Only Some Power Comes from the Barrel of a Gun

Content note: article contains some descriptions of violence. It also doesn’t come down on one side or the other of gun control arguments.

In June 2016, someone who doesn’t deserve to be remembered by name shot up a gay club in Orlando. A lot of people shouted for gun control, but myself, I suddenly wanted a gun. In February 2017, two months after I came out as trans, I watched a video of Dandara dos Santos, a trans woman from Brazil, begging for her life before she was beaten to death with a 2×4.

All I could think was: if I carried a gun, no one could beat me to death with a 2×4.

Now, in February 2018, after another mass shooting at another high school, gun control is on everyone’s minds. Students around the country are organizing, because they don’t want to live in a country where every Tom, Dick, and Nikolas has an AR-15.

As an anarchist, I don’t tend to believe in legislative solutions to problems. As a trans woman, I desire to own the means by which to defend myself with lethal force. As a human, though, I don’t like when people shoot people and that people are going to bat so hard to defend people’s right to own the things that shoot people.

In the wake of the most recent shooting, I think it’s important to remember that mass shootings are not just created by access to guns. Mass shootings are the result of the toxic aspects in contemporary masculinity. Mass shootings are the result of homophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy. Mass shootings are the result of a cultural meme — that is, a self-replicating idea that has taken on a life of its own — currently embedded into America.

Yet… mass shootings might also be the result of access to guns. Guns are power. Power — unevenly distributed — is always the problem.

* * *

Maybe three years back, an organization asked me to write a position paper on gun control from an anarchist point of view. “No sweat,” I told them. Then I spent several months discussing the issue with other anarchists, who all held wildly different opinions on the matter. Almost all their arguments were convincing.

I gave up on the article.

Not only can I not write anything for anarchism in general that comes down on one side or the other on the issue of gun control, I don’t think I can do so for myself personally. Both sides of the debate are flawed. Gun control is racist: it is disproportionately used against people of color, and modern gun control laws were a response to armed people of color advocating for their freedom. Gun advocacy is also racist: the second amendment was likely not written so that Americans could defend themselves from the British or other tyrannical governments, as is popularly supposed, but so that white, settler Americans could participate in the ad-hoc extermination of the indigenous people of this continent. Today, the NRA is far from objective in whose right to carry guns they seek to protect. It’s not particularly hard to understand that America is so racist that both sides of the debate are being turned to racist ends.

We need to question the dichotomous framework that’s been presented to us — the issue is more complex than pro-gun versus anti-gun. It’s always been more complex than that.

Understanding power relations is key to understanding political issues. There’s a phrase people use, “punch up, not down.” The idea behind it is simple: don’t attack people with less power than you, attack people with more power than you. For example, women, as a group, lashing out at men, as a group, are acting appropriately because they are attacking a group that holds institutional and cultural power over them. They are “punching up” and disrupting an existing power hierarchy. Men, however, lashing out at women are “punching down” and reinforcing that hierarchy.

The issue with guns isn’t about punching up versus down exactly, but it is about power relationships, more than a lot of people realize. If at all possible, our aim as radicals should be to correct power imbalances. Overall, the people with guns in this society are also the people with power — this is probably not a coincidence.

The police in this country are heavily armed. They also continue to show themselves racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic not just as individuals (though so many cops are) but on an institutional level: they enforce laws unequally and the laws themselves are unequal. Any argument for the disarmament of our society that does not discuss disarming the police is not one that interests me, because it continues to leave guns in the hands of a group that has proven itself exceedingly oppressive and violent. Gun control arguments that exclude police say two things: we should trust the police to solve our problems for us and that fundamentally, guns are necessary for problem-solving, it’s just that civilians shouldn’t be trusted to do that on their own. I don’t agree with either of those sentiments.

Then, of course, there is the other heavily armed group in America: civilian gun culture. Not everyone who owns a gun (or even owns thirty guns) in this society is part of the subsection of gun culture that is racist and/or nationalistic, but let’s be honest: the overlap is huge. This is where the idea of gun control begins to sound appealing. Fewer guns in the hands of racists, misogynists, and homophobes will translate into fewer of us dying at those hands. Strategically speaking, we would be unlikely to win an arms race with the militia movement, for example, and it’s probably for the best if we focus on different methods of engagement than militaristic most of the time.

Of course, because of the overlap between those two armed groups (racist police and racist civilians), there’s no particular reason to believe that any efforts at gun control would target nationalistic whites instead of who gun control laws have always targeted: already-criminalized urban people of color. Those who make half a revolution dig their own graves. A small, liberal shift in legislation seems unlikely to do more than put still more power into the hands of the police while doing nothing to address the power held by nationalistic gun culture.

This is where the counter-argument becomes appealing: instead of passing gun laws that are unlikely to accomplish what we hope, we could focus on arming people of color, women, queers, and other people who are targeted for violence at a systemic level. Escalation is a terrible policy at any kind of large scale, however. A gun in my purse makes me safer. A gun in every purse and pocket in America makes everyone substantially less safe.

I’m willing to navigate the tension between the needs of an individual and the needs of a society, even if I don’t know exactly the right way to do so. I’ll side-eye anyone who assumes that they do, on either side of the debate.

I’m skeptical of legislative changes, to be sure. I think anyone serious about living in a less armed society who expects lawmakers to deliver that is going to be disappointed. They will be disappointed by who new laws target and who they don’t. They will be disappointed by the byzantine structures of the legal world that exist to prevent fundamental changes to capitalist rule of the country.

Still, I can’t say that anarchism or the Left are any further along here in heavily-armed America than they are in other countries. There’s just no evidence that access to arms would make or break any resistance movement here. All I can say is that I don’t want to be beat to death by a 2×4, and I hope that when people demonize guns and gun owners at large they think about why someone like me might want one.

* * *

The students who are organizing against gun violence? I am excited to see them learn the power they can wield — because not all power comes from the barrel of the gun and the best forms of power never do. I hope they realize that they can push for changes that don’t just address gun ownership but also the ways in which those laws might be enforced; I hope they push for changes that don’t empower the police, but instead look to disempower nationalists and misogynists. I hope they see the problem of violence in our society is more than a single issue and that the gun issue itself as more than just black and white.

I hope they — we, all of us — keep fighting until we shape society into something without these institutions and hierarchies of power that muck up this issue so utterly.

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5 thoughts on “Only Some Power Comes from the Barrel of a Gun”

  1. I think the issue is American exceptionalism. Only the US has this problem, at least at the scale it is there. But Americans never seem to look at the outside world and think “how come school shootings happen every week here whereas they are practically unknown in the rest of the world?” They equate guns with some sort of “freedom” as if the rest of the world where we don’t all go around shooting each other were unfree. I’ve lived in the US, and I know how ingrained this crazy thinking is. Why stop at assault rifles, after all you’re not going to prevent the US army taking over with a few AK 47s. Why not allow everyone to have tanks, mortars, fighter bombers, poison gas, phosporous grenades… The Second Amendment makes zero sense in today’s world. It doesn’t keep you safe.

    The Australians restricted gun ownership years ago. It was a popular move and the vast majority want it to stay that way. They don’t feel less free. If only the US could follow suit.

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