The horrendous mass killing of nineteen primary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022, a massacre reported around the world, leaves the United States with not even a proverbial “fig leaf” of moral standing in the world. As of this date, American leaders and spokespeople have no further right to criticize China, Cuba or even ISIS, the Iranian theocrats or the murderous Taliban for “human rights abuses.” The most recent Texas child massacre came barely a week after a racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, in which mainly elderly African American shoppers were targeted by a deranged white racist shooter in a supermarket.
Mass shootings in the United States have become regular news, with dozens of incidents reported since the beginning of 2022 and scant prospects for any changes in the short term. Unique among the rich nations of the world, United States continues to cry for the innocent victims for a day or two, shrug its collective shoulders, and move on, without hope or serious plans for putting an end to the ongoing slaughter. A now-familiar Facebook meme has satirically suggested that such killings have become so normalized in the United States that American greeting-card companies ought to publish a line of standardized mass-shooting condolence cards meant for family members and friends of the victims.
Is the Problem Guns?
Perhaps the most common explanation offered, particularly on the liberal Left, for the wave of random violence affecting the United States is the extreme availability of firearms and ammunition. In the United States it is easier to buy a military-grade assault weapon then to buy a car. Unsurprisingly, data suggests that in today’s United States there are currently more firearms than cars, more firearms than people, and the number of guns continues to grow day by day as right-wing politicians insist on the “cowboy” solution: That the only answer to gun violence is more gun violence (“the answer to bad guys with guns is good guys with guns”). Some reactionary politicians suggest that every school and public place should have a heavier police presence (but, of course, remain unwilling to shoulder the heavier tax burden that would require!), or even more bizarrely, that every elementary, secondary and high school teacher should come armed to class. The madness has already gone as far as to encourage older students to carry their own unlicensed, concealed firearms into college or university classrooms (in Texas universities this is now legally permitted, and instructors and professors are prohibited by law and regulation from asking students if they are armed, or from banning firearms in classes they teach).
Advocates of “gun control” point to this seemingly deranged situation as the root of America’s current mass-shooting “epidemic.” They reason that surely, with less guns in circulation, gun violence is bound to decrease. Advocates suggest that bans on free sale and legal possession of military-type “assault weapons” like the AR-15 (a civilian version of the US Army’s M-16) would work to prevent the kind of mass slaughter seen in recent days in Buffalo and Uvalde. Advocates point to instances in Australia and Scotland, where strongly enforced gun bans and gun “buy-back programs” have successfully eliminated mass shootings. The simple reality is that countries where guns are restricted are safer to live. However, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (a provision dating back to the Eighteenth Century) is seen to prohibit restrictions on private gun ownership, a “right” that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld and has even expanded in recent years.
Is it insanity?
There seems to be little or no disagreement about whether mass shooters are “insane” or mentally deranged. Clearly, as respected American poet and activist Amanda Gorman just tweeted, “It takes a monster to kill children.” However, as she adds, “to watch monsters kill children again and again and do nothing isn’t just insanity – it’s inhumanity.” Yet clearly, the United States, whatever its grave problems under contemporary late capitalism, has no monopoly on mental illness. There are troubled teens, violent hatemongers, and the violently insane in every country in the world, in the United States and in Canada, in Guatemala and Great Britain, in Palau or in Palestine.
The difference is that only in the United States have mass shootings become an “ordinary” everyday thing. The truth is that due to gun proliferation, the United States is becoming one of the world’s most inhospitable places. History shows that random mass shootings were virtually unknown in the early post-independence days when the US government was weak and impoverished, in the Civil War Era when weapon ownership proliferated and half a million Americans died to crush the slaveholders’ power, and even up to the first half of the twentieth century. The era of the so-called “Indian Wars” saw horrendous mass shootings of peaceful Native American noncombatants under the color of military operations, and racist lynching and attacks by organizations like the KKK took the lives of thousands of innocent Americans of color in the century after the Civil War. However, random shootings of children or innocent passers-by has only became a common thing in the U.S during the past six decades.
In fact, it was not until August 1, 1966 that the modern era of U.S. mass shootings began, when, according to Wikipedia, “…after stabbing his mother and his wife to death the previous night, Charles Whitman, a Marine veteran, took rifles and other weapons to the observation deck atop the Main Building tower at the University of Texas at Austin, and then opened fire indiscriminately on people on the on the surrounding campus and streets…´ Whitman killed fourteen random victims, up to that time the largest non-military mass murder incident in American history.
Wikipedia notes that “It has been suggested that Whitman's violent impulses, with which he had been struggling for several years, were caused by a tumor found in the white matter above his amygdala upon autopsy.”
Or is it politics?
The political right wing in the United States has been consistent in its advocacy of private gun ownership, and of American gun culture and mythology. Some progressives trace this back to the days of chattel slavery, a result of white slave holders’ constant (and reasoned) fear of righteous uprisings of the enslaved. Later, the myth of the cowboy with a gun on his hip was a staple of American culture and entertainment for over a century, heavily promoted by Hollywood on television, in the movies of John Wayne and in other venues. In the 1950’s toy “cap guns” were treasured possessions for (mostly male) American children.
