The horrific murders of 20 children aged six and seven, along with six adults, at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December has ignited a debate about gun violence in the US.
This was the latest in a series of such massacres to occur at schools, malls, religious institutions, theatres and similar places over the past few decades. In many of these instances, rapid-fire military-style weapons were used that sprayed big numbers of bullets in seconds, as was the case in Newtown.
As a result, most of the discussion in the media and among politicians has centered on laws to control the types of guns available to ordinary citizens, and who should be prohibited from owning them.
An aspect of this discussion centers on the second amendment to the US constitution. The first 10 amendments are collectively known as the Bill of Rights, which guarantee certain civil rights such as free speech, freedom of religion and so forth.
They were amendments because the original constitution had no guarantee of these democratic rights. It was only the threat of renewed revolution that won these amendments.
The second amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
A recent ruling by the nine robed reactionaries of the Supreme Court “interpreted” this amendment to mean solely the right of individuals to own guns, ignoring the part about militias. They declared a Washington DC law restricting ownership of hand guns was unconstitutional, and they struck it down.
This was a victory for the National Rifle Association(NRA), the lobbying arm of the gun industry. The NRA vigorously defends the right to own any type of gun, including those with rapid-fire capacity to spray hundreds of rounds a minute.
The constitution and its first 10 amendments came out of the first American revolution. The weapons used in that war were mainly muskets, muzzle-loaded for each separate shot. “Militias” were referred to because there was no standing army.
To set policy today based on what types of weapons were used during the Revolutionary War jumps over two centuries of technological advances of guns and obliterates logic.
(Socialists have long advocated replacing standing armies with “well-regulated militias” after socialist revolution. They also advocate the formation of workers’ defence guards against violent capitalist reaction, and in the US advocated armed self-defence by “well regulated militias” of African Americans against racist violence during the civil rights movement. The question of militias deserves more discussion.)
But the issue of gun violence in the US, which occurs on a far greater scale than in any other advanced capitalist country, goes well beyond gun-control laws.
That Newtown, and the other massacres, could occur demonstrates a sick society. And while we are shocked and dismayed by such anti-human acts, we often overlook the day in, day out gun killings that plague the country.
In the past half-century, more than 1.5 million US people have died by guns on our streets and in our homes. That is more than have been killed in all US wars from the Revolutionary War up to Afghanistan. Twice as many, in fact.
Since the Newtown massacre, the toll has been more than 1000.
This is a country steeped in violence and that glorifies violence. Martin Luther King said in his 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: “I have tried to offer … my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.
“But, they [militant Black youth] asked, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems …
“Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”
Indeed, since the start of World War II, the US has been permanently at war, overt and covert, right up to this day. US imperialism has killed tens of millions in the process and drives home the “lesson” that such violence is good and righteous.
As a child, I was taught in school that the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the unleashing of atomic weapons over the cites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II were righteous actions because the imperialist opponents of the US were also guilty of such (or worse) war crimes.
The invasions of Korea and Vietnam were justified with the argument that capitalism had to be defended at all costs against socialism. Those who resisted weren’t really human, but racially inferior “gooks” and “slants”.
US-backed wars, military coups and bloody dictatorships throughout Latin America and elsewhere were also touted as righteous responses to “communism”.
General Westmoreland, when he led the invasion of Vietnam, publicly said that “the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner”.
During the Vietnam War, we were inundated by the military and media of the “body count” of the “enemy” killed that day by the heroic US troops.
Today, callousness toward the “enemy” is expressed by “collateral damage”, “rendition”, and state-sponsored torture of the subhuman “Islamists”. The wanton terror and murder directed against Iraqis and Afghans is considered normal, as are “targeted killings” and murder by drones.
Such violence at the federal level is complimented by daily shootings and killings by police across the country.
Is it a wonder that, in such an atmosphere, emotionally or mentally unstable people, such as the Newtown killer, follow suit?
The massive shootings across the country are often the result of the “war on drugs,” a subject for another “Letter from the US”.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]