Daily headlines about mass shootings are a shocking indicator that American life is far from “back to normal” as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. At the time of writing, there have been 175 mass shootings (defined as incidents in which at least four people were shot, not including the perpetrator) so far this year. The most recent to hit the headlines: five family members in rural Texas were killed by a neighbor after they asked him to stop using his AR-15 for target practice at 11pm. The youngest victim of that attack was eight years old. In 2020, guns became the leading cause of death for US teens and children, accounting for 97% of all gun deaths of people under 20 in the world’s 12 richest countries – a horrific reflection of the fact that the US, by far the richest country in the world, sees many times as many violent deaths as its nearest rivals.
As we said in 2021, the pandemic dramatically worsened all of the existing injustices we face in our society and was accompanied by the biggest economic slump since WWII. As in every social crisis under capitalism, the effects were dramatically different based on which class people belonged to and what racially segregated community they lived in.
Analyses of the statistics from 2019-2021 have verified these observations. In 2020 the US murder rate rose by nearly 30 percent. More than 75 percent of murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm, reaching a terrible new high point.
As we go to press there have been 13,734 recorded gun deaths in the US so far this year, or 115 each day. Mass shootings, although they account for quite a small minority of the total of gun deaths, represent peaks of desperation in a society where millions feel hopeless. 60% of US gun deaths – 7,854 so far this year – are suicides.
A Crisis in Our Communities and Homes
Gun violence affects the whole of US society, but its effects are distributed according to existing inequalities and oppressions, and made infinitely worse by the uniquely widespread presence of guns, with more than twice as many guns per head of population than any other country.
The crisis is deepest in Black and Native communities. According to the CDC, Black males have by far the highest rate of gun deaths, nearly twice as high as the second-highest which is American Indian/Alaskan Native males. But the ever-present threat of gun violence affects every demographic.
Having a gun in your home makes you more, not less, likely to be a victim of gun violence – doubling the owner’s risk of becoming a victim of homicide and tripling the risk of suicide. The vast majority of gun suicide victims are white men. Women are five times more likely to be murdered by an abusive partner when the abuser has access to a gun. People’s fear of being attacked in their homes, which is stoked by endless TV dramas and news reports that focus on crime and policing, has led to a horrific series of people shot for going to the wrong door, like Black teenager Ralph Yarl in Missouri, and 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis in upstate NY.
Buying guns with the expectation that they will offer protection, despite the obvious danger presented by always having a gun within reach, is an expression of powerlessness in a society where vast numbers of people feel that no one is listening.
What is needed to reduce gun violence is a transformation in our society’s social and political priorities. The violence and alienation seen in working class communities is a reflection of tremendous instability in the foundations of society as well as the fact that powerful, left-wing political movements like Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, the March for Our Lives in 2018 and the Black Lives Matter rebellion in 2020 have not produced clear political gains.
Gun control is far from a catch-all solution to many forms of gun violence, especially so long as brutal social conditions persist, but there is a crying need for gun control measures based on the desperate, immediate demands of working class people. Socialist Alternative supports the demands to ban high-capacity magazines, automatic and semi-automatic weapons; implement background checks and waiting periods for gun sales; and close the gun show loophole. However, when enforced by the capitalist state, these reforms can have their own consequences. We have already seen how background checks and police actions aimed at gun control can be used against the Black working class. A recent study shows how police in Chicago are carrying out increased traffic stops of Black men under the pretext of “getting guns off the street” – actively harassing Black motorists and finding reasons to charge them with gun crimes even when the victim of the traffic stop holds a concealed-carry permit.
With an estimated 400 million guns already in circulation and a firearms industry that continues to push gun ownership as a solution, a serious anti-violence program needs to focus on fighting the poverty, segregation, and alienation that create the conditions in which guns are used.
Our solution must extend far beyond gun control to include the demilitarization of the police and public schools; full funding for social service programs in schools including music, art, and libraries; a real livable minimum wage of at least $20 and other anti-poverty measures; socialized health care; and a massive jobs program. We also need a growth of solidarity and social struggle to fight for a decent society. This is what will really begin to overcome alienation and what the endlessly violent ruling class of this country fears most.
Addressing the Roots of Gun Violence
We are in a period of right-wing reactionary backlash with the worst forms of oppression that plague society asserting themselves in politics and in our everyday social lives. In the US, more than in any other comparable nation, these oppressions are held in place by the barrel of a gun. Racism is conserved with deadly force, ranging from police shootings of people of color to outright white-supremacist radicalization leading to mass shootings like last year in Buffalo.
While domestic violence has risen since the pandemic and as reproductive rights have suffered vicious blows, over four million women in the US have been threatened with a gun.
Homophobic and transphobic acts of mass violence like the Pulse nightclub shooting and the Club Q shooting in Colorado have shaken the LGBTQ community. For any marginalized group, disproportionate exposure to hate crimes goes hand in hand with disproportionate exposure to gun violence or threat thereof: nearly 8 in 10 homicides of Black trans women are by a gun. Much less reported than mass shootings – which are already too many for the media to keep track – is the fact that the majority of gun deaths are at the victim’s own hand. Along with an overall fraying of the social fabric and an unprecedented mental health crisis, 2021 saw record numbers of suicides by firearm in addition to gun murders.
The March for Our Lives movement after the 2018 Parkland school shooting showed what can be done in terms of mass mobilizations against gun violence, but the movement was sold out by Democratic Party politicians who purported to stand with the student activists only to later betray them.
More aggressive tactics are needed. Recently, after a horrific school shooting in Nashville, TN, three relatively new Democratic state representatives were pushed by public outcry into a fighting position. They led a protest inside the state legislature calling for greater measures to restrict lethal firearms than what the Republican majority was willing to put forward (which started and ended increased security in schools). Two of the three representatives – notably, the two Black men – were promptly expelled from the legislature in a shocking retaliation from the NRA-funded Republican right. However, they were later reinstated due to backlash.
hese are the kinds of tactics we need on a broad and persistent basis. Having politicians taking the lead in mobilizing is a huge bonus, but we know from prior experience that we can’t rely on their initiative. Occupations of legislative buildings, mass walkouts, protests, and strike action need to come from ordinary people facing the brutal effects of the crisis and know firsthand how deep it goes and what is needed to stop it.