Firearms and Revolutionaries
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States’s refusal to mutually disarm themselves merely encouraged each other to further produce and research arms for themselves. The No Nuke Movement popularized the idea of not only “freezing” nuclear arms production, but abolishing nuclear arms altogether (David Dellinger, “What About the Soviet Threat?” Beyond Survival). Certainly, this vision of a better world is beautiful, especially for pacifists, like David Dellinger; it is very similar in thinking to the vision many liberals have of a safe society, where gun-free zones permeate everything. However, disarming the state’s military forces is very different from disarming populations.
This is, of course, not to suggest that everyone should, or even have the right to, own nuclear bombs.
Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association (a well paying job for only having to talk about one issue), has received a lot of attention since the shooting of Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut. On December 21, 2012, LaPierre delivered his planned speech to explain the NRA’s response to public outrage for more gun regulation. LaPierre began with a simple analogy of stopping bad people with guns by having more good people with guns, and was interrupted twice by protesters. LaPierre went on to blame violent media and games for violent crime, then chasing another red herring to arrive at the point that airports, important buildings, prominent celebrities and politicians, and other valued people or vulnerable locations all have armed security forces present. LaPierre’s proposed solution to prevent another Newtown was armed guards inside schools. While an interesting debate of domestic security to have, I couldn’t help but notice the fact that his commentary had no relevance to the debate over firearms rights and regulations, to which he was supposed to be responding.
The recent debate over firearms, following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, has drawn many people to re-question the role of guns and the Second Amendment in our society. Entangled in the debate is an obscure positioning of political identities or wings, as if gun control is a Right-Left issue, with the Right playing a libertarian defender of “freedom" and "rights", and the Left playing a paternalistic overseer. Historically, this has not been the case. In fact, revolutionary socialists have canonical texts to encourage gun ownership and training, as well as being the target of the most fundamental court case in American history’s firearms regulation. In fact, the NRA's role in these early court cases were hardly "libertarian," by any stretch of the imagination.
Also, the debate occurring today is conventionally framed as a perspective to limit violence versus one to preserve individuals' rights; the discussion of protecting or regaining social rights and their capacity to defend or attain political freedom is not one being had on television. This framing of the debate is dangerous, because firearms regulations should never be treated as a stand-alone issue.
When abstracted from the rest of politics, the right to bear arms is rather meaningless; any social perspective of history should understand that an individual's right to possess a magazine that holds 20 rounds (or any firearm and/or accessory) makes little difference to the survival of the state. Instead, it is the social role of the Second Amendment that was its reason for inclusion in the Bill of Rights, and it is this precise role that was the first and most urgent need for the state to negate. Generally, the capitalist state applies a rule of marketing to the individual, while barring any social threat to power and privilege.
That is what states do, and that was the concern of the United States historically; the states and federal government were more and first concerned with who owned the firearms, not what firearms were sold, because the state's goal was to curb whatever social libertarian shreds actually existed in the Second Amendment. Groups of people assembled and trained together (militias) armed with basic firearms are the reason the social aspect of the Second Amendment existed. It is worth noting as we go through history that less armed militias have historically been considered more dangerous to the state (and the NRA, for that matter), than individuals (no matter how crazy they are) armed to the teeth.
Why the social aspect of the Second Amendment is never breached in Congress is no surprise, because those in Congress are unanimously against the right of people to be in self-organized, armed opposition to the capitalist state, and so agrees the NRA and its financiers.
Friedrich Engels's Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and V.I. Lenin's State & Revolution lay a clear argument out about the state. They define the state as armed bodies that come as a political superstructure to protect the interests and property of the capitalist class; for reasons concerning economism in analysis, this defintion of the state as armed bodies of a political superstructure should be extended to include the protection of all power and privilege throughout society. Lenin and Engels expressed a profound understanding of the capitalist class needing to crush rebellion, establish a facade of justice through its “officials” in republic office. These officials play something similar to a managerial role in the state, ordering its lower levels of forces to best defend interests, making concessions when confronted with any real threat, and procuring any threats it can preempt. This last role is apparent today when observing police infiltration, as well as Engels and Lenin’s concern of disarming the population. With workers disarmed, strikes could be more easily crushed or dragged out without militancy. Peasants could not revolt. Rebellion was incredibly limited. The United States government is one of the most obvious examples of this juridical weaponry.
The example of the old Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, appearing on the California Capitol steps to protest Republican Governor Ronald Reagan’s move to ban firearms begs the question, “Where was the National Rifle Association?” In fact, one look at the history of the United States and the social reasons for the Second Amendment confirms all the worst fears about the capitalist state, as well as the old BPP’s defense from white rule.
