Mass shootings flow from the violence of racism and imperialism that shape US society—and are intensified by the death of the American Dream, writes Judy Cox
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The school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, brought home that gun crime is the biggest cause of death among US children and teenagers. Beginning with Columbine in 1999, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours.
But for the gun manufacturers and their lobbyists, the US isn’t broken—it’s working just fine. The desire to own guns is constantly intensified by the fear and frustration, the disillusionment and despair which grow out of the obscenities of US capitalism. As one salesman repeated in 2021, “The gun business is just like the booze business—it’s pretty good when times are good and it’s fucking great when times are bad.”
Times have been bad for more than a decade, and been made worse by the coronavirus crisis. Since the 1990s, shootings have grown. The process is boosted by the availability of ever more lethal guns, by those who profit from their manufacture, by the organisations that lobby for them, and by the politicians who whip up racism and fear.
People demanded change after 13 dead at Columbine High School, after 32 dead at Virginia Tech, and after 26 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But, as right wing journalist Dan Hodges remarked, “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” The Texas shooting appears to confirm this. Just three days afterwards, Republican senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump spoke at the pro-gun National Rifle Association (NRA) convention in Houston—less than 300 miles from Uvalde.
Revulsion at the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 threatened to influence voting in the presidential election in 2000. Desperate to avoid gun control, the NRA put veteran actor Charlton Heston on a 16-city tour through the presidential battleground states drumming up support for George Bush. Heston’s NRA events were raucous precursors to Donald Trump’s furious MAGA rallies. Attendees held up signs such as, “Gore Communist Scum,” and spoke about finding a rope and forming a lynch mob for Democrats.
A black-tie dinner organised by the NRA raised nearly $20 million for the Bush campaign. NRA vice president Kayne Robinson relished a Bush victory, saying, “We’ll have a president where we work out of their office.”
When Bush was inaugurated in January 2001, the US gun industry sold about 1.5 million rifles every year. By the time Bush left office—following the 9/11 attacks, the war on Iraq and the rise of Islamophobia—the US public bought nearly 7,000 AR-15 assault rifles every single day. Military-grade guns became symbolic of patriotism and an assertion of male authority and white supremacy. The NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSR) smelt huge profit opportunities. A ban on semi-automatic assault rifles passed in 1994 was lifted in 2004, creating lucrative new markets.
The gun lobby responded to the election of the US’s first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008 with conspiracy-mongering, racism and fear campaigns. Gun sales soared from less than eight million in 2008 to more than 16 million in 2016. During the first four years of Obama’s presidency, gun sales exceeded 43 million—a staggering 52 percent increase—and NRA membership grew from three to five million.
The growth in gun sales caught the eyes of big retailers. For decades, most gun sales happened in small independent gun shops and a few regional sporting-goods chains. But during the “Obama boom”, gun sales expanded so fast that even the biggest chains could no longer resist. Supermarkets, including Walmart, opened or expanded gun counters in hundreds of stores.
Obama’s departure in 2016 did not dent gun sales. Donald Trump was the perfect salesman for the gun manufacturers. The NRA rushed to endorse him and donated $30 million to his campaign— though unofficial donations were probably much higher. The NRA targeted swing states with ads. They depicted a white woman alone, unarmed, and terrified in her bedroom with an intruder in her home. The narrator reminded voters, “Don’t let Hillary leave you protected with nothing but your phone.”
Trump and the gun lobby united to stir up racist and nationalist fears. In April 2018 journalist Elliot Woods wrote, Fear—How the NRA sells guns in America today, that outlined their strategy. “Since the 1990s,” he wrote, “the NRA has been enormously successful at stoking white Americans’ fear about their darker-skinned fellow citizens while simultaneously cultivating paranoia about left wing politicians seeking to take away their guns.”
By the middle of 2020, Trump’s legitimisation of racism and hate combined with the raging Covid pandemic to generate incredible sales. Guns sell best when people are fearful. March 2020, when Covid shut down the world, contained five of the ten highest days for gun sales ever recorded. Some 201,308 guns were sold on 20 March, more than on any other day in the history of the US. March 2020 also saw the largest number of monthly gun sales ever, with nearly 2.4 million guns sold.
Meanwhile, an insurgent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was used to feed racist paranoia. Every mass shooting led to a spike in gun sales, in a vicious spiral of violence and institutional vigilantism.
The US gun lobby is enormously powerful, but the problem cannot be reduced to their machinations. It has far deeper historical roots in the history of US capitalism. In her book, Loaded—A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz debunked the myths that surround the Second Amendment and the constitutional right to bear arms.
The Second Amendment was passed in 1791 to enable independent militias and settlers to do the dirty work of invading Indigenous lands. With the introduction of slavery into North America from the 1600s, the armed settler militias that had conquered Indigenous peoples’ areas were repurposed to police slaves.
The “right to bear arms” was always interconnected with the theft of land and slavery, and massacres and mass shootings have been a feature of US society from its beginnings. The US, Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “was founded on conquered land, with capital in the form of slaves, hence the term chattel slavery. This was exceptional in the world and has remained exceptional. The capitalist firearms industry was among the first successful modern corporations. Gun proliferation and gun violence today are among its legacies.”
For centuries all black people—both free and slave—were banned from owning guns in most states in the US. But during the American Civil War of 1861-65, around 200,000 black soldiers learnt how to use guns and many took their rifles home. Immediately after the war in 1865, legislators in the southern states implemented the “Black Codes”, which made it illegal for freed slaves to carry guns.
When the racist Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865, its primary goal was to disarm black people by raiding their homes, confiscating weapons and terrorising black communities. The guns that white supremacists carried to intimidate black people became as potent a symbol of their political and racial allegiances as the Confederate flag in the US South.
