The Politics of Gun Control

by Adam Ritscher / July 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

It has become an issue that has propelled hundreds of thousands of ordinary people into political activity. It has inspired impassioned arguments, claims and counter-claims, and become the topic of hit box office movies. It has become the fuel that has launched political careers of countless politicians on all levels. It is portrayed as one of the fundamental “wedge issues” that divides the American people. The issue is gun control.

The most recent national election perhaps best personifies the heights that this phenomenon has reached, especially for those who seek to be seen as opponents of gun control. Both presidential candidates tripped over themselves to be photographed with hunting guns, complete with camouflaged vests and other sportsmen attire. In fact one candidate even tried to make an issue out of how his camouflaged jacket was more worn than the other guys – and thus prove that he was the more gun savvy of the two!

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. All across middle America thousands of posters, handbills, radio plugs and bumper stickers urged people to “vote their sport” by pulling a ballot lever for gun friendly candidates.

On the other side of the issue the recent years have seen the emergence of campaigns like the Million Mom Marches, and other projects aimed at pressuring politicians to pass legislation putting restrictions on, or banning, certain firearms.

Proponents of gun control point to availability of guns as the reason for the level of violent crime in the United States. Opponents claim that the best defense against violent criminals is to be well armed.

What emerges out of the efforts of both sides is a colossal smoke screen that misses the real point, and provides an incredibly powerful distraction that politicians have exploited to our severe detriment.

What is remarkable about the gun control debate is that it centers on crime, but neither side has taken anything close to a serious look at what causes crime, and therefore how it can be effectively challenged. We all mourn when innocent people loose their lives in drive by shootings, robberies gone awry and playground shootings. But our emotional outrage over such tragedies is no excuse for failing to take a serious look at the root causes of violent crime. Quite the contrary, it demands we do just that.

Apart from a tiny handful of individuals who have suffered incredible psychological trauma, or the victims of chemical imbalances, almost all violent crime, and crime in general, is rooted in economic causes.

The rawest manifestation of this can be seen in the crime rates, which exists in economically depressed communities where entire generations grow up without hope of meaningful employment and educational opportunities. The capital flight from the inner cities, the collapse and relocation of manufacturing industries, inflation and the poverty wages of the service jobs which provide almost the only employment avenues left in many neighborhoods have all conspired to drive people into incredibly desperate straits – out of which crime blossoms.

But crime emerges from the decaying capitalist system in more subtle ways than that as well. Rampant capitalism will do anything for the sake of profit – from gutting social services which could otherwise provide hope or at least temporary relief to those in poverty to creating a culture that is so alienating and impulse driven that it virtually worships cut throat individualism and violence. Hand it glove with that, capitalism deliberately fails to nurture any kind of impulse towards solidarity, cooperation and compassion.

It is these more subtle, but sometimes equally violent, manifestations of alienation that sometimes grab the headlines because they occur even in affluent white neighborhoods – as we saw in the Columbine, and other tragedies.

Any serious attempt to protect us all from violent crime isn’t going to be successful unless it recognizes and focuses on the economic origins of crime. No amount of household shotguns, or absence of them, will suffice.

This begs the question then of why this issue has taken on such importance when it rests on such shallow and shaky assumptions. The reasons for this lie in the rottenness of politics in this country. The fact that the issue of gun control has become such a powerful “wedge issue” powerfully illustrates to what a low level politics have reached. The gun control issue has become such a social divider because it is an incredibly useful tool for both Democratic and Republican parties, and their big business puppet masters. Both use it as a way to get voters riled up, ringing doorbells for their candidates and electing politicians who rely on the distracting power of this issue to get away with attacks on working people.

It’s a scam that works incredibly well. The end result is indeed tragic. On one hand you pro-hunting farmers voting for anti-gun control politicians who then turn around and slash farm aid on one hand. On the other pro-gun control voters electing candidates who say they are for more restrictions on guns, but who vote in support of imperialist wars. Politicians on both sides of this issue seem to be in agreement when it comes to going after our livelihoods, our rights and our social benefits.

The fact that we have a corporate controlled media and such restrictions on non-big business candidates explains how this charade can go on election after election without being successfully exposed. Newspapers and TV stations latch onto issues like gun control, and either ignore or put a neutralizing spin on far more important issues like wages, social benefits, civil liberties and whether or not this country should be going to war. Instead the media and politicians go on disseminating their distracting smoke screen, dramatically exaggerating the levels of violent crime in the process, and in other ways cultivating a culture of fear.

It should be said that as socialists we are opposed to a situation where only the capitalist state has guns. We are not in favor of disarming working people. However, the issues of what types of guns should be available, what type of safety measures and gun education should be implemented are issues that should be rationally and democratically decided by the people. That is not what is happening in the current debate on gun control, far from it. We must recognize the divisive and distractive power that the issue of gun control as it is currently framed has. What is called for is an unmasking of this charade and the issuing of demands on the state to take concrete and massive steps to tackle the real sources of violent crime – poverty, alienation and fading of a meaningful future. We need a fighting workers’ movement that blows through the smoke and tackles the real issues!