Toward Disarmament: Gun Politics and the Left

The proliferation of weapons in the US is a legacy of our country’s violent, settler-colonial history. The gun industry needs to be targeted and opposed as a capitalist death machine.

When I told my mother, a lifelong socialist, that I was writing an article on guns, she immediately related a story from her past. In 1968, she was collecting signatures to get Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther Party member, on the ballot for president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. She canvassed an older white man who clearly had no idea who Eldridge Cleaver was. “What’s his opinion on gun control?” the man asked. “He’s against it,” my mother rejoined. She got the signature.

I relay this story because it reflects the Left’s long term ambivalence on guns. While mainstream Democrats generally argue in favor of gun control, the radical Left has at times embraced gun ownership and libertarian gun policies. DSA stands somewhere in between these. As a big-tent Left organization, we have members on both sides of this divide. As often happens when our members are divided, we tend to avoid the issue altogether. While it makes sense to focus our priority campaigns on things that have broad support among our members, I think we should still try to address more controversial issues, especially when they are topics of broad national conversation. Being absent from major political debates forgoes opportunities to engage regular people on the issues they care about. Furthermore, as DSA has more and more electoral successes around the country, our elected officials will have to vote on these issues, even if they are controversial among the base. It behooves us, then, to do our best to foster a vibrant discussion and hopefully to come to some consensus on issues even when they divide our base. This article is offered in that spirit.

When you think about guns as a matter of public health, it’s hard to see why anyone on the Left would feel any attraction to them. Here we have a commercial product, produced by capitalist companies for profit, advertised using racist, sexist and imperialist tropes, which is contributing significantly to suffering and death around the world. What exactly is there for a leftist to like? Just as we would argue about toxic chemicals or unsafe consumer products, it seems like a no-brainer that we would want fewer of these things to be produced and distributed around the world.

Yet for many of us, the issue of guns appears more complicated. One common Left argument against gun control is that such policies will be enforced in a racist manner. While the fear is understandable, this is an ineffective argument because the same could be said about many existing public safety measures, like traffic laws. We know for a fact that these are enforced in a racist manner against Black drivers, but I haven’t heard any arguments against traffic laws. There is a good argument for traffic law enforcement by unarmed officers rather than armed police, but people understand that not having traffic laws at all is not an option. The same principle should apply to guns.

Another argument is that gun control laws don’t address the root causes of violence. While this may be true, as long as gun control laws could save lives,they are meaningful and worthwhile. As socialists we should care more about the value of human life than the Right and capitalists do. Like with every other area we do activism, we can fight for reforms that will ameliorate suffering and improve lives in the short term, while also attempting to address the root causes of these problems longer term.

Finally, there is the argument that the Left should arm itself. As socialists, we condemn the senseless violence caused by capitalism and imperialism but at the same time most of us are not pacifists.Very few people on the Left would disagree with the proposition that armed struggle has been appropriate and necessary in some contexts and situations. The question is how to identify when we are in one of those situations, and or how to prepare for the possibility that they will occur in the future. Here I will explore a few different arguments for arming the Left, and try to relate these to what our policy demands should be for the purposes of organizing in the present.

Going on Offense? 

The first argument is that we should be armed so as to carry out revolutionary struggle against the state. I think this argument can be discounted fairly quickly. It does not appear that an armed socialist (or anarchist or communist) uprising in the United States in the year 2022 would have any chance of success. Even if one were in favor of armed revolution, holding this position does not also require support for widespread legal access to guns. Legality is quite beside the point when you’re seriously contemplating revolutionary violence. Even if arms are legal, using them – or planning to use them – for socialist revolution is not. Zip ties and rope are perfectly legal everyday items, but you can still be arrested and go to jail for conspiracy to commit kidnapping if that is the reason you purchased them. If you’re not actually seriously making a plan to violently overthrow the government, then acquiring guns under this pretext is actually just revolutionary cosplay. Those making this argument want to have it both ways: they want to feel like a badass revolutionary by playing with guns, but without actually risking jail for their revolutionary activities (i.e. weapons possession).

It’s obvious but bears repeating that such revolutionary cosplay is a dangerous game that carries high risks for the entire community. Any place where guns are present is going to have an increased risk of death by suicide, femicide, accidents, and other types of interpersonal violence. As Patrick Blanchfield puts it, “There’s…the actuarial risk of the fact that in any place with tons of guns, gun death becomes a nonzero possibility. This is as simple as saying that you’re not going to die in a car accident unless there’s a car around; the gun being there is something that can potentiate events.” A recent study showed that Californians who didn’t own handguns but lived with handgun owners were more than twice as likely to die by homicide compared with those living in gun-free homes, and people who lived with a handgun owner were seven times as likely to be shot and killed by a spouse or intimate partner. Eighty-four percent of those victims were women. Leftist groups will additionally be vulnerable to gun violence instigated by agents provocateurs and government infiltrators. For someone to oppose legislation that would restrict gun sales simply because they want to engage in revolutionary cosplay is a truly contemptible position. The cosplayer is okay with gun violence continuing unabated as long as they get to keep playing with their favorite toys.

