Gun-control in the United States: a coded debate about racism

National Rifle Association Holds Annual Meeting In St. LouisThe shooting of 20 six and seven year olds and four of their teachers at a primary school in Newton, Connecticut by a lone gun man sent shock waves around the world writes Piers Mostyn. To read a California teacher’s point of view click here.

 In 2012 more than 90,000 Americans were shot by guns. One third of Americans own a gun, 65% support the right to gun ownership and the USA as a whole has half the world’s guns in civilian hands. Over the past three years there have been 231 shootings in which four or more people have died.

Unsurprisingly Newton has refuelled the gun control debate in the USA. President Obama, who presided over a relaxation of controls in his first term, has belatedly favoured restrictions.

But it is widely accepted that even with tighter gun control, Newton-type events will continue to occur. Connecticut has one of the strictest gun control regimes in the USA. And less than 15% of those convicted of gun crimes obtain the weapons legitimately. Some on the American left have gone so far as to dismiss the issue, saying it is marginal to the root causes of the malaise – which lie in a militaristic, neo-liberal imperialist society.

The USA is a society organised for war. Almost 50% of federal tax is spent on military expenditure, placing it top of the global league table. Its history is one of continuous warfare – direct and by proxy – with tens of millions of victims. More than 700 US military bases dot the world. A militaristic culture is pervasive – from cheer-leading these wars to video games. Compare the tragic Newton deaths with the 35 children killed by Israeli bombardments in Gaza in December or the 921 children killed in US air strikes in Iraq.

And there are broader background factors concerning mental health provision, the crisis of the family, alienation, atomisation etc.

Back to the Civil War

For socialists, radical social transformation is necessary. But does that mean that nothing short of this should be fought for? Is the fight for gun control a distraction or a potential building block to more thoroughgoing change?

Clearly there are other extremely violent capitalist societies, but gun proliferation and mass shootings put the USA on a planet of its own. Why is this? And why does the issue of gun ownership rank so highly in the terrain of American public debate compared to other advanced capitalist states?

The highly-charged ideological character of the debate stems from a coded exchange about race that was out in the open, prior to the Civil War.

The USA doesn’t just lead the world on guns and violence. It is also top of the table for incarceration (with 2 ¼ million in prison – 1% of the adult population – and a further 5 million on parole or probation, making 3% of adults subject to “correctional supervision”). And it leads the advanced capitalist states on capital punishment, with 3,146 on death row.

70% of these prisoners and 56% of those on death row are non-white. A clear majority of these are black.

Angela Davis has written about how the unfulfilled promise of bourgeois democracy, following the American Civil War, is the historical dynamic driving this racist repression.

The South lost in 1865, the slaves were freed and for the first decade of “reconstruction” there was at least lip service paid to equality and integration. But a backlash followed based on a compromise between the federal government and the South. Imprisonment and capital punishment escalated as a substitute form of control, propping up an apartheid regime of segregation and discrimination known as “Jim Crow”.

This was not seriously confronted until the explosive civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, in the process radicalising the black community. Tragically this black movement was smashed. And in its wake, from the 1970s on, prison numbers and the death penalty escalated as part of a new wave of repression.

Davis has analysed how the death penalty and the “prison-industrial complex” functions as a method of racist social and ideological control.

State violence

It is a form of social branding that makes re-entry of the ex-prisoner into society very difficult – through work, education, housing etc. It is a vehicle for withholding the vote from black people. It ritualises state violence – cleansing and expiating the social order through the judicial process. This normalises state violence against black people outside prison walls, allowing the summary execution of black men by police officers to become a routine event.

And it helps to whip up popular panic about crime and a racist culture branding black people as murderers, rapists and drug dealers. Despite a declining crime rate, people are made to “feel safer” by these measures.

The issue of gun ownership feeds into and has a parallel history to this repressive and ideological offensive to subjugate, criminalise and control the black community.

The Second Amendment to the USA constitution states that, “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. The modern gun lobby claims this guarantees all citizens the right to bear arms. But as in all aspects of bourgeois law, underlying the formality of equal status lies a substantial power nexus based on class, property ownership, race and gender.

The “well-regulated militia” referred to slave patrols, land stealers and the killers of Native Americans. The colonisation of the “new world” was a brutal process in which a small number of the very wealthy controlled the initially small tracts of fertile land. Poor whites brought over as indentured servants and prisoners were left landless and unemployed having completed their forced labour. Posing a danger to the social order they were given guns and credit and sent inland to make their own fortunes, in the process using force to expropriate from the indigenous communities.

Rapid economic growth was underpinned by slavery, which remained legal until well into the 1800s throughout the country. Thereafter it was restricted to the South and only formally abolished at the end of the Civil War. Officials mustered militias of armed white men to crush Native American rebellions and encroachments, search for escaped slaves and restrict the movement and conduct of freed slaves.

