The debate over gun control has risen to a new level in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of people rallying for greater restrictions on firearms in the wake of a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
High school students have led a wave of protests calling for greater gun control as a basic public health measure against mass shootings. This is a good initial demand. The experience of Australia has been that making guns less available reduces gun deaths. But the roots of gun violence and mass murder lie in the nature of capitalist society itself.
The US has the highest firearm murder rate in the developed world, and the highest number of firearms per person of any country. The US statistics put it in a league of its own – it cannot be compared with any other country, not even countries with mandatory military service or active warzones. In the US, a $2 billion-a-year gun industry and its lobby group, the National Rifle Association, has successfully held back gun control for many years.
Comprehensive gun control was introduced in Australia in 1996, after the Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were murdered. Polls at the time showed 90-95% support for the measures. The National Firearms Agreement was brought in by a conservative government on the back of a wave of public revulsion at the massacre.
From 1981 to 1996 there were thirteen mass shootings in Australia; after 1996 there haven’t been any. Gun murders also went into dramatic decline. To protect its profits, the gun industry, like the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, has run a campaign to create doubt over the basic facts. But a 2016 review of 130 studies across 10 countries, including Australia, found that gun control is definitively associated with fewer gun deaths.
But gun control alone won’t solve the problem of violence. Since 1996, Australia has not seen the kind of mass shootings that are routine for the US. But there have been smaller-scale shootings, serial murders, and mass murders by arson and – fresh in the minds of Melbournians – by car. Often, the criminals involved have histories of crimes like domestic abuse and rape.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are leading sources of violence in Australia. A deeply sexist society breeds these crimes, and usually leaves perpetrators free to escalate their violence. Movements against violence and sexual assault and support services for victims are essential.
Gun control also leaves weapons in the hands of the police, who shoot huge numbers of ordinary people in the US – disproportionately black people. In Australia, Aboriginal deaths in police custody are still happening almost three decades after an ineffective Royal Commission, and migrant communities face ongoing racist police harassment, including assaults.
Socialists call for police to be taken under democratic community control, and for racist officers to be sacked outright. Democratically elected committees should oversee all investigations into police violence. But violence cannot be ended with regulation. This is not because violence is a basic human trait, but because it is created by capitalist society.
Ordinary people show each other care and support on a daily basis. We are all dependent on countless others to survive – the working class makes the wealth of society collectively. We have a common interest in working together, and our struggles unite us regardless of our differences. The mutual respect seen on a picket line is a glimpse of what humans are really capable of.
In contrast, capitalists preach an ideology of brutal competition. This is how they make their money. Their ideas serve to keep us divided, and to justify cuts to welfare, health and education. In Margaret Thatcher’s words, “there is no such thing as society”. These cuts further strengthen the idea that we are all on our own. Cuts to mental health services mean that the tiny minority of mentally ill people prone to violence fail to get treatment.
In the capitalist worldview, other people don’t deserve care – they are objects to be used or rivals to get in your way. This is the context in which depraved murderers are made.
It is natural that people want to keep powerful weapons away from possible killers. We should oppose leaving the sale of guns under the control of a right-wing, profit-focused gun industry, just as we oppose leaving them in the hands of the police and army.
Socialists call for gun clubs, shops, and manufacturing to be brought into public hands and taken under the democratic control of working class people. Elected committees of workers should decide who does and does not get a gun licence. But we need to create a world run by workers themselves – a socialist world – to finally uproot this culture of domination, misogyny and violence.
By David Elliott