A variation on this argument might be to say that even if armed revolution is implausible and a bad idea in the present, things might change in the future and it’s wise to be prepared. This proposition has to be weighed in a cost-benefit analysis. What is the likelihood of the political situation warranting or necessitating armed revolutionary violence, versus the likelihood that the presence of guns in our communities will lead to increased suicides, femicides, and inter-factional violence? The latter is basically guaranteed, while the former is unknown. Is it worth the sacrifice of these members of our community in the present, in order to be stronger or better prepared for a hypothetical future scenario? If consistency requires that we advocate for everyone’s right to bear arms because we want our own people to be able to possess such weapons, then are we also willing to sacrifice the lives of untold numbers of civilians who will be killed by gun violence, all so that we can be in a better position to prevail in a hypothetical future socialist revolution?

The Question of Self-Defense

A different, and I think more compelling, version of the argument is that the Left needs to defend ourselves and other vulnerable communities from a growing fascist movement that is heavily armed. As Ana Kasparian recently admonished her left-leaning audience on a Young Turks episode, “the Right wants to slaughter you! The Left needs to arm itself.” We have already seen the murder of Heather Heyer, Summer Taylor, Anthony Huber, Joseph Rosenbaum, and other participants in anti-racist protests. It is also well known that many leaders of Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist groups have faced death threats, and some have died under suspicious circumstances. From many vantage points, the future looks even more bleak. We might even contemplate the possibility of a new civil war occurring in this country, as some elements of the Republican Party adopt openly insurrectionist and/or secessionist views. In my opinion, this is a far more pressing argument for arming the Left than the prospect of armed socialist revolution. The right wing is extremely scary, and they have a lot of guns. For that reason, I think it is worth gaming out what taking action on Kasparian’s injunction would look like, and what this would mean for our policy advocacy.

Taking into consideration the factors discussed above about the increased risk of suicide, femicide, accidents, etc. that comes from the presence of guns, the only plausibly responsible way of acting upon this injunction would be to have an organized militia that is accountable to the community it seeks to protect. Ideally, this would mean it would be subject to some form of democratic control. It would also ideally mean forgoing individual gun possession in the home in favor of storing weapons in a community armory, which individuals would not be able to access on a whim or without being observed by other community members. Even better, we could put that armory under the control of the community’s women and people who are less vulnerable to the allure of toxic masculinity.

This model would align with the idea that the state should retain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. As socialists, we believe that a socialist state should have such a monopoly. Even if the state were to eventually wither away, I think we would generally want to see violence used only in situations of necessity as determined by the community. There isn’t a scenario for socialists in which it would ever be good for political violence to be used at the discretion of individuals.

But how do we feel about the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence when we are in a capitalist state? I think it still would not advance the cause of socialism or benefit the common good for the state to lose its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to just any individuals or groups. For example, where a neighborhood comes under the control of the mafia and people begin to see the mafia’s use of violence as legitimate, this might mean that the official capitalist state is weakened, but it doesn’t mean that socialism is strengthened. Likewise, widespread interpersonal violence by individuals causes great suffering and does nothing to advance the socialist cause. In fact I believe it makes our work harder (more on this below). Thus I would propose that the only political violence the Left should ever support is that which is aimed at liberation and which is collective, not individual; democratic, not vigilante.

However, even if we were to embrace the possibility of collective, democratic control over the use of firearms, this still leaves open the question of what this means for our policy advocacy. If we want to advocate for community-controlled armories, does that mean we should advocate for fewer legal restrictions on buying guns in general? Basic consistency and a desire to avoid accusations of hypocrisy might lead us to think that if we are going to do it, we should advocate for everyone’s right to do it. I agree that in general it’s good to avoid hypocrisy! However, I don’t think it’s terribly inconsistent to say, “we would rather that guns be abolished but until then we are going to have a few for self-defense purposes while continuing to advocate for them being less readily available in general.” It might not be the ideal position to take, but our present situation – which is far from ideal – may require some compromise on our principles.

Furthermore, I would argue that there are different ways to attack gun manufacturers, gun culture, and to make guns less readily available, some of which are more aligned with leftist values than others, and some of which would present more problems for our hypothetical community armory than others. As an article by Patrick Blanchfield puts it, “The issue isn’t whether or not we should have ‘gun control,’ but what kind of gun control we want to recognize as legitimate.”

