Beyond Gun Control: Confronting Violence, Inequality, & Militarization of the State

Like many following the recent tragedy at Parkland and the always ensuing debate about gun control, I truly would love to see an end to shootings and violence in all forms — whether it be by acted upon by a civilian, the police, or the US military.

Nevertheless, current gun control demands and efforts from the more liberal wing of the country, especially the Democrats, leave a lot to be desired and questioned. Are calls for banning assault weapons and creating a universal background check, with a hyper-focus on mass shootings and all the understandable hysteria behind it, the right strategy?

Additionally, are we willing to just ignore the racist history of gun control in our country, that has the possibility to create even further policing of communities of color, while simultaneously throwing our brothers and sisters who suffer from mental health under the bus for increased scrutiny and stigma, despite zero evidence supporting claims that associate violence with mental health issues?

In an era of so much inequality, militarization, dehumanization, and glorification of violence, I often wonder if current gun control efforts, especially with their narrow focus on the potentially problematic strategies listed above, will do much of anything to solve a problem that is certainly far deeper than just a few gun legislative changes.

In the process, efforts often refuse to shed any light at all on the violence perpetrated daily by the state (police brutality, mass incarceration, inhumane detention and prison centers, deportations violently separating families, drone strikes abroad, the death penalty, torture, lack of accessible healthcare, etc). Do we focus our efforts on the most powerless rather than the most powerful; to whom does this benefit? What is the larger political and societal project at hand that can speak to the many layers of this epidemic of violence?

Reactions of anger and urgent calls for gun control are real, valid, and certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, but we must thoughtfully question what strategies should be pursued and not remove ourselves from confronting systems and institutions in our society that are connected to, but ultimately go beyond, the GOP, NRA, and gun control. The militarization, violence, alienation, and inequality in our society that affect so many aspects of our waking lives are part of the same political project — neoliberalism — and until we choose to consciously fight against this dehumanizing doctrine that ultimately connects many struggles, while also battling for legitimate reforms, it will be difficult to win the world we need and transform society.

Fortunately, we have inspiring movements like #MeToo, the Movement for Black Lives, universal healthcare, the Fight for $15, and so much more to look up to and get inspiration from. Using the consciousness created by these movements and others, we can make sure that we continue to transform vicious systems that are deeply rooted in violence, militarization, and corporatization — that do not value life or human rights, only the bottom line.

Until then, current gun control calls and strategies that only focus on background checks, assault weapon bans, and the like — completely removing themselves from state violence and current economic and political injustices and demands — will only lead us to more death, militarization, alienation, and pain.

Banning AR-15’s & the Australian Question

Not long ago, in the 1990s, there was a ban of AR-15s, one of the more common weapons of choice in mass shootings. Following the ban, however, this was unsurprisingly met by a sharp increase in sales for AR-15s. Furthermore, the research that has focused on that time period has provided really no evidence either way whether violence decreased. They did note though that any decline of violence was “offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns equipped with [large-capacity magazines].”.

Now, from what used to be 1.5 million assault weapons in circulation, we have around 8 million. Unfortunately, any legislation passed would not get rid of those 8 million guns and instead would just attempt to prohibit future sales. The legal market for all the AR-15s before the ban is implemented would still exist along with a black market and most likely another high capacity weapon filling its place (not to mention current accessibility with technology like 3D printers where people are literally printing AR-15s).

Perhaps a step in the right direction, but we can’t pretend like this will make a huge difference due to the specific conditions in the United States that foster inequality, violence, desperation, alienation and the like. It does make me wonder what protests outside of gun manufacturers would look like, demanding an end to the global production of violent weapons that only encourage death and domination.

Finally, when thinking about the classic gun control example of Australia from a few decades ago, their government bought back 640,000 firearms which would be the equivalent of 90 million guns in the US (300 million+ guns in the US in total). The culture and magnitude of guns in the US make this an entirely different situation and almost impossible logistically.