Social Libertarianism in US History
The first major US Supreme Court Case (United States v. Cruikshank, 92 US 542 (1875)) concerning the Second Amendment was also, possibly the most major decision for US gun regulation. A racist case with a racist decision in the Reconstruction Era, the Supreme Court upheld that Congress could not restrict Americans’ right to bear arms, but that the Constitution did not prohibit individuals and states from restrictions. In this case, the Supreme Court was permitting (states to permit) racist white men to restrict African-Americans from bearing arms, resulting in the massacring of sixty African-Americans, in what came to be known as the Colfax Massacre. This was among the other many decisions in early American history that reinforced devolution or independent “state’s rights” policies. Devolution is a pseudo argument for political libertarianism, arguing for small states (similar to some arguments for small businesses today), no matter how racist, sexist, or otherwise unprincipled, ignoring the fact that small states and business can be more draconian, racist, sexist, etc., as a large state or business. Devolution is also to blame for the incredibly confusing regulatory gun policies in the US, in which each state can define its own level and jargon for firearm ownership and carrying.
It’s worth noting here that the National Rifle Association, established in 1871, was already in existence at the time of the Cruikshank case. The NRA quotes the Cruikshank case in “Right to Carry Summary” as a cornerstone precedence for individuals' right to bear arms.
In U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876), the Supreme Court recognized that the right to arms is an individual right, stating that it "is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.
Shortly after the Supreme Court approved post-Confederate states to prevent African-Americans from owning guns, the USSC would hear another important case over the Second Amendment. While Cruikshank was the most fundamental marker for fragmenting US public policy and developing the confusion of different policies in every state, the next major Supreme Court Second Amendment case was probably the clearest example of distinguishing social from individual liberties; but it, like the first, has context.
In 1877, workers went on strike across the country, in what is now called the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. In Chicago, Illinois, the strike was brutal. Boiling water was used, homes and offices were raided, police shot people marching in the streets, and afterward, the State of Illinois purchased Gatlin Guns. The workers learned lessons of their own from being massacred. Led by Herman Presser, German socialists organized and trained diligently in Lehr und Wehr Verein, a new militia in Chicago, pledged to defend workers on picket lines from the next time State of Illinois’s attacked workers. In 1879, they paraded themselves through Chicago and were arrested. Presser’s militia became famous for Presser v. State of Illinois (116 USSC 252 (1886)): “does not prevent a state from passing such laws to regulate the privileges and immunities of its own citizens as do not abridge their privileges and immunities as citizens of the United States.”
The courts ruled that Presser’s and other militias would need registered with the state, requiring their approval. (Also, see The Chicago Crime Scenes Project’s "The Lehr-und-Wehr Verein and the Second Amendment".) Effectively, this was a clear statement that states could disarm militias or other social uses of the Second Amendment. States would particularly find this useful against any popular force that could potentially challenge their power; workers with muskets were disarmed with far less question by states and the federal government than five-person militias in the countryside of Montana armed with assault rifles. This distinguishment further reinforces the thesis that the capitalist state seeks, first and foremost, to disarm the working populace, while marketing to the individual. “Presser v. State of Illinois” became the most conventional tool to barring anti-government and worker militias in the United States, and it was accompanied by a sweep of parallel new definitions across the US.
The most recent definition in Illinois was in its 1970 State Constitution revision, intentionally defining “militia” for this purpose: The State militia consists of all able-bodied persons residing in the State except those exempted by law. (Article XII: Militia, Section 1: Membership)
This move in state definition of “militia” is common, and it is the premise for a strictly individualized legislation for firearms conduct and ownership in the United States. On the other hand, recent cases have actually made quite a defense for individual firearms owners’ rights to bear arms. While the United States is not a utopia for the National Rifle Association, it is actually much more libertarian on firearms liberties than most developed states. Most firearms regulations are the result of individual states’ decisions—a typical excuse of federal level politicians in the U.S. to get out of taking a stance on political issues. By handing questions down to the states, they can escape blame and appear to uphold the federated state structure that founded the United States of America.
Recently, the District of Colombia v. Heller resulted in a slight victory for the NRA, preserving individuals’ rights to bear handguns in the home for self-defense, regardless of their status in the military. This last stipulation is the most popular conclusion of one aspect of debate in the past two centuries. The NRA definitely cares about individual liberties, but it stops exactly where a sale and an individual’s use would.
The NRA does not stop when it comes to basic an individuals' political right to have guns. They regularly take up efforts to allow individuals with violent criminal records to possess firearms. This is the same reason, though, they are a main financier of conservation and wildlife preservation; because wildlife preservation keeps enough animals alive to keep hunting a thriving sport and hobby in the rural US. Similarly, the NRA encourages their donors: “The NRA Corporate Partners Program enables businesses and organizations to help ensure the future of America's hunting and shooting traditions.” (Violence Policy Center, “Blood Money: How the Gun Industry Bankrolls the NRA,” p. 6.)