Some measures that seem very reasonable would be to have waiting periods for gun purchases and to raise the age for gun ownership. As Danny Katch has argued, these fall into the category of universal public safety measures which would apply across the board and therefore would not be implicated in replicating racial or other kinds of profiling. I would also argue that for the purposes of building a community armory, there really shouldn’t be any need to have a turnaround of fewer than 30 days, much less for the purchases to be made by an 18-year-old.

There are still some problems with the leftist community armory idea, however. The Right is already far more well-armed, and so long as guns are legal and accessible, our political enemies will continue to amass even more weaponry. The far Right can also count on the overt and covert support of many police departments around the country, which means they will always be able to employ the use of firearms and political violence generally more easily than the Left. Instead of arming ourselves, it may be more effective to demand the disarmament of various right-wing groups and the police, as well as campaigns to investigate police departments (and the US military) and root out as many far Right elements as possible.

Some anti-gun policies are more complex. This includes measures like mental health background checks, which seem difficult to implement and raise major privacy concerns. Criminal background checks are important, but they need to be overhauled to focus on things that are actually indicators of violence – including histories of domestic violence and stalking – as opposed to indicators of the applicant’s class and racial background. But there are some specific types of gun control measures and anti-gun politics that should be particularly appealing to those on the Left. These include disarming the police, including laws that allow police to carry guns when they are off duty. There should also be corporate tort liability for gun manufacturers, and a broad rhetorical attack on gun manufacturers, who are quite literally capitalist merchants of death. More public health research on the awful effects of gun violence (currently stymied by NRA-backed federal legislation) could help to build political support for productive gun control legislation. More broadly, the Left should campaign and organize against US militarism, because the links between violence abroad and violence at home are so strong. All of these propositions are fully consistent with general leftist politics.

Ban Assault Weapons

A different question is which types of weapons should be for sale. Military-style “assault weapons” would arguably be more effective than other guns for purposes of self-defense, but they also are that much more dangerous in the hands of our enemies. The evidence indicates that military-style weapons, specifically high-capacity magazines, are particularly effective in maximizing casualties in mass shootings. Some commentators on the Left have minimized the importance of mass shootings, arguing that the media attention paid to them far outweighs their importance in terms of numbers of gun deaths. As Blanchfield has argued, “many Democrats have used such events [mass shootings] to call for token measures like a renewed Assault Weapons Ban (AWB)—despite the fact that assault weapons have been used in less than 2 percent of all gun homicides over the past three decades, and that the previous AWB helped cost the Democrats fifty-four seats in the 1994 House elections, put a fortune in the pockets of canny gun manufacturers, and sparked a gun-buying frenzy that hasn’t let up since.” Even if we concede these points, it would still be a mistake to underestimate the political impact of mass shootings. Mass shootings are a quintessential expression of the nihilistic outlook that is so pervasive today, and which is arguably the biggest enemy of socialism. As any canvasser can tell you, the problem with motivating people to action isn’t that they don’t like our ideas, it’s that they believe nothing will ever change. Mass shooters are unhappy with their lives and typically suicidal, but they want to go out in a way that expresses their anger and makes other people feel the pain that they feel. In many cases, if they believed their lives (or the world) could change for the better, then they wouldn’t choose to go down in a blaze of gunfire. And if they thought that the real causes of their pain and frustration were the capitalists or the state, then they would kill those people instead of their family members and classmates, especially women and girls. Even when the mass shooter isn’t explicitly animated by right-wing ideology, their mindset clearly has a politics. They are answering the question “what is to be done?” in the most negative and vile way they possibly can. Nothing is to be done: the only answer for them and for us is death. As climate change threatens the very existence of life on earth, it becomes more imperative than ever for the Left to reject this politics of death and despair.

Furthermore, the fear of mass shootings deeply undermines our ability to participate in that most fundamental context for the Left: the public sphere. Schools, parades and marches, the public square – these are places where people gather and which are necessary for organizing and political expression. The more fear that people feel in public spaces the less time they are going to want to spend there, and hence we can expect to see more people retreat into a private sphere rife with gated communities, private security, and the like. There is nothing more inimical to the kind of organizing and community building the Left wants to do. Random violence and the threat of it does harm to our political project, and we should treat it as such.

