In response to the spate of massacres by sociopathic gunmen at schools and other public places, young people around the country are mobilizing to challenge political leaders to offer more than hypocritical “thoughts and prayers.” We salute the students in Parkland, Florida, who have faced a terrifying tragedy and now must brave slanders from reactionary politicians and media, and even death threats from the far right.
The Parkland students have been astute in focusing their anger on the National Rifle Association. Posing as a lobby for gun owners, the NRA really represents the gun manufacturing industry. Showing a complete lack of concern for the safety of the general public, the NRA opposes regulations on gun sales and possession out of concern for the profits of arms dealers.
More broadly, the NRA has worked to mobilize its overwhelmingly white and male membership as a voting bloc behind politicians who do their bidding by promoting right-wing vigilantism and militarism and massively backing the Republican Party. It has been in the vanguard of efforts by some capitalists to mobilize a mass right-wing movement in support of their goals – efforts which culminated in capture of power in Washington by Donald Trump and the Republican far right.
The student mobilizations follow those at Charlottesville, Virginia last summer against the Klan and Nazi rallies, and the statewide strike of West Virginia teachers against austerity policies a month ago. The protests rose up against the worst expressions of the growing social decay and the precarious conditions that many people face – in a capitalist society that serves the profits of a tiny few ahead of the needs and concerns of masses. As socialists and Marxists, we believe that a just, equal and caring society can only be achieved by confronting the capitalist class and its servants and ultimately removing them from the seats of political power. The slogan “March for Our Lives” truly signifies far more than protection against gun violence alone.
The programs of the student protesters vary, and we do not agree with many of the gun control proposals that have been put forward. Some of the demands that have been put forward on the liberal side of the political spectrum run counter to the needs and interests of working-class and oppressed people.
Marxists stand for the general right to bear arms and for defense of that right against attempts to limit it by the capitalist state. It is a democratic right – without it cops and soldiers, as well as criminals, would have a monopoly on violence. The right to bear arms is a practical necessity to allow working-class and oppressed people, as well as leftists, to have a chance to defend themselves against criminals and right-wing attackers. Denying people that right would give them little choice but to turn to the capitalist state’s racist cop forces in hope of protection. Recent years have provided powerful examples of how important it is to recognize this reality.
For example, when white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other outright fascists mobilized in Charlottesville for their “Unite the Right” rally in August, they did so vowing to unleash such violence against anti-fascist counter-protesters that no one would ever again dare to challenge them. To this end, the far right forces included several heavily armed militia groups, which local police allowed to operate with impunity
One anti-fascist protester, Heather Heyer, was killed by a fascist who drove into a mass demonstration, and the death toll likely would have been far higher had several armed and well-trained squads of anti-fascist militia not also mobilized to counter the far right. On the night of the white supremacists’ infamous “tiki torch” march, an armed squad from the Redneck Revolt network was able to escort to safety a group of pacifist religious leaders, including Cornell West, whose planning meeting had been menacingly surrounded by armed fascists. And on the day of the “Unite the Right” rally, the presence of left-wing militia meant that the far-right armed forces chose not to risk a firefight, allowing unarmed counter-protesters to deal them a humiliating blow by denying them the opportunity to rally unchallenged. 
Such incidents make clear that the capitalist state cannot be trusted to protect people against the far right. In the face of this menace it is a matter of life and death that the democratic right to keep and bear arms be defended. Thus, while we understand why people place hopes on restricting military-style weapons, we oppose such bans. The NRA estimates that there are between 8.5 and 15 million military-style rifles already in circulation. A ban on further sales would not be able to recall those weapons and would serve to leave oppressed groups and the left disproportionately unarmed and unable to defend themselves. Indeed, Trump’s rise to power has inspired a growth in new self-defense and weapons training initiatives by leftists and organizations of oppressed people, ranging from Blacks and Latinos to LGBT people – a positive example to follow. 
We also oppose raising the age limit on gun ownership above the age of voter registration as an attack on the rights of young people. We likewise oppose calls for sending police into the schools, the effect of which has meant the further criminalization and brutalization of young people, especially Blacks and Latinos. The Black Lives Matter protests of recent years should be a warning against trusting cops to protect the lives of youth of color.
It is important to have an accurate appreciation of the reality of gun violence. By the end of the year tens of thousands of people in this country will have died as the result of weapons fire. However, as some student protesters have pointed out, media attention focuses on killings in schools, churches, concerts and other public venues more than on the disproportionately poor, predominantly Black and Latino, neighborhoods where most victims of gun violence are killed, victims of the combined effects of the poverty and racism imposed by the capitalist system and its increasingly militarized policing.
Mass shootings in public spaces like high schools are horrifying, but they account for less than one percent of gun murders. A third of all people who are killed by strangers’ guns are shot to death by police. As the recent police killing of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento reminds us, racist policing explains why a hugely disproportionately number of those killed by cops are Black and Latino.
