What the mass shootings in the US tell us

By Simon Rodriguez*

On May 24, an 18 year old man shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas, before being killed by police. Before that, he had killed his hospitalised grandmother. Ten days before, another 18 year old, a fascist, massacred ten people and injured three in a market in Buffalo, New York.

These crimes and the total inability of the US regime to take any action to prevent further massacres, or to eradicate their more structural causes, are symptomatic of a profound political and social degradation.

Beyond demonstrating the enormous power of the arms industry in the US, or the ultra-reactionary character of the Republican right, these crimes and the government’s response to them underline the increasingly chaotic dynamics of US politics, showing that the conditions remain ripe for new crises such as that of January 6 2021, when hordes of the ultra-right attacked the Capitol in response to Trump’s call to not recognize the result of the elections.

The reactionary cult of firearms

With an annual homicide rate of 5.4 per 100 thousand inhabitants in 2019, the US is well below the worst countries with the worst rates, El Salvador (48.7) and Venezuela (39). However, this rate is far higher than in other industrialised countries such as Canada (1.5), Australia (1.3), the UK (0.5) and Germany (0.7). The contrast is even greater regarding mass shootings, which are virtually non-existent in other industrialised countries. Despite the rarity of such crimes, in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, laws restricting access to high-calibre weapons were adopted following mass shootings between 1996 and 2020. In the US, over 2.600 shootings (those with four or more people wounded excluding the attacker) took place between 2013 and 2020, and they continue to rise, the annual rate of mass shootings doubling between 2017 and 2021.

As usual, President Biden called for limitations on the access to assault weapons in his speech following the massacre in Uvalde, a town inhabited mostly by poor and immigrant people. However, the two chambers of the US parliament are extremely undemocratic and almost impervious to an existing broad popular support for such measures. The Republican right benefits from the over-representation of the more conservative rural population, especially in the Senate and in the electoral college that elects the president. It takes advantage of its solid parliamentary base to promote very reactionary policies, such as gerrymandering or voting rights restrictions that punish mainly black, indigenous and immigrant populations, which further solidify right-wing representation.

Another prominent actor is the National Rifle Association (NRA), an overtly racist, ultra-reactionary organisation that lobbies for unrestricted trade in high-powered weapons and has its main political expression in the Republican party.

All this implies that a minority sector of white racist and religious fundamentalists of rural extraction can impose, because of the anti-democratic vices of the political regime, legislation derived from their fanatical worship of guns. This extremist perspective has been picked up in legislation and jurisprudence, to such an extent that the Supreme Court under conservative control ruled in 2008 and 2010 that the second amendment shields the virtually unrestricted individual right to bear arms.

It is a peculiar interpretation, imbued with the alienated individualism characteristic of the US, of the 18th century constitutional text that does not refer to an individual right to armament but to a collective one, derived from the need to organise militias to defend the newly formed state when it lacked regular armed forces.

As seen, a rather extreme reactionary interpretation has been superimposed on the extreme legalistic ideology and US constitutional fetishism, with peculiar consequences. In most states, it is legal to purchase a firearm at an age lower than the minimum age for alcohol consumption. In fact, there is no federal age limit for owning a gun, nor is there any limiting legislation in most states, which makes it legal for children to get and use rifles or other long guns, for example, if their parents give them as a gift.

None of this could lead to the mistaken conclusion that the right to arms is equal for all people. The key question of who may own and use arms in the US is not merely a legal issue, but one that has been resolved historically. The US imperialist regime does not tolerate workers’ and people’s self-defence. In the 1860s, laws regulating gun ownership were enacted in the racist South specifically to disarm the black population newly emancipated from slavery. More recently, when Reagan was governor of California in 1967, the Republican right passed, with NRA support, a state law to outlaw the carrying of loaded guns in public spaces, specifically to criminalise the Black Panthers, who advocated community self-defence in the face of racist police brutality. Some of the longest standing political prisoners in the US are precisely black and indigenous people like Mumia Abu Jamal or Leonard Peltier, whose organisations were persecuted and decimated by state terrorism, without ever being considered by governments as subjects with the right to defend themselves through the use of arms.