All of this is to say that socialists should support a new assault weapons ban. It might not be the most effective way to reduce overall gun deaths, but it will likely save the lives of some school children, each of which matters. Furthermore, rejecting these weapons matters to our politics and culture. Interestingly, one of the arguments commonly made against an assault weapons ban is that the term “assault weapons” is technically meaningless and often refers more to the military “look” of a weapon than their physical capabilities. To me, this misses a large part of their appeal to their owners, including mass shooters. The military look is why these people like them, in addition to their dreadful killing capabilities. It is therefore a cultural statement to reject them. As the Left, we are in the best position to reject them outright and with the most consistency. While liberals make morally idiotic arguments about how these weapons “belong” in Afghanistan but not on US streets, we can make the more consistent argument that these killing machines belong nowhere. 

Toward Disarmament

A final, different argument to tackle is the proposition that people have an individual right to self-defense. This includes people of color, women, or any individuals who feel a need to be armed. This raises two separate questions. First, do we support laws that allow people to do this, and second, do we socially approve of people arming themselves?

Even if individuals have a right to self-defense, which I believe they do, I don’t think they necessarily have a right to self-defense using the weapons of their choice. I might think that my personal safety would be ensured if I had a baby nuke in my closet, but my neighbors would have a right to be worried about how this would impact their own safety. Gun rights advocates seem to think that their personal safety and freedoms matter more than other people’s lives. But as the old adage goes, “my freedom to swing my fists ends right where your nose starts.” Weapons pose a risk to everyone in the community, not just their owners. The community should therefore have a say about whether these things should be allowed. For this reason, I think the Left should support the call to repeal the Second Amendment. I don’t believe that self-defense with a gun is a fundamental right that should never be infringed by the community. Where a community decides that they don’t want these things, they should be able to outlaw them, even if some segment of individuals in the community disagrees. Not everyone wins every time in a democracy.

It seems very unlikely that individual handgun ownership will ever be outlawed in the US in any of our lifetimes, so it’s fair to question the value of raising this demand in the first place. Even so,we should still look to examples of post-conflict societies and how they implemented disarmament. One of the obvious barriers to disarmament is that people are afraid of giving up their own weapons while other people still have them. With individual gun ownership, as opposed to weapons held by states or militant groups, the ensuing collective action problems pose a major challenge to any disarmament program. There will probably have to be community-led efforts to disarm different neighborhoods and regions, within which people may feel safe enough with each other to mutually disarm. This is certainly a process that will take time, but I see no reason why it should not be a part of a long-term socialist program. The prevalence of guns in the United States is a legacy of settler colonialism; disarmament can be a part of the demand for decolonization.

In this way, we should not support any kind of fundamental right for individuals to have guns, but we may be living with this regime for a long time to come. In the meantime, what should we think about those people who choose to arm themselves? In my view, personal gun ownership should be subjected to some degree of social disapproval, with certain exceptions (e.g. BLM activists wanting to defend themselves from death threats). Individual self-defense may be a fundamental right, but it is also a masculinist fantasy. The same goes for the defense of hypothetical others, usually women and children. There are clearly lots of people, including police officers, who have grossly inflated ideas of the degree of personal risk they have to deal with. Take Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Mike Brown. It’s entirely possible that he lied about being afraid for his life, and that in fact the killing was a cynical execution done in cold blood. But I think it’s also possible to understand that white supremacy clouds people’s judgment, and can make them view a teenage boy as a predator and a threat to be feared. These fears are often combined with delusional fantasies about being some kind of male savior who protects women. This means we cannot simply take people’s feelings of unsafety at face value. They have to be grounded in reality, and we have to use our whole political analysis to understand that reality. I am personally far more sympathetic when a woman who has been stalked, or the aforementioned BLM activist who has received death threats, decides that they need to arm themselves than when my white male comrades who have not received any specific death threats decide to arm themselves for their own safety. The former have a reason for their fear that is rational and grounded, while the latter may not. While we can’t necessarily write this kind of criteria into law, it is something that we can have social norms about in our community. Even people who have reasonable fears for their safety should consider the cost-benefit analysis of the increased risks that come from having a gun around. Their family members and community members may also have feelings about it, and we should expect these things to be the subject of community debate.

To sum up, a general leftist orientation toward guns would encompass the following principles. The Second Amendment should be repealed. It’s anti-democratic, and it makes it more difficult for cities and states to pass more restrictive gun laws where people want them. The gun industry needs to be targeted and opposed as a capitalist death machine. The proliferation of weapons in the US is a legacy of our country’s violent, settler-colonial history and should not be normalized. Individualistic self-defense should be viewed skeptically as a masculinist fantasy. Finally, the abolition of guns and weapons of mass violence should be our ultimate, utopian vision. The specific steps we take to achieve these goals are certainly open to discussion and debate. But, in my view, these are the grounds our movement needs to stand on if we are to make a meaningful contribution to dealing with a major national crisis.