Universal Background Checks

Background checks could definitely help counter the killing perhaps, but there is still very conflicting and indecisive research out there on the matter (it would help if more funding went into research, surely, as there are too many barriers presently which create a lot of inconclusive data). Furthermore, we can’t dismiss the fact that a majority of killers in mass shootings passed federal background checks. Cracking down on gun theft, black markets, and other areas that background checks would fail to cover also complicate the matter. Finally, universal checks can increase prices and falsely ban law-abiding folks from obtaining guns which of course creates a class and race problem that would make it harder for lower-income folks to purchase guns.

It’s not to say let’s not pursue background checks at all, but we should probably approach it with some nuance and not put all our marbles behind it.

The press with the racially charged language of “invaded” to describe the Black Panther Party’s demonstration at the state capitol where legislators were weighing measures to keep black people disarmed. Ronald Reagan, governor of California at the time and well known for his white supremacist beliefs, later announced there was “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.

Gun Control & Racism

The history of gun control in the US is undoubtedly racist and doesn’t seem to be a topic of conversation for many on the liberal left. Not long ago the NRA and GOP supported efforts for gun control thanks to the rise of the militant and radical Black Panther Party. Of course a lot of the history of gun control, like many policies that promote “law and order” in our country, has been to keep communities of color “in their place” as noted by Tiffany Ware of BGP (Brown Girls Project — an initiative set out to connect and educate black women on gun laws and handling firearms).

What’s more is the current day racist dynamics behind the NRA taking forever to even acknowledge the police murder of Philando Castile, a legal gun owner, African American, and highly respected person in the community. The deafening silence from gun advocates said everything we need to know about how much the NRA has evolved since the 70s. In addition, the undeniable hypocrisy of white nationalist groups proudly being able to open carry and walk around cities like militiamen loaded with assault weapons and military apparel, while the police ignore it all. Of course, we all know this would cause a police and military invasion acted upon by our darker skinned brothers and sisters.

All of this makes one understandably wonder what would happen if the government did, in fact, get more serious in restricting guns. Based on historical precedents, there’s a great chance it would result in more militarization and policing of communities of color.

Mental Health is Not a Problem, Toxic Masculinity Is

People with mental-health related issues are not the problem. First off, people who are “mentally ill” are more likely to be in the line of fire, versus being the shooter, and certainly, don’t need the unwarranted and blatantly false stigma that comes with always being associated with shooters and violence. I repeat a majority of shooters are not mentally ill. There’s also just no link between mentally ill people and violence, so we need to end this dangerous rhetoric and stigma. A large majority of violent crimes, 95%, are “committed by non-mentally ill individuals.”

Second, recent legislation from the Obama administration suggested anyone who received psychiatric disability payments from Social Security should be incorporated in the FBI background check database. As noted above, there’s no evidence supporting this move, and despite its maybe good intentions is simply unjust. Understandably the ACLU, not just the NRA, was against it, and how we would go about doing this without violating people’s rights and without further stigmatizing and virtually hunting people who deal with mental illness is still a mystery (folks who may then be less likely to seek treatment in order to not be labeled as dangerous.. which again, there’s no evidence supporting claims of mental health equating to violence).

If we stigmatize and hunt down anything, let it be toxic masculinity (along with seriously redefining what it means to be a man).

Toxic masculinity, however, is actually one of the biggest problems plaguing every aspect of society and must be confronted at every corner, especially by my fellow men. This violent form of masculinity is certainly related to mass killings, domestic abuse, sexual assault and harassment, destruction of the environment, imperialism, and so much more. It fetishizes and encourages aggression and pain (often through sports), violence, militarization, dehumanization, revenge, and domination (failure becoming equal to weakness). We must do all we can to redefine what it means to be a man rooting the new definition in compassion, vulnerability, healing, collaboration, respect, humility and far less ego.