However, there is a much deeper ideological question behind the American right wing’s quasi- religious devotion to firearms (as shown, for example, in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent threats that “taking away our guns” would result in “civil war”). Thoughtful analysts on the Left have occasionally pointed out that widespread popular possession of guns, while an obvious prequel to future anarchy, seems at first glance to be in stark contradiction to the proto-fascist impulses of leaders like Trump. In fact, while the current fad for gun ownership seems to be above all a phenomenon of rural, predominantly white males, nothing prohibits women and people of color from acquiring and learning to use firearms. A cursory analysis might even lend truth to the Spanish-language tee-shirt motto recently seen by this writer in a typical rural American gun shop: “Un pueblo armado jamas sera domado,” or “An armed people will never be tamed,” surely something a would-be fascist or neofascist regime would wish to crush, not promote.
To the contrary, uninformed observers from elsewhere in the world may object at this point that widespread popular firearms ownership might be precisely what a neofascist movement might want in order to seize and hold power, to liquidate potential dissidents, and to form a Storm-Trooper type militia virtually overnight. This analysis, while truly scary, commits the fatal error of failing to take into account the profound allergy Americans of all political stripes have to discipline and unified action of any kind (among Americans outside of the military, the very word “discipline” itself has long had a strong primary connotation of sadism, cruel punishment, or even sexual deviance).
As an example of this reality, there are active gun clubs in virtually every American community of any size, but these are far from the protofascist militia groups or uniformed “marching clubs” of pre-World War II Europe. They are more typically organized around recreational target-shooting ranges where gun fans go for a “fun” afternoon of sport shooting and friendship. Fantasies like the movie “Red Dawn” to the contrary, to even imagine that these casual, often elderly or obese, constitutionally undisciplined, “do whatever I want whenever I feel like it” shooters could be forged into a disciplined army or militia of any kind in any reasonable time period requires a truly profound suspension of disbelief.
So, what does the right-wing gain by supporting “gun rights” and proliferation of gun ownership, and thus, necessarily, tolerance and normalization of mass murders like those in Buffalo and Uvalde? One may conjecture that the most immediate gain is money. Somehow, seemingly by legal means, young school dropouts or marginally employable mass shooters again and again manage to come up with staggering amounts of spending-cash to legally purchase an arsenal of military-grade weapons, thousands of rounds of high-powered ammunition, tactical-grade body armor, perhaps even boots and helmets to complete their deadly charade. As one announcer on the American MSNBC television network sarcastically comments, the United States is dedicated to having the best-equipped mass murderers in the world. This is big business! And, according to business news reports, every time there is a major mass shooting in the United States, stocks of gun and ammunition manufacturers jump in value on the Wall Street Stock Market.
Yet even acknowledging this, a simplistic, crudely materialist “cui bono” (who profits?) analysis seems to be too superficial for this life-or-death political question. We must ask: What other benefits might arise, and to whom, from allowing this killing to go on unimpeded? A few suggestions might include:
1. “Political chaos theory.” I.e., fascism and the extreme right wing benefit greatly from a mass public perception of growing social chaos. School shootings, street crime, public disorder and threats of violence all directly benefit the right wing by provoking “the public” (i.e., uninformed working class voters) to vote for and support fascist-type iron fisted measures, restriction of civil rights, and the choking of minority demands for equality. If “a growing wave of criminality” is seen besieging American society and killing our kids, it’s time to vote for more police, tighter controls, harsher punishment, more restrictions and less freedom. “Fear! Fear much! Your own and your kids’ lives are in mortal danger! Only I/We can save you!” shouts the tyrant-in-waiting, and terrified people flock to jump on board the bandwagon.
2. “Back to the good old days!” If the country’s situation keeps getting worse and worse, for many the only solution can seem to be rock-ribbed conservatism. Who dares to open a new road when the old road¸ tried and true, seems way safer and more comfortable? No matter that it leads to the same doom we have already experienced.
3. Conspiracy theories. Monsters are among us! Sane humans can’t be promoting this madness. It must be hyper-criminals like those on Batman, the reptilian aliens beloved of the Q cult, or perhaps even Satan himself in our midst.
4. Right wing ideology, arising from pro-capitalist Protestant theology, has long emphasized the essential “wickedness” of the human spirit, because of which working people must be controlled and herded like cattle, to the benefit of the “righteous” capitalist class.
For some time now, survivors of school shootings and families of victims have been making efforts to organize movements for gun control and against mass shootings, but to date their efforts have been of little avail. To counter America’s murder culture, gun control, plus the creation of a new “beloved community” of comradeship and solidarity with those who are hurting and left out in America’s meat-grinder society need to become primary tasks for progressives across the United States.