Gun laws & the aetiology of mass murder

by Sam Kriss

The mass murder of infant schoolchildren in Connecticut last week was unspeakably tragic. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be spoken about. Almost immediately afterwards there came the usual chorus from the American Right: don’t talk about guns, don’t politicise this tragedy. What exactly is signified by ‘politics’ here? Really, what’s being objected to is what Rancière calls ‘the political’: the idea of power-hungry statesmen playing tug-of-war with the bodies of murdered children isn’t a very pretty one. But that’s not all politics is. Political issues are those that address the fundamental questions of how we live our lives, how we structure our society, and how we relate to one another and the world around us. In other words, questions of ideology. Ideology is in a certain light contiguous with the Symbolic order in Lacanian thought: a solipsist in a sealed room might be politically neutral, but as soon as you put two people together then some kind of ideological discursive regime must govern their  interaction. Given this, the tragedy in Connecticut doesn’t need to be politicised; it’s already a political act. Violence, by its nature, can never take place in a vacuum, it must always have intentionality, a vector within the social field.

To be fair, this time around, there have been plenty of voices clamouring precisely for the politicisation of this tragedy. However, they appear to only really be apprehending a particular sector of the field of politics: that which is under discussion on Capitol Hill. Rather than seeking to interrogate the social formations that enable monstrous acts like that in Newtown, instead they demand gun control.

I’ll be open with my biases here: I like guns. I think being a good shot is an important life skill. I think the liberal drive to control firearms is much like the henpecking puritanism that tirelessly insists that we all give up smoking; it’s all a part of Western society’s incredible neurosis about death. Eat well, we are told, go jogging, enjoy yourself in acceptable doses, and your banal life can stretch out for a hideous eternity. Most of all I think private gun ownership is an important and necessary disruption of the State monopoly on force. In his address of the Central Committee To the Communist League, Marx and Engels wrote that ‘the workers must be armed and organized. The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.’ After the October Revolution, one of the first actions the Bolsheviks took was to legalise private gun ownership and turn over military arsenals to the popular masses. Of course, the State has a far more sophisticated and devastating array of weaponry than it did in 1850 or 1917. Still, as Mao pointed out, reactionaries are paper tigers; nothing in Lockheed Martin’s laboratories can match the revolutionary spirit of millet plus rifles. This is something the authors of the US Bill of Rights understood. For all their faults, they did have moments of genuine radicalism, and the Second Amendment is one of them. It was never about self-defence – it’s right there in the text: a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state. Admittedly Jefferson’s well-regulated militia of the propertied is not the same as Lenin’s armed mass of the people, but there’s the same ideological substrate: a genuine democracy requires the people’s capacity to resist encroachments on their freedom by force of arms. In the face of this, the contemporary Left’s retreat into the rhetoric of gun control is nothing less than a total ideological capitulation.

It doesn’t follow, though, that tragedies like the one in Connecticut are in any way a worthwhile price to pay for an armed populace. In fact, the two phenomena are entirely distinct. The mass murder in Sandy Hook was not caused by gun ownership. The millions of Americans who own guns do not perpetrate such atrocities on a daily basis. The reality is far more complex. Mental health provision in the United States is patchy, and where it exists it mostly focuses on palliative pharmaceutical psychiatry, in which symptoms are numbed with drugs without much being done to address the deeper root causes. More fundamentally, poverty is epidemic and swallowing up more and more of the population – in many recent spree killings, the perpetrator is someone who’s lost their job or home or has been forced to accept humiliating work conditions. This works hand in hand with a dominant ideology of absolute individualism: everyone is responsible for themselves. If you’ve failed, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. If you’re miserable, it’s because you’re not thinking positively enough. If you’re isolated, it’s because you aren’t putting in enough effort. It’s this hegemonic discourse that produces mass murderers. In more community-oriented social formations such as those in much of the Third World, spree killings are very rare; there’s violence, certainly, but nobody is ever allowed to become so isolated that their violence manifests itself in such a brutal and cataclysmic manner. America might have high rates of gun ownership but it also has a profoundly alienating social structure. Guns are incidental in all this.

Switzerland has the third-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, with around one gun for every two people. Every individual between the ages of 20 and 30 is issued an assault rifle by the government, which they are required to keep in their home. Meanwhile gun crime is so low that statistics aren’t even kept. Meanwhile, despite its high population of bankers and associated parasites, Switzerland retains a functioning welfare state and a low poverty rate. As a counter-example, look at Japan, which has some of the most stringent gun laws on the planet. The country’s law opens with the statement that ‘nobody shall own a firearm or a sword,’ with very few exceptions being listed. And it’s true that Japan doesn’t see gun massacres like that in Newtown. Instead, people use knives. In 1999 Yasuaki Uwabe used his car and a knife to kill five people and injure ten in Shimonoseki Station; in 2008 eight children were stabbed to death in Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka; in 2008 eight people were killed and ten injured when Tomohiro Kato attacked pedestrians in Tokyo’s Akihabara district with a truck and a knife. At the same time, Japanese society is as alienating as that in the United States, with its highly competitive culture manifesting itself in the suicides that take place on average every fifteen minutes, or in the hikikomori phenomenon of absolute social withdrawal that affects over three million Japanese.

It’s not enough to just blame this on some nebulously abstract concept of ‘culture.’ The form a culture takes is in continual dialectic with the economic base. Japanese society takes the form it does for the most part because of the liberalisation imposed on its economy after 1945. Ending spree killings (along with a host of other social ills) in the United States requires a similar economic overhaul, one in which the use of force is likely to be necessary. It’s going to be difficult. But unlike gun-control legislation, it might actually work.