The disproportionate attention paid to mass shootings is the result of the privileged position and prejudices of the capitalist owners of the big media corporations as well as of the predominantly white and middle-class journalists they hire. Like the rest of their class, these capitalists are concerned with profits and have no interest in drawing attention to the misery their system creates or the violently authoritarian role of the police they rely upon to maintain their law and order. Their journalists likewise typically have little empathy for poor people of color who have long been portrayed as somehow responsible for the problems that blight their lives. But they can easily imagine themselves or their children being caught in the crossfire at a high school or concert.
Thus, most of the news coverage of the Parkland massacre and the rising protest movement expressed overwhelming sympathy for the victims and respect for the protesters – unlike the coverage of the Black victims of police and the protests against those injustices. New York Times reporter Eric Lipton accidentally exposed this when he tweeted that the massacre in Parkland was particularly “sad” and “a waste” because it took place at a good school where the students are so “articulate and well educated” and had “so much opportunity before them wiped out” – as if the deaths of poor children are any less a sad and tragic waste! 
This does not mean that we are against all limitations on access to weapons; for example, we oppose anyone with a history of anti-social violence having access to arms. Until the working class has the power and organization to impose limitations on such people, we can only demand that the capitalist state enforce them, just as we demand that it enforce other public health and safety laws ranging from environmental protections to food quality – while warning against and opposing any abuses of those powers.
We don’t claim to have all the answers about exactly how the sale and possession of guns can best be regulated while defending the right to bear arms. But we do, for example, favor laws requiring that:
At the same time, we oppose all laws that would limit or preclude the general population from exercising their right to keep and bear arms. Especially important to oppose is the injustice of enforcing local laws restricting gun rights in major Northern cities and states – which means that middle- and working-class people, disproportionately Black and Latino, are barred from owning weapons.
Trump’s call for arming teachers raises a crazed perspective of bringing guns to classrooms – at a time when many schools lack textbooks, facilities are in severe disrepair, and necessary staff and services are being eliminated! The prospect of putting guns in the hands of abusive and racist teachers – all too often found in what are already some of the poorest schools – is a terrifying danger to students, especially those of color.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea of arming and training workers, even in schools. Guns have no place in classrooms, but in any institution or workplace it would be wise to provide highly secured storage centers where weapons could be accessed by trained and approved workers. In schools, for example, if teacher, parent and student organizations all approved specific workers to be designated and trained, that would be a safe and responsible way to spread self-defense skills and responsibilities while avoiding the danger potentially posed by reactionary staff members. It would also be an alternative to police presence in schools.
We not that in Chicago some students planned to march with a list of demands that included more counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses in all schools, along with more teachers so that class sizes could be smaller and bilingual and special education programs could be expanded. Looking beyond the schools, the Chicago students call for re-opening mental health clinics, funding neighborhood centers, providing jobs for youth, and generally integrating schools with the communities they serve. 
These demands rightfully call attention to the erosion of social services by the austerity policies engineered by all recent governments, Democratic as well as Republican. Winning them, however, will take much more than school-centered protests. We are up against a ruling class that cares little for the well-being and the democratic rights of the mass of the population. The power that “ordinary people” have to change things lies in our numbers and in our capacity as workers to unite in organized struggle and to halt business-as-usual in pressing for our needs – witness the ability of the West Virginia teachers and other school workers to enlist widespread community support and defeat the arrogant political leaders who were gutting public education and other vital services.
We hope that the rise of struggles like the student protests against gun violence and the teachers’ strikes will inspire more and more youth and other working-class people to see the need for united mass action and to work together broadly to defend our safety, our democratic rights, and our jobs and living standards.
Further, we believe that the capitalist system is an increasing threat to all these needs and must be overturned and replace. We need a genuinely caring society that offers good jobs, decent wages, and the best possible health care, education and other public services to all people. The experience of united struggles by workers, over time, will convince more and more of the possibility of building such a socialist society of freedom and abundance, and of the working class’s need to seize power from the capitalists in order to start doing so.
1. See Redneck Revolt, Reportback: Charlottesville, August 12, 2017; democracynow.org, Cornel West & Rev. Traci Blackmon: Clergy in Charlottesville Were Trapped by Torch-Wielding Nazis, August 14, 2017; Dahlia Lithwick, www.slate.com, Yes, What About the ‘Alt-Left’?, August 16, 2017; and Phoenix John Brown Gun Club, Reportback: Phoenix Trump Rally, August 25, 2017
2. Among others, in addition to Redneck Revolt and the John Brown Gun Club: the “Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club”; the Pink Pistols, an LGBT gun group; Black Guns Matter; Trigger Happy Firearm Instruction, described by its founder as a movement for African-American women; and the Black Women’s Defense League.
3. Meyer, Ken. www.mediaite.com, Twitter Drags NYT’s Lipton For Suggesting Some Shooting Deaths More Tragic Than Others, February 16, 2018
4. Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (Chicago), Southwest Side CPS Students Share Their Demands