In response to mass shootings, such as the one’s witnessed in Orlando and Dallas, we always hear the liberal call for gun control amplified. In certain ways this logic makes sense. The Republics commitment to guns reeks of double standards, and gun lobbies such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) are ridiculously powerful. However, calling for gun control in light of shootings which target a given group or minority is also profoundly reactionary. It neglects the core causes of shootings: the systematic oppression of LGBT people, black people and other minorities. It also ignores the historic and ongoing racialization of gun legislation. All the while, reinforcing a narrative that legitimises the right of ‘professional’ groups, such as the police and the military, to arm themselves. Indeed, since the Orlando massacre, mainstream liberal news outlets such as CNN, have been rife with stories about how easy it is to get a gun in America. At the stonewall vigil in New York, a call for politicians to ‘get guns of the streets’ was met with applause from the four thousand strong crowd, and every elected official that spoke conveyed these same virtues. Despite this, most politicians have avoided discussing the social and political attitudes which shape homophobia, which was the real motivation for the Orlando gunman. Those same members of congress who conducted a theatrical sit in on the House of Representatives floor, had little to nothing to say on the climate of hate leading up to the massacre. This blog post will look at why, if we are to bring an end to gun violence, we must focus on what causes it, not just what facilitates it.
The prevalence of widespread homophobia in causing attacks such as the Orlando massacre, should be absolutely obvious, considering how common homophobic violence was in the United States and abroad. The National Centre for Transgender Equality, found that 63 percent of Transgender people in the US have experienced severe acts of discrimination including loss of jobs, school bullying, eviction, and even physical assault. Ethnic and racial LGBT minorities are particularly vulnerable to this kind of discrimination. In 2014, eighty percent of anti LGBT murder victims were people of colour. This is not limited to the US however, In the United Kingdom, homophobic hate crimes increased by twenty two percent in 2015, while forty eight transgender women were murdered in Brazil, in January of this year. Nor is violence and discrimination against LGBT people purely a product of individual acts. In spite of the fact that the US proclaims itself to be wonderfully democratic and free, over twenty two states have legalized hate through anti LGBT laws. More than one hundred anti LGBT laws have been proposed in councils and government institutions throughout the entire country in the course of one year, many of them a response to the federal legalisation of same sex marriage in 2015.
The Orlando massacre saw violence being carried out against Latino, black and brown LGBT people, in the one space where they try and show solidarity with one another. However, rather than using the attack as an opportunity to discuss state sanctioned discrimination and the rising violence that is happening as a result. The liberal mainstream media outlets have focused on introducing more aggressive gun control legislation, while the more right wing outlets such as Fox News have focused on issues such as terrorism and Islam (In spite of the fact that a 2015 poll found that US Muslims are more accepting of homosexuality then evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s witnesses). This ignores the fact that homophobic attacks are not an aberration, but rather a feature of the negative political and social attitudes directed towards LGBT people, and people of colour. In blatantly failing to acknowledge this, politicians have been all too happy to play along, escaping any responsibility for fostering this environment of hate.
The Racialisation of Gun Laws
Focussing concerns about violence purely on gun control, also helps to avoid uncomfortable questions for politicians about the racialized nature of existing gun laws. The access to guns as well rhetoric about the second amendment, guaranteeing every American citizen the right to ‘keep and bear arms’, gives the impression of equality under the law. However, these laws are actually applied differently according to the race of the person committing the violence, the number of people involved and the race of the victims.
Take for example the ‘Stand your Ground’ laws. A study in 2012 examined 200 stand your ground cases in Florida, and found that defendants who killed a black person were found not guilty 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person were found guilty 59 percent of the time. Adding to this, 2012 saw George Zimmerman acquitted of second degree murder, despite killing seventeen year old African American boy, Trayvon Martin, in cold blood. Later that year, African American women Marisa Alexander, was initially sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot, when her husband threatened to kill her. This kind of racial discrimination under the law, extends to gun control legislation. The Democrat’s strongest actions for gun control have been based on the no fly list, a racist measure left over from the Bush era, which almost exclusively targets Muslims. This is in spite of the fact that, mass shooters are typically right wing, white men from Christian backgrounds. Even ACLU lawyers, making the case against the no fly list have no idea how someone gets on there, or how they can be removed. This means that, as the Justice Department rightfully admitted, hundreds of thousands of people could be listed as a result of outdated information. This makes clear that, far from being separate from racist policies, laws surrounding gun control disproportionately target black Americans that possess arms, making them a target of police violence. Yet I have never seen leading democrats hold a sit in to protest the killing of black and brown people by police. Indeed, they seem all too happy to support the police. This leads me to my next point.
Solving the Gun Problem with more Guns
Another problem with channelling the debate towards gun control is that it creates and thus legitimises violence perpetrated by the police. Those asking for the banning of assault rifles, seem to conveniently forget that police surround protests with barricades and those very same assault rifles. To justify this, politicians draw the distinction between what they see as legitimate gun use and what they see as illegitimate gun use. In response to the Orlando shooting, former US Army Command general Stanley Chrystal said ‘our leaders can start by keeping guns out of the hands of those who cannot be trusted to use them responsibly’. So, for politicians and the mainstream media, who can be trusted to use guns responsibly?
It would seem that the answer to this is the police and the military. Despite this, taking this view tends to see these institutions as inflatable, whereas the routine murder and intimidation of minorities by the police, shows us this is not the case. Martin Luther King Jr believed that state violence, was a problem and he made no exception to the United States, declaring it the ‘greatest purveyor of violence in the world today’. This statement is as true now as it was then. The US military continues to brutalise the Global South, while in the US itself, 1,185 people died at the hands of police in 2015. That’s more than the number of people killed in mass shootings in the last fifty years. Queer folks, particularly queer people of colour, experience high rates of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of police. A survey carried out by organisation Make the Roads, of residents in Jackson Heights, found that 54 percent of LGBT respondents had reported having experienced abuse from authorities. The number was even higher for transgender people, 61 percent of whom reported harassment by cops. These findings are not unique to New York. The Williams Institute at UCLA found in a 2014 national survey, that nearly three out of four people living with HIV, reported face to face contact with police last year. About a quarter of those reported Hostile attitudes from officers. Indeed, it is telling that the Orlando gunman had previously worked for G4S and was obsessed by the New York Police Department. He even purchased his assault rifle from an NYPD officer. This tendency towards violence, reflects a mentality which has distinguished America’s history, from the illegal invasion of Iraq to the genocide of Native Americans.
One could make the argument that, despite all the factors I have mentioned in this article, it is necessary to side with the Democratic stance on gun control, in order to combat Republicans and Gun Lobbies. In my opinion however, the failure of liberals to recognise aspects of the debate such as police brutality and discrimination against minorities, makes siding with democrats on the issue extremely counterproductive, to the cause of advancing social change. Instead, we should seek to open up a space to the left of Obama and Hillary Clinton, which while criticizing Conservative stances of guns, also challenges the root causes of gun violence in American society.