Content warning: Contains references to gun violence and murder.
The United States is a country built on violence. Fueled by settler colonialism and white supremacy, gun and military violence is fostered at home, then exported around the world. Real solutions will require systemic changes that don’t recriminalize communities most affected by the violence, but present radical possibilities instead.
Gun violence has become a somber hallmark of our nation and a perfect encapsulation of its inability to imagine a radically different vision of tomorrow.
We have become numb to gun violence statistics. Americans are 25 times more likely to be killed in a gun homicide than people in other high-income countries. On average, 39,000 Americans die from gun violence every year. We have already hit 264 mass shootings in 2021 as of May 23.
But that number will already be outdated by the time this article is published.
More often and more deadly has been the developing pattern for mass shootings in the U.S. Between 1996 and 1999, there was a shooting every 180 days on average. This year, we’re averaging more than one shooting per day. This escalation means that gun violence has dominated how young people perceive their lives and envision the future.
The call for change around gun violence has echoed across the nation for decades. Only recently reaching the Oval Office, these changes must confront more than just the present realities of gun violence. The legacies of settler colonialism and white supremacy are still relevant, and are the bedrock for gun violence today.
We cannot separate the deadly mass shootings of the present from massacres that were and are central pillars of the armed settler-colonial project and white supremacy. The grocery store shooting in Boulder, Colorado, shook headlines in late March. About 170 miles southeast and 157 years in the past, the U.S. military brought guns and cannons to peace talks with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and instigated the Sand Creek Massacre — one of the worst atrocities against Native people on land stolen from them.
In the years following the Civil War, gun control became a tool of white supremacy in the South as a way to keep weapons out of the hands of freed Black people, with the goal of preserving racial and economic stratification. Gun control laws, like bans on concealed carry, were used by white authorities to suppress freed Black people in the late 19th century, particularly those organizing against racial violence. As labor movements began to grow around the turn of the century, bans on mass armed parades were used to quell some of these organizing efforts.
The end result was a situation where those in power kept their guns, strategically disarming any who might stand against them.
Gun violence at home has clear connections to gun and military violence abroad. From Allende to Arbenz, the Cold War saw the U.S. use military force to attempt to change a foreign government 72 different times between 1947 and 1989. Post-9/11, the U.S. began its tireless invasion of the Middle East under the jusitfication of fighting terrorism that, indeed, the U.S. military had trained and funded themselves in the years prior.
This militarism that perpetuates gun violence is so baked into the fabric of America that people begin to view guns as the only option for solving problems. This dangerous mindset is fueled by the capitalist and white supremacist impulse to own and dominate.
We cannot expect to smother the fire and brimstone of white supremacy and settler colonialism with anti-radical policies that only breathe life into those structures of power.
Addressing the roots of gun violence means creating gun policies that don’t fall prey to the reactionary, law-and-order impulse that traps us in cycles of criminalization and continued violence. Attempts at gun control we’ve seen in the past have only increased criminalization of Black and Brown communities. Even though 82 percent of U.S. gun owners are white, in 2020, Black people made up 53.7 percent of federal firearm offenders, despite making up 13.4 percent of the general U.S. population.
For example, gun policies that increase jail time for possession or turn schools into prisons with metal detectors and police officers are solutions rooted in incarceration. Even background checks, a perennial proposal, have dubious viability when the criteria used are reminiscent of the FBI “enemies” list with categories like drug user or “mental defectives.”
Anti-gun violence efforts cannot fall into the trap of pushing moderate, watered down policies in the name of oppostion to the National Rifle Association or right wing extremism.
We cannot simply be against guns; to properly address the problem at hand, we must stand for safe and affordable housing, for the complete dismantling of the prison and military industrial complex, for well-funded and well-resourced mental health services, for equitable food distribution. Our efforts against gun violence will be efforts for a bigger project of collective liberation.
Strategies for reducing gun violence must target the systemic injustices that produce it. From racism to economic inequity to gendered violence, and so forth, any tactic that addresses one issue must be contextualized around others. There is no one comprehensive framework for how this change will come about, but must hold to a handful of guiding principles:
- There must be democratic power over arms and arms makers, which includes diverting funds from police and military to fund community-based programs that address socioeconomic inequities.
- Gun policies must be universal, not solely directed at communities of color. Instead of pushing for gun control that keeps guns “out of the wrong hands” based on problematic criteria, we should look at universal safety measures like mandatory waiting periods for purchases.
- We must make room at the head of the fight for those most affected by gun violence. The Mayor Bloombergs and Big City Police Chiefs of the world cannot be allowed to dominate the conversation when we need to hear a range of voices, from and racial justice organizers to mental health specialists.
- We cannot neglect the links between gun and military violence at home and abroad, but must build a coalition that connects Chicago to Baghdad.
- There must be a target on the backs of institutions like capitalism that foment the violence we see. When we question these so-called bedrock institutions, only then can we begin to think about possibilities like collective ownership of everything from our schools to our hospitals to our natural environment.