We Can Fight for Gun Control Without Locking People Up

Solutions rooted in policing and prisons just contribute to a culture of violence.

Daniel Denvir

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent fires a handgun as part of qualifications test. Taking on America's gun culture must mean disarming the state, as well. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Mass shootings, as mainstream gun control advocates contend, no doubt confirm that AR-15s shouldn’t be on the street. But they can obscure more ordinary forms of individual gun violence — interpersonal neighborhood feuds, suicides, domestic violence—and also the violence perpetrated by government, which through mass policing, incarceration and global warfare has made armed force the preferred language of state even as violent street crime has declined dramatically. 

Just as the only path to a nuclear-free world is negotiated disarmament between nuclear powers, we can only hope for a peaceful America if all sides agree to downgrade their stockpiles.

To address all this, we need a transformative politics that disarms America, state and citizen alike, and confronts the roots of violence perpetrated at home and abroad. That means a long, methodical and radical political project to reduce not only the prevalence of lethal weapons but also the socio-economic conditions that encourage people to use them.

This is not to equate all forms of gun possession. A gun in the hands of a Klansmen is an utterly different thing than one seized by black people in self-defense. That’s why disarmament must be universal, encompassing the carceral state itself, and take place on racially and economically just terms. A gun control regime that perpetuates violence is contrary to the cause of peace.

We place precious few limitations on the production and distribution of guns but then impose draconian penalties on poor black men who possess them. As Marco Rubio recently put it in a moment of accidental insight: Our laws today reflect a time when dealing with gun violence was largely keeping handguns out of the possession of a gangbanger or street thug.” This approach — a collaboration between liberals and conservatives — has led to huge numbers of people, disproportionately black, locked up for illegally possessing firearms that are otherwise permitted to circulate almost freely.

A felony conviction, even for a nonviolent drug offense, typically makes it illegal for someone to possess the firearms that millions deem to be a basic constitutional right. It’s estimated that roughly one-third of adult black males have a felony record, making them, if they try to live the fully-loaded American dream, subject to imprisonment. Other laws turbocharge sentences if a gun is involved, however tangentially, in a crime. Even if the gun is never brandished.

The results shouldn’t surprise us. As of the end of 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an estimated 78,800 people were locked up in federal and state prisons with their most serious charge being public order offenses involving a weapon. This figure doesn’t include many others serving time on gun charges, or whose sentence for a crime was extended because of firearms, because BJS only classifies prisoners based on what is deemed to be their most serious offense. For example, according to a 2015 BJS report, nearly a quarter of federal prisoners classified as drug offenders (among those sentenced after 1998) had also received a sentence involving weapons.

Guns are involved in every operation of the carceral state: The New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk dragnet was justified in the name of rooting out illegally possessed firearms; police use the threat of lethal force to justify arresting millions of Americans and shooting some in the process; and it’s armed sentries, in the last instance, that enable prisons and jails to incarcerate an estimated 2.3 million.

Gun proliferation stems from the lack of genuine grassroots democratic political power in this country. For many, guns — and a libertarian ethos of individual over collective reliance — fill that void, which is what NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre is tapping into when he says that socialists want to eliminate … our firearms freedoms so they can eliminate all individual freedoms.”

Disarming America will require increasing democracy, and disarming the police outside of extraordinary circumstances. Citizens need not arm themselves against a government whose repression they don’t fear. The converse is also true: A society that is not brimming with firearms does not require an armed police force — in fact, in some countries, unarmed police are the norm. Just as the only path to a nuclear-free world is negotiated disarmament between nuclear powers, we can only hope for a peaceful America if all sides agree to downgrade their stockpiles.

The culture of violence that prevails at home has in part been forged abroad through decades of imperial warfare. Managing a global empire entails not only directly deploying murderous quantities of munitions worldwide but also peddling armaments to allied armed forces. In 2015 alone, the United States made $40.2 billion in arms transfer agreements globally, the majority with the developing world. What’s more, untold quantities of illegally diverted but legally purchased guns have become the weapons of choice amongst criminal gangs throughout Mexico and Central America.

Stopping the violence will also require providing poor communities with economic power: poverty is the indisputable backdrop of the everyday carnage that destroys lives in poor black neighborhoods from Chicago to Baltimore. Meanwhile, the specter of violent crime — which, contrary to Trump, has plummeted in recent years — drives gun ownership across the board, encouraging vigilante killers like George Zimmerman.

Our gun culture is a morbid one: A large majority of gun deaths have been the result of suicide, the rates of which have risen dramatically in recent years, one piece of the rising number of white Americans whose lives are cut short by deaths of despair” — a pervasive social despair that must be addressed rather than stigmatized as idiosyncratic mental illness possessed by monsters. 

Disarmament may seem a daunting task, considering the political opposition we confront, and the fact that 327 million-odd Americans own, between them, more than 300 million guns.

But it’s precisely what we must do, one step at a time.

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Daniel Denvir is the author of All American Nativism (forthcoming from Verso) and host of The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin magazine.
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