The rise of white supremacist terrorism “made in the USA”

The massacre perpetrated by the racist Payton Gendron is part of the rise of racist and far-right terrorism in the US. Gendron left a document on the internet with materials copied and pasted from other neo-fascist statements and manifestos. It contains conspiracy theories and ideological ravings common to far-right groups in Europe and much of the world, including Latin America. The criminal’s major concern is an alleged displacement of the white population by non-white immigration, a supposed process of ethnic and cultural replacement, led by an imagined Judeo-Marxist conspiracy.

The Director of National Intelligence admitted in March 2021 that ‘racially motivated’ extremist violence, an euphemism for white supremacism, represents the most lethal threat of domestic terrorism. White supremacists also build international networks, with many of their organisations in Europe relying on state support, such as the one provided by Russian imperialism. The far-right mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6 2021, supporting Donald Trump and rejecting the result of the 2020 presidential elections, showed the destabilising potential of these groups despite their relative marginality, given their links to the Republican party and the complicity of the repressive institutions with their actions.

The most striking contradiction lies in the fact that the US government takes note that far-right terrorism is the greatest domestic threat in the country, claiming far more victims than terrorism inspired by Islamic fundamentalism, but its actions go in a completely different direction. Between 2001 and 2021, the far-right racist terrorist attacks claimed 114 victims in the US. Before that, in 1995, far-right-wing McVeigh blew up a government building in Oklahoma, killing 168 people and injuring 680. However, the racist bias of the security forces, many of whose members sympathise with ideas of the far-right, and the bourgeois, reactionary and racist character of the regime itself, where fascistic leaning sectors of the Republican party give political and institutional expression to the ideas and values of these groups, are conditions that prevent the state from curbing the far right. Most of the repressive and intelligence resources for counter-terrorism are devoted to persecuting certain expressions of Islamic fundamentalism.

Crisis and polarisation

The regime of the world’s largest capitalist power has a series of characteristics that make any kind of democratic reform impossible. Armour-plated by a reactionary and anti-democratic Senate, any possibility of eliminating the electoral college or applying the elementary criterion that the votes of all people have the same value and effect is blocked. This anti-democratic institutional armour is a guarantor of the advancement of the power of the arms industry represented by the NRA and of the impunity of a racist and inclined to terrorism ultra-right, while preventing any rational measures being taken to prevent new school massacres or terrorist attacks, either by restricting access to high-powered weapons or by eliminating the causes of the social decay and despair that is the breeding ground for Christian religious fundamentalism and neo-fascist ideologies.

The 2020 mass mobilisation against racist police violence, the largest social movement in US history, and the shift of a sector of the youth towards the left shows that political and social polarisation is intensifying. To mitigate this, it is possible that Biden and the Democrats will try to push through some timid reform referring to the legal possession of certain types of weapons, in agreement with some sectors of the Republicans. A cosmetic move with no substantive impact.

For socialists, it is a must to point out the illegitimacy of a regime incapable of responding to such basic problems as the massacres in schools and public places and ultra-right terrorism, and how this incapacity is related to its structural features, such as its profoundly anti-democratic and racist character. Hence the regime’s failure to yield to popular demands, reflecting a clear majority opinion, for greater restrictions on the arms trade within the US. The exposure of the NRA’s enormous power in Congress and the Senate, the impunity of the far-right, including the fact that Trump has not been prosecuted and imprisoned for leading a criminal conspiracy on January 2021 6, is thus urgent.

Even the most basic democratic demands constitute, in the US context, a questioning of the entire system and regime. Turning these demands into a powerful social mobilisation and articulating a political organisation of the working class around them sums up the challenge for the building of a political alternative in the US.

*Simon Rodriguez is a IWU-FI member.