Overall, it became clear to me that present gun control strategies are inconclusive at best and potentially problematic at worst. Outside of the maybe flawed strategies, it also feels like a lot of societal and systems critiques are just missing from the debate — often excusing the most powerful among us while vilifying the most powerless.

The Militarization of Police

Speaking of the most powerful among us, when talking about gun control why are we ignoring the insane amounts of violence encouraged, created and perpetuated by the state? Police officers killed over 1,000 people in 2017, which if you’ve been paying attention is unfortunately nothing new. US drone strikes have killed hundreds, potentially thousands, of civilians since Obama took office. And within the last decade or so, the militarization of our own streets and communities has become completely out of control. We saw this in full force during the Ferguson and Baton Rouge uprisings against unjust systems which resulted in tanks, MRAPs, and military fashioned cops, or soldiers (what’s the difference nowadays?), patrolling the streets seemingly ready for war. On top of that, hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment, that increased following demands for justice, were sent to local law enforcement agencies under the Obama admin.

Remember when North Dakota looked like a war zone amidst the protests from water protectors out at Standing Rock who simply demanded their rights be respected? Private police forces were out there protecting the interests of the corporation, Energy Transfer Partners, not the people, which is nothing new historically but a continuous development of the American police state. Yes, even using counter-terrorism tactics (which we’ve seen elsewhere in environmental battles pitting communities against the interests of capital).

Today it’s even normal to see police/military (scary how much they’ve blended over the years that you often can’t even really tell the difference at times) strolling through airports or in the streets with AK-47s.

From Ferguson to Standing Rock, the Police State is alive and well. 

Nothing about this is normal, in fact it is terrifying the more the police state expands, yet it is not met with nearly the same hysteria as gun control. Just chalked away as another part of “freedom.”

Any gun control effort that doesn’t simultaneously call for the de-militarization of our police, society, and state is simply dangerous. Moreover, gun control efforts could potentially create even more militarization, most likely in communities of color, at a time when the state is already close to having a virtual monopoly on violence.

The violence championed and upheld by the most powerful, our ever expanding police state, must be seriously confronted and challenged to have any hope of transforming our society and reorienting it towards compassion and justice.

The Militarization of Schools

School-to-Prison pipeline illustrated via Center for Popular Democracy

As much as the streets and our communities are becoming militarized, so are our schools. You know, that place where children often spend a majority of their waking hours and which plays a pivotal role in their growth and development. Police officers, or school resource officers, make their presence known in schools and campuses alike while metal detectors, surveillance systems, military recruitment programs and more permeate themselves throughout the 21st century post-9/11 school culture.

Some schools even have AR-15’s stored in safes in case of an emergency while others have authorized school police to carry semi-automatic AR-15’s (did y’all hear about the 18-ton MRAP that was purchased by a school in San Diego, previously being utilized in the war in Afghanistan?)

Over the past few years, it has become pretty common seeing videos on social media of kids in school getting assaulted by police, often students of color. Less circulated and noticed however is the school-to-prison pipeline that only increases with the further militarization of schools and is sending kids, again often students of color, to jail for simply being kids — like refusing to put cell phones away, disrupting class, etc. Of course, there is a large industry behind this all making millions of dollars locking kids up in privately owned juvenile detention centers. Truly nothing more American than that.

As one teacher notes, ““We actually have procedures that prepare certain children for life behind bars.”

Not surprisingly, calls have already begun following the Parkland tragedy to further militarize schools. This surely won’t be the last time we see such calls that must be seriously resisted.

Violence as Virtue and Freedom

Our whole culture, society, and history is shaped by guns and largely associating violence with virtue and freedom. We learn that bloodshed, often at the hands of indigenous peoples and “enemies” abroad, eventually becomes synonymous with freedom. Killing enemies is met with euphoric chants of patriotic pride while military jets fly overhead NFL stadiums amidst wild roars before kickoff in a display of paid patriotism — since the Department of Defense pays teams for the spectacle. To rationalize the exceptional violence abroad we note that is just “the price of freedom.”