The NRA, set up in 1871, campaigned for gun licences which would limit gun ownership to those deemed “suitable”. Which meant white. In 1956, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King’s home was firebombed, but his application for a gun licence was rejected by the authorities in Montgomery, Alabama.
Right wing politicians support gun controls when it suited them. When Malcolm X called for resistance to racism “by any means necessary” and posed for a photo shoot with an M1 Carbine in 1964, the right said there was no constitutional right to bear arms. The same was true when armed Black Panthers staged a protest at the California Capitol building in 1967. The governor of California, future Republican president Ronald Reagan, rapidly approved a ban on carrying firearms.
The following year, when King was shot dead and riots swept the cities of the North, the NRA campaigned for the guns used in the inner cities to be licensed. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was not about controlling guns—it was about controlling black people. Today the NRA argues that gun controls are inherently racist. If they are, it is because the NRA made them so.
The gun lobby, arms manufacturers and the ideology of gun ownership is inextricably linked to the US’s position as the world’s leading imperialist power. Politicians enthusiastically embrace the close relationship between the Pentagon and the arms industry. The US is the world’s leading exporter of weapons, with nearly 40 percent of global weapons made by US corporations.
The US has waged a war every decade since 1776—and, each time, it claims it’s bringing democracy, civilisation and the greater good. The number of lives lost to violence perpetrated by the US military is staggering. Estimates of deaths resulting from the Vietnam War range from around 1.5 million to 3.5 million. The death toll in Iraq was over one million. In Afghanistan, some 75,000 died in two decades of Western occupation. As one left wing paper observed, “There are plenty of states that repress their own people in horrendous ways. But there is, in planetary terms, no more dangerous, anti-democratic and murderous a state than the US”.
To maintain its status as the world’s greatest superpower, US military spending now tops $900 billion a year. That means that every American pays $2,000 a year to the military. In comparison, China spends less than $300 billion on its military. In fact, the US spends more on its military than the next seven biggest spenders combined. Over 130 million people in the US were employed by the Department of Defense in 2020. Recruits respond to false promises of adventure, education, noble purpose and a surrogate family and are compelled to sign up by economic conscription.
Preparations for war shape every aspect of the US economy and society. The military is promoted by incursions by military recruiters in the public school system, sophisticated marketing tools, militarised video games, films and the pro-military attitudes of new outlets like Fox News. Journalist Nick Turse researched these relationships in his book, The Complex—How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. It reveals how the Pentagon collaborates with Hollywood and the publishers of Marvel Comics, befriends people on MySpace and increasingly shapes university science and research in the interests of the military.
Journalist James Carroll describes the role the military played in public life during the Iraq War. “Photographic celebrations of our young warriors, glorification of released American prisoners, heroic rituals of the war dead all take on the character of crass exploitation of the men and women in uniform,” he wrote. “First they were forced into a war in dubious circumstances, and now they are themselves being mythologised as the main post-facto justification—as if the United States went to Iraq not to dispose of weapons of mass destruction, or to save the Iraqi people but to ‘support the troops’. War becomes its own justification.”
Gun violence flows from a legacy of colonial conquest and slavery, and how racism and imperialism seep into every pore of US society. But it’s intensified by alienation and suffering. The US is one of the most unequal societies. Some 20 percent of wealth flows to the top 1 percent, and the top 0.1 percent holds roughly the same share of wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
The human pain and despair behind these figures are demonstrated by rates of premature deaths. Suicide rates have risen by 30 percent in the last 17 years. In 2020, 46,000 Americans killed themselves and suicide accounted for half of all gun-related deaths. Addiction rates are following a similar trajectory. The US death rate from drug misuse is the highest in the world at 18.75 per 100,000 people. The world average is 2.08 per 100,000. An epidemic of opioid addiction claimed the lives of over 100,300 Americans in the year ending in April 2021.
Rather than addressing these problems, the US state increasingly resorts to violence to maintain its sick parody of the “American Dream” through the militarisation of the police and mass incarceration. Today, two million Americans are in prison and the US, which has 5 percent of the world population, has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Opposition to the right wing gun fanatics does not mean socialists should simply line up behind the Democrats. Their opposition to gun violence focuses on what types of guns—and gun users—should be controlled and does nothing to address the root causes of violence. Increasing jail sentences for gun possession and aggressive policing strategies to “get guns off the streets” won’t work. Security measures, such as metal detectors and not quite “random” searches that make schools feel like prisons, will make the problem worse.
The police cannot solve the problem of gun violence—because they are part of the problem. Human Rights Data Analysis Group estimates that police officers account for a third of stranger homicides —and almost 10 percent of total murder victims are killed by cops. Indeed, the police should have their guns taken off them.
There should be an end to the unique legal protections granted to gun manufacturers. People in the US need more anti-poverty and health care programs that address the causes and effects of gun violence. Gun violence and its consequences are deeply connected to health care, poverty, war, unemployment, domestic violence, hierarchal school systems and insecure jobs. Addressing gun violence depends on broader social justice demands, such as free health care for all, slashing the Pentagon budget and defunding the police.
Systematic injustice and inequality can lead to despair—but they can also spark resistance. As the BLM movement showed, the US establishment cannot rely on repression to subjugate its population, any more than its huge military machine could guarantee victories in Vietnam or Afghanistan.
Socialists can counter despair with hope and invoke an alternative based on collective organisation, solidarity and resistance. We stand with all those demanding an end to gun violence. And organise against state violence and imperialist war, and consistently challenge the hidden social murder that capitalism thrives on.
The “American Dream” is just one name for capitalism’s endlessly renewed and endlessly broken promises of affluence, security and fulfilment. There can be no more urgent reason to overthrow this sick system than the violent and needless deaths of children—whether they occur in Texas, in Baghdad or in Kabul.
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