The NRA is not necessarily concerned with the right of Americans to responsibly bear arms for the originally intended purpose of the Second Amendment. They are concerned with the right of arms and munitions firms to sell their products on the market, because those companies write the checks that keep the NRA in business. This should come as no surprise. 74% of the NRA’s funds come from corporate partners; aside from firearms and munitions industries freely giving to the NRA tens of millions of dollars, high-ranking employees and stockholders in these companies also contribute pretty pennies to protect their portfolios. (Violence Policy Center, “Blood Money: How the Gun Industry Bankrolls the NRA,”) While the NRA has an enormous membership, and its membership contributes impressive quantities of cash, their base’s finances are puny compared to the contributions of the firearms and munitions industries. These companies range from the expected gun manufacturers, like Remington, to munitions producers, like Winchester and Federal, to privatizely-owned military defense forces (that work for the capitalist state), like Blackwater Worldwide.
The NRA was completely complicit in overturning Presser v. the State of Illinois. As a special interest lobbying group, working for owners of industry, they care about the rights of Remington, Winchester, and Federal to sell rounds of ammunition, as well as the right of Blackwater Worldwide to militarily police without mitigation. As a political organization founded by white men during Reconstruction, and guided to protect white men, it also has historically stood to protect white privilege. The NRA does not care about a social right to bear arms. If anything, the NRA would probably oppose Herman Presser’s historic effort, because allowing the potential for Presser’s success allows for the workers’ control and public control of companies that back the NRA financially.
Ironically, the earliest historic liberals were libertarians in a semi-social sense. The Anti-Federalists and even Federalists, like Thomas Jefferson, clearly had more libertarian perspectives, than conservative Federalists, like Madison.
Jefferson was convinced that their new experiment called America could become just as violent, oppressive, and dangerous as England. As a result, he was on guard, warning against its power; he clearly had political intent behind his interpretation of the Second Amendment. “The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.” He even had an understanding of the dangers of its absence in the private sector: “Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.” (Yes, Jefferson owned slaves. His argument here was very evident of his own ideological inconsistencies; if his quotes about the Second Amendment were applied in the context of the Cruikshank court case, African-Americans would have probably obtained social freedom much faster. Jefferson clearly understood that people can protect themselves from slavery by weapons.)
This libertarian perspective was not alone in the US. The National Confederation of Workers (CNT) in Spain was an anarchist (libertarian communist) trades union, and when government crackdowns occurred on arms flows throughout Spain, they did their best to make sure workers and peasants were well armed and equipped to do battle in the impending class war. This strategy of foreseeing war and preparing for it has been common in many revolutionary movements. However, in highly developed capitalist societies, where gun regulation is already tight, media portrayal may be more important.
In either case, media has definitely changed the need to strategize and present ourselves to the public. The days of street battles not being caught on camera are long gone. Another major difference of today from 1879 is the economic and organizational development of all 50 states in the US. While protests may be able to catch police off-guard at times, they cannot count on defeating the state and federal government’s brute force in combat. The Battle in Seattle in 1999, as well as the many Occupy locations throughout the US in 2011-2012 provide abundant glimpses of the grotesque military combat in which the state is willing to conduct to protect power and privileged interests.
Presser’s efforts were very relevant and worthwhile for his time. They posed serious potential to challenge the state and federal authorities. While these efforts may not seem so relevant today for combat, they definitely serve as a lesson for distinguishing social and individual liberties. Presser’s precedence in US history exemplified the first and foremost concerns of the state and its bourgeois-guided special interest groups, like the NRA. (Remember, the NRA has existed since 1871, and Presser’s case was in 1879.) We can see class politics overtly at work in the Presser v. the State of Illinois case. The Anti-Federalists libertarian sentiment and concerns about the Second Amendment in its drafting were finally expunged in Presser v. the State of Illinois.
Stats & Problematic Argument Formulations
There are a lot of statistics that can be used to argue gun ownership as correlating with homicides, but these can often be misleading. For example, we’ve all seen the numbers of homicides in the US with firearms compared to those of other industrialized countries, but we don’t also see the social mobility rate, cultural alienation, lack of education, measures of machismo, psycho-social depression, and other factors that might motivate mental instability and encourage violence. Another statistics tactic is to simply correlate the percentage of firearms owners to firearms deaths, but again, poverty, black markets (drugs, prostitution, etc.), class conflict, race relations, overall education, mental health, current firearms laws, and other factors are not even mentioned.