The right to gun ownership was perhaps the most potent symbol of white supremacy, genocide and enslavement. The courts were openly racist in the way the second amendment was interpreted: giving white men free reign to rob, rape and murder and setting out “Black Codes” governing all aspects of the movement and conduct of black people.

Restriction on black weapon ownership was so tight that it extended to dogs. That there were exceptions – black involvement in frontier patrols and the black regiments in the Civil War (the “Buffalo Soldiers”), doesn’t detract from this overall pattern.

After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment required equality before the law. This led to the adoption of firearms laws based on formal equality. But they were unequally enforced.

Racist militias

In the post-civil war period, it was often the racist right that led the fight for gun control, in a bid to keep guns out of black hands. Restrictions to gun ownership were implemented by a combination of police chiefs and judges who could be relied upon to interpret them in a way that left guns in the hands of white and not black people. White racist militias used terror to keep black people unarmed and in their place (most notoriously the Ku Klux Klan, originally established in 1865).

This period culminated in the Second World War when many black people fought and died for the state exposing the underlying contradictions and helping trigger the civil rights movement that followed.

It was against this backcloth that, in 1967, the Black Panthers famously engaged in openly armed public patrols (“policing the police”), including a mass armed entry to the California Legislature. Taking the constitution at its word, they exploited the contradiction between an abstract promise of rights and its denial in reality.

There is a superficial attraction in opposing gun control on the grounds that it has historically been implemented against the black population as part of an apparatus of systematic repression. So why not just call for equality of ownership in support of the right of black self-defence? An attractive argument in the abstract.

But whilst self-defence is a routine necessity for the black community (operating at all levels from individual passive resistance to mass action), there are very few black or left groups who see armed action as currently being a realistic strategy. Not against a state whose military expenditure exceeds that of the next 15 states combined.

Gun ownership will continue to be a “right” that plays into the racist ideology criminalising the black community and bolstering the culture of the “frontier” so long as the ruling ideology (with its laws, its prisons and its death penalty) is also underpinned by this culture.

This is why the National Rifle Association felt un-pressured in its response to Newton. It was formed in 1871 as part of the rightist backlash to the Civil War and is the main lobby in support of gun “rights”. Visit the a website called “Meet the NRA” for an analysis of the racism of its board members.

Armed school staff?

A week after Newton, the NRA belatedly made the absurd and provocative call for armed guards at all schools on the basis that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. It has been calculated that this would require 868,950 armed guards. Up to two million if colleges were included. Taking into account the scenes of previous massacres (shopping malls, cinemas etc) a local militia of 4 to 5 million armed citizens would be required. This was a thinly-veiled call for a return to pre-civil rights racist vigilantism.

When one of the most powerful lobbies –  with millions of supporters and to which both main parties routinely pay homage – makes statements like these in response to an incident as appalling as Newton there are high stakes involved.

It’s a complex issue that requires some unravelling. That right and left have on occasion swapped sides on gun control cannot hide the underlying and consistent dynamic of an ideological offensive by the racist right.

Isn’t it mistaken to allow this offensive free rein in the cause of the strategic objective of socialist transformation, rather than seeing the fight against it as essential to that end?


References:, (Mike King 18/12/12, Jan B Tucker 19/12/12, John Grant 26/12/12, Christopher Brauchli 28/12/12),, (Bruce A Dixon 18/12/12),,, Angela Y Davis, “Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture” (2005 Seven Stories Press).


  1. This is an interesting article and I hope it starts some discussion of this important issue.

    One of the problems with (some of) the US left’s opposition to gun control, is that it thereby loses an opportunity to challenge the culture of militarism and violence that pervades US society. Even passing a few gun-control laws would start to send a message that individual violence is not the way to settle differences. Perhaps Hollywood might wake up and listen too!

    I was struck by the account of US jails. It is coming to the UK as well, but the prison-industrial complex is far more advanced across the Atlantic. Storyville on BBC4 last Monday had an account of how the prison companies get the local authorities to provide land and pay for building a prison, in return for rent and local jobs running the jail. The area then becomes economically dependent on the prison. The company and local authority then arranges for the police to trawl an area for petty drug offenders to put in prison (one example: life, for dealing in crystal meth). The police get to confiscate all the offender’s belongings, they get high arrest rates and lots of overtime. Most of the drug “offenders” are black, but apparently there is now a turn to rounding up white, working class meth users, made destitute as a result of the economic crash

  2. The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American the right to bear arms. Has any law ever been so ambiguous? What are arms? What does it mean to bear them? At least with the first amendment we know exactly where we stand: Freedom of speech. It couldn’t be any clearer. But, the right to bear arms leaves the second amendment open to different interpretations. We need gun permits to carry a concealed weapon. Do we need knife permits? No. Yet both can, and often do, cause death. We can own a gun, or a rifle, or a sub-machine gun, or a machete, and dozens of other tools to kill, even our own bare hands. So, gun control is a debate in our country that makes no sense unless you broaden the ban or acceptance to include all instruments of death.;.

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