Guns, Public Spaces, and the Arming of the Commons

by Matt Stannard
March 31, 2018

How should those concerned with economic justice orient ourselves to the discussion about school shootings and the availability of firearms? Many vocal revolutionary lefties have taken the position that “if the cops and white supremacists have guns, we need them too,” and although I don’t necessarily disagree with the principle of revolutionary self-defense (and support oppressed groups defending themselves by whatever means they think necessary), I think it’s important to reflect on the kind of world we are trying to build, as well as the way gun proliferation manifests itself in the capitalist political economy.

Public conversations about safety and security are not exactly self-conscious of their own kierarchic biases; think of how the silly “free range parenting” debate ignores the condition of communities of color, for whom there are often no “free ranges” where children are not in danger of being harassed or murdered by police. Likewise with the debate about whether to allow lethal weapons into public spaces. Liberals will ignore how gun laws hurt oppressed communities. Conservatives will ignore how the weapons industry and the myth of the armed white savior celebrate racist violence against those same communities. I also agree that all laws, including the regulation of firearms, fall harder and more capriciously on people of color—and are often constructed with that very aim. So I’m not looking to extend the hand of a deeply corrupt (even if occasionally redemptive) state onto those communities. At any rate, I’d prefer to debilitate or eliminate the private arms industry rather than punish individuals for possessing guns.

The reason my wrath is reserved for the arms industry is that they make a hell of a lot of cash while lobbying for the wholesale saturation of public and private spaces with guns. Gun lobbyists want guns to be an intrinsic facet of the very structures of everyday life. Besides being an overwhelmingly lethal vision of life, the arming of the Commons is contemporaneous with the privatization, the enclosure, of the Commons. Spaces ruled by the constant threat of lethal violence can be neither free nor cooperative. In the privatize-and-arm paradigm (for the forces behind privatization are absolutely allied with the agenda of the NRA and gun universalists), each affluent home is a well-armed fortress, less-affluent homes depend on the good graces of the wealthier classes (for whom they work anyway), businesses are all lethally armed, able not only to eliminate individual, pathologically disaffected worker-assailants, but also to intimidate workers from collective actions like strikes or slowdowns. In a world where no spaces are unarmed, and people cannot exist in mutual vulnerability, there are no truly public spaces.

Like privatized public spaces, armed public spaces substitute physical force for mutual deliberation, making hierarchies inevitable and participatory governance impossible. So it’s especially disturbing that advocacy of firearm security is focused on turning the “soft targets” of public schools (an especially vulnerable and valuable part of the Commons) into “hard targets.” The construction of the fearful student, the existentially insecure youth, is a fast track to the commodification of life. By defining the lack-of-firearm as a condition of insecurity, we invite the incursion of a warrior class into our already materially overdetermined class relations. All of this makes sense against a backdrop of creeping incipient fascism and neoliberal privatization economics. “Whether wielded by heavily armed police, mass shooters or right-wingers,” Sean Larson writes, “the sheer volume of guns in the U.S. serves to militarize underlying social conflicts.”

That political economy of weaponization is manifest across many current points of the gun debate. So when the White House and Department of Justice promise to aid in the training of armed teachers, they will undoubtedly award firearm training contracts to for-profit gun school cronies. A cluster of banks with proven records of racism and/or criminality–Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Fifth Third Bank–are providing financial support to arms corporation Remington, as it slogs through bankruptcy. Other banks have refused to do so, citing public perception and general decency. Conservative lawmakers, put off by insurance companies’ risk market-based reluctance to insure schools where teachers carry firearms, are considering forcing those companies to provide the insurance, an irony several layers deep. Here in Wyoming, gun manufacturing businesses prop up a piece of the state’s conventional economy, and business groups welcome the prospect of new gun manufacturers setting up shop in the Cowboy State.

All of this is part and parcel of an economy based on extraction and exploitation. Citing Pamela Haig and Richard Hofstadter, Sean Larson’s amazing article traces the gun market to the desperation of arms manufacturers when wars end. It begins immediately after the Civil War, when

major gun manufacturers were faced with a dilemma: how to create a civilian gun market when the major demand from the military had fallen off sharply . . . in the 1870s, Winchester advertised its Model 66 as useful for “Indian, Bear or Buffalo hunting.” These early links between gun sales and imperial expansion, however, were nothing compared to the cultural campaigns launched a few decades later . . . During the [First World] war, contracts for the U.S. and allied militaries drastically expanded gun production facilities. But planners were already anticipating the postwar problem of, as Haag puts it, “too many guns and too much capacity for too little demand.” Looking ahead to an era of mass production and diminishing practical need for guns, sales and marketing teams set out to construct and reinforce an ideal gun consumer . . . gun manufacturers took the opportunity to monetize racism and fears of radicalism by advertising “riot guns” to business owners looking to protect their shops from “disturbances, either racial or political,” and promoting their firearms as the only surefire way to protect the “industrial life of the nation.” Such overt efforts to militarize existing class conflicts were part and parcel of a broader plan that Winchester called “the biggest and most carefully planned national advertising campaign ever undertaken by any firm of gun makers in the world.”

And so has it continued and evolved.

It’s impossible for me not to see the entire conversation around the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, and the rash of similar shootings, through this lens of capitalism, privatization, enclosure, and militarization. Thinking about how the warrior culture is embedded in materially hierarchical societies, I think about how the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was a member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, as were some of his victims. That program’s Parkland-based marksmanship team was partially funded by the National Rifle Association, meaning that gun lobbyists essentially helped train the assailant and wish also to help train those who try and deter or kill future assailants. I can’t even view stories about the non-responsive, seemingly paralyzed sheriff’s deputies who didn’t even try to stop Nikolas Cruz, without wondering whether they were deadened to the danger of the lethality of Cruz’s weapon, or aware of that danger to the point of being terrified, even as LEOs. There are no good decisions in lethalized spaces, and a society wishing to incentivize good decisionmaking should not saturate such spaces with deadly weapons.

Illustration: The Gun Factory, by Joseph Pennell – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain
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