Gun availability does not create gun violence. Gun legislation does not create safety either. Likewise, gun availability does not create safety, not does its legislation create violence.
In their paper, Ideas and Action, the Workers Solidarity Alliance published “The Second Amendment and Closed Horizons,” that showed an extreme case of needing social context in statistical analysis. “[G]un ownership is not particularly correlated with national firearm homicide rates. To take an example, in Somalia the rate of firearms ownership is only 9.1 per 100 people (compare to 88.8 in the U.S.).” However, the same should be emphasized back at the arms-motivated libertarian—firearms do not inherently make a territory safer. Flooding the developing world with guns has certainly not increased lifespan. While China suffered a similar attack Friday, December 14, as Newtown, Connecticut, when a man knifed small children, it’s also worth remembering that nobody died from this event. Newtown had 27 deaths.
Thus, it can certainly be argued that assassination of unarmed people is more difficult without a firearm, but nobody ever doubted this fact.
Still, it is incredibly undemocratic to say that a neighborhood should be unable to establish itself as a gun-free zone. This is a sticky area, because geographic autonomy for firearms policy brings in the necessity of having checkpoints to enter neighborhoods or regions, which smacks of colonial relations and would be incredibly difficult. Policy differences on a territorial basis should never be infringed upon as the right of communities to self-determine themselves, however, in this case, differences should at least be discouraged and forced to negotiate their terms of regulation with other political bodies. Otherwise, upholding or enforcing any rule about firearms (or drugs, for that matter) is tenuous.
Still, gun regulation does not address any of the root causes of shootings. They are not monistic or uniform by any degree. For example, the shootings in the United States Postal Service, in the 1980s, was largely the result of driving workers insane, compelling many to carry out heroistic fantasies of vengeance on management; there is a decent documentary on this, called Going Postal. Student violence might be a carrying out of vindictive vengeance fantasies against other students, as the result of social alienation and mental instability. Non-school violence may have other causes. Aside from the postal related crimes, the most obvious social characteristic appears to be that shooters were young white men.
While social identity reduction correlations do not inherently indicate any causation, it is worth noting a few plausibilities. Many of these assassins, had they been in non-white communities, they probably would have experienced extreme poverty and crime; non-white versions of these assassins may well exist within gang violence today, unnoticed for its rarity.
The gender characteristic is more overt. Men are raised to resolve their problems with affirmation and confidence. They dominate. They are not defeated. They have the last word. It is not a surprise that many mass shootings, like Adam Lanza conclude with the gunman committing suicide, having the last word on his life and the controversy, while not allowing the impending combative force to defeat him. While nobody would argue that men are inherent killers, modern masculinity directs men how to handle their alienation. Many men fetishize the strength firearms offer them. Insecurity, coupled with inflated confidence, encourages many young men to venture into gun ownership while refusing to acknowledge they need safe training; instead, preferring to "learn-as-you-go." While not a characteristic of mass shootings, lack of firearm safety is another major cause of gun violence in the U.S. Manhood as a social characteristic of mass shooters is definitely worth noting in analysis, though, if we seek to end gun violence; it appears just as relevant as firearms regulations have proven to ending gun violence.
Revolutionary militias may be effective as a self-defense method still, but in the long run, they are not the end-all. Mutinies in the US, among the state’s armed rank-and-file and police will be necessary. As the Battle in Seattle and Occupy have demonstrated, the state has developed its combat capacity to wipe the floor with civilians without even calling in the big guns.
In the case of a transitional semi-state, people having the right to assemble in self-organized armed militias is important to maintaining libertarian power among the citizenry. There should always be trained, autonomous militias based in the working class, women, and all cultural groups, able to combat any future transitional political system constructed, to guard better against counter-revolution, a managerial or "official" class, or a bureaucratic layer of the state seeking to betray the revolution. To achieve this, it makes the most sense to have arms training (not arms access) in revolutionary public schools. This is much safer, as it teaches the dangers of firearms objectively and how to properly use them, instead of the learn-as-you-go or figure-it-out on-your-own methods used by many macho gun enthusiasts who are afraid to ask questions today.
This is a far more social use of firearms through public policy, but it enhances people’s safe use of them much more than today’s Second Amendment and the fraudulent claims of the National Rifle Association. A libertarian transitional socialist state has much more capacity to protect and foster social rights, than any state that seeks to preserve its own existence. Socialist revolution will involve a transitional state must have libertarian limitations set on it, and these efforts must prevent it from developing “officials” who might seek to protect their power and privilege of managing the state’s affairs, as well as centralized armed bodies that trump public will and stifle workers control. Unless limitations like this are set, workers’ transitional state will never “wither” away.