence has been relied on, and fostered, by the ruling powers to conquer the land and control oppressed sections of people from the founding of the U.S. through today: from the slave-owner’s militias, the slave catchers and bounty hunters used to put down slave rebellions and catch runaway slaves; homesteaders (small farmers given plots of land by the U.S. government) after the Civil War who participated in the genocidal slaughter of Native peoples in order to control the land; mass lynchings and violence against Mexican people in the Southwest; racist violence and attacks on Chinese miners and railroad workers who played a key role in building up the infrastructure of the U.S. after slavery; lynch mobs that were aimed at terrorizing Black people, containing and suppressing them in enforced segregation from the late 1800s all the way up until the 1960s… This violence—and the right to commit this kind of violence—is integral to white male supremacy as an ideological glue of this system, and the fervent, even fanatic, culture of gun ownership is bound up with all this.
American Society Is Saturated in Brutal and Wanton Violence
Right now: America is a society that is saturated in a culture of brutal and wanton violence which affects and infects everything: from the brutality and torture this system uses in its war on the world; the rape culture that is endemic in everyday life, including this system’s military and police forces; the celebration of lynching in the history of the U.S. and the backing of the system’s police forces to brutalize and murder Black and Brown youth. From Afghanistan to Baltimore, from Ferguson to Palestine, from the slave ships to the reservations, this violence—aimed at terrorizing innocent people, here and around world, trying to go about their daily lives—IS America.
A big feature of this violence is male supremacy and the violent attempt to control and subjugate women. A concentration of this is the recent rampage on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado where three people were killed and nine injured. The murderer was, at least in part, inspired by the Christian fascists’ demonization of Planned Parenthood, which is about one thing only: female enslavement through taking away the ability of women to choose whether and when they will bear children. There is the revenge mentality against women for refusing to be controlled by male partners or ex-partners, where men will go shoot up a woman and her children with the idea that, “If I can’t have you, no one will.” Or the fury against women that was concentrated in the shootings at UC Santa Barbara by Elliot Rodger, which was in large part instigated by wanting to punish women for not wanting to be with him, as if by virtue of being a man, you are owed a woman—who in all this is never seen as a full human being but as something to be owned and dominated. This is also seen in the guy culture of pornography or in many video games that celebrate and reward reactionary violence, revenge, and degradation.
All this is on top of the most cutthroat enshrinement of unfettered capitalist relations and the wolf-like individualism that this promotes—again, among everyone, whether they sit at the top of this capitalist system, owning the means of production or not—and again coincides with the constant fortification and assertion of various forms of privilege (male right, white supremacy, nativism, etc). This is the culture that is promoted, celebrated, and given official backing in America—whether it be Shark Tank on TV, a show about brutal entrepreneurialism, or too much of the hip-hop that is promoted by the powers that be, where one track will brutally celebrate the degradation of women, and the next is about chasing money, taking down anyone who gets in your way, and using mass weaponry to do it (which is just parroting the larger rules and dynamics of this system).
Then there is the overall fraying of the social fabric: the “traditional relations” and social norms are being pulled apart by the workings of this system even as they are being forcibly enforced. There are big changes in the world, growing economic disparity in the U.S., great anxiety about the future, and this is causing a lot of turmoil, frustrated white male entitlement, and a tremendous amount of alienation. (Just think of the staggering number of people who numb themselves with drugs just to get through their days.) This is contributing to a lot of the craziness, unpredictability, and volatility in our society.
As painful and horrific as it is, these constant mass shootings—even as different incidences have different particularities—flow from all this.
Infighting Among the Rulers
In addition to a lot of struggle about the role of the U.S. internationally and in particular about how to deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (which I’m not going to get into in this correspondence), the infighting among the bourgeoisie about guns and gun control has grown—in particular in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting. The New York Daily News (a more mainstream imperialist newspaper) has featured several newspaper covers in the last week calling for gun control, including going so far as to call the head of the NRA (the National Rifle Association) a terrorist. The New York Times, one of the main voices of the mainstream liberal imperialist wing of the bourgeoisie, ran an editorial on its front page calling for gun control. Running an editorial on its front page is something the Times hasn’t done since the 1920s! There are big questions up among the ruling forces—not over whether this system should stay in place, but what are going to be the cohering norms of this system as it carries forward its male supremacist, white supremacist imperialist system scrambling to maintain its top-dog position in the world. There is a lot coming apart and they are battling over how to keep it all together.
It would be important to think more about why the mainstream imperialists feel the need and freedom to go on the offensive around this right now. There is a basic question of people coming to feel the illegitimacy of a system that can’t “keep us safe” when this is something that Americans have come to expect in ways that most people in the world don’t. Then there is the need, from the mainstream imperialists’ perspective, to reign in the fascist forces. The Democrats don’t have a social base that they want to arm in the way the fascists do… so how, from their perspective, do you keep all this together? I’m thinking out loud here, but I think this would be worth batting around more to understand the sharpening and volatility of the terrain more deeply.
What Is the Way Out?
That said: gun control is not the answer. We cannot, and should not, rely on the source of the problem to solve it. This is a system that uses its guns in the hands of the police to murder people in the streets indiscriminately, in particular Black and Brown people. This is a system that uses its guns and its bombs halfway around the world to massacre people in hospitals and wedding parties as a fighting doctrine.2 And when they talk about “gun control”—they are not talking about stopping all this!
What’s needed—and what’s possible—is a profound struggle to bring into being a society where the destructive social antagonisms between people are eliminated and in which there is an ethos of cooperation, of mutual recognition of people’s humanity, an open-mindedness and curiosity proceeding from the world out; but the ONLY way to get to such a society is to dig out the roots of the one that gives you the dog-eat-dog daily relations and the system of oppression and privilege that requires the twisted and broken psyches that gives rise to, the close-minded and narrow individualism and the consequent madness and mayhem that rages. This requires revolution and communism, and a movement today that promotes, lives. and struggles for those emancipatory relations as much as it can in the present as it fights urgently for the future.
1. Read Bob Avakian’s Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy for a powerful dissection of the “yeoman” mentality, the mentality of the individual farmer, which Thomas Jefferson held up as the American ideal, an ideal which rested on slavery and genocide. [back]
2. This has only contributed to the geometric growth of Islamic fundamentalism. For more, read “In the Wake of San Bernardino: NO Pogroms, Paranoia & Persecution! NO More Unjust Wars!” at http://www.revcom.us. [back]