We, especially males, who unsurprisingly are the overwhelmingly main perpetrator of violence as noted before, are trained at the get go: first nerf guns, then the bloody arcade and video games that reward us with points for perfecting our craft of killing, next airsoft/paintball so we can get some exercise outside while still encouraging our aggression and rewarding putting someone in pain (football, anyone?), and of course through it all watching TV shows and movies that truly make you queasy and sick (until you get unnaturally desensitized by it) with overwhelming amounts of violence and blood that also don’t forget to remind us that the real hero is often a man with a gun like James Bond and countless others. Lest we forget to mention the “heroic” stories that permeate our media and collective psyche of soldiers killing folks abroad, often utilizing this violence to further ingrain both masculinity and patriotism, and how its just part of the dangers of the job for cops to use their guns to kill people, especially people of color (rather than, you know, learning to de-escalate situations without resorting to gun violence like the rest of the world).

John Oliver explaining the levels of paid patriotism in professional sports.

We become desensitized to all the violence. Knowing it is not normal, but also knowing it has become normal. Knowing it could change, but knowing that no one is changing it. Knowing it is disgusting, but knowing our state glorifies it. Knowing that another world is possible, but wondering why that world can’t exist right now.

Transform Society: Connect Crises, Get to the Root, & Confront Neoliberalism

Amidst this all, what can we do?

We can’t allow these moments to hide the deeper issues in our society and state that go beyond calls for background checks and weapon bans. For example, calls for demilitarizing the police, ending police brutality, and demanding an end to the violence caused by US imperialism abroad (many demands which are already apart of the Movement for Black Lives and various progressive/socialist organizations) should go hand in hand and become part of any gun control program directed towards the civilian population.

If the state espouses violence as a necessity and virtue, often relating it to patriotism and freedom, how can we expect or demand civilians to embrace anything different?

Instead of militarizing schools, we need to demilitarize schools and expel cops from these environments which have become more akin to prisons than centers of learning. At the same time, we must end the school-to-prison pipeline. Serious investments in education, not cuts, must be the demanded along with environments that engender creativity, collaboration, and genuine learning(not just standardized testing and mass production lines that prepare you for the corporate world, dehumanizing many in the process).

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, steps are already being taken to address and confront toxic masculinity while dismantling sexist, abusive, patriarchal and violent systems and behaviors. Redefining what it means to be a man is one of the most important tasks for my fellow men moving forward and a critical step in reorienting our society away from violence and towards life and a more just and compassionate world.

As noted in an article by The Guardian last year, too much of a focus on mass shootings in reference to addressing gun violence can ultimately backfire and play into the NRA’s hands. Much of the gun violence, and violence in general, that has become commonplace in the US occurs in low-income and racially segregated areas with high unemployment, absurdly high incarceration levels, and equally high police presences but extremely low education, public housing, and community investment (often thanks to racist, unjust, and unequal economic policies that have piled up over decades).

Fighting for living wages, jobs for everyone, universal healthcare, public education, affordable colleges, affordable housing, ending mass incarceration, and ultimately demanding investments that put the interests of the community first, not last, and don’t leave anyone behind, should all be at the forefront of the gun violence struggle.

There’s no justice or solving this gun and violence crisis without addressing systemic issues rooted in economic and racial justice.

It should come as a surprise to few that countries driven by neoliberal ideals, which equate to more spending on the military, law and order, and prisons while pursuing the privatization of education, healthcare, and all aspects of society, have higher levels of inequality and violence than countries which pursue more social democratic and community focused ideals (affordable healthcare, education, housing, higher wages, etc).

Another world is possible that values compassion over-militarization, community over privatization, collaboration over competition, and justice over inequality.

Community organizations and movements continue to push for this world, as Democrats show largely ineffective at creating a world outside of the grips of neoliberalism, and the movements that seek to uproot violent and dehumanizing systems and transform society will lead the way forward.

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