The Virginia Tech massacre continues to attract commentary, and some of it is indeed splendid, either because barking mad or because brilliantly splenetic. Fred Gardner's attack on 'Prozac Madness' is a heart-warming; Alex Cockburns call for transferring the means of violence from tyrannical fat-asses in the state to local democratic militias is funny, but in my view is mistaken, for reasons I'll come to, and contains an unfair attack on the 'anti-gun lobby'; Gerald Kaufman blaming it on the movies is stunningly inept; Henry Porter comparing the massacre to chlorine bombings in Iraq, and demanding that Islam 'damns' the use of such weapons is its usual trashy worst; Roy Greenslade commanding the moral high ground by pointing out how little attention is paid to the daily catastrophe in Iraq compared to thirty-two deaths in Virginia is to the point, to a point; and a poll finding that women and minorities are most likely to favour gun control probably reflects the distribution of victimhood.
Yet it seems unlikely at the very least that this one instance, treated as an anecdotal source for instapunditry, is likely to generate the kind of questions - let alone answers - that we really need. You cannot extricate the lone nut from the total prior circumstances, and those extend well beyond the availability of potentially damaging anti-depressants or even the availability of guns. Because any solution you attempt is going to impact on the entire criminal justice system, not to mention giving the state certain rights in respect of, say, controlling film production, or controlling student behaviour, that it might not otherwise have, or disbursing weaponry among authorities in schools who might be no better at handling them than SWAT teams. To evaluate these pleas properly, it is essential to have an evaluation of the society for which they are proposed: at any rate, such is my way of segueing to the topic I want to comment on, which I shall relate to Cockburn's article.
The simple fact is, as the criminologist Jeffrey Reiman has argued, the system - including not only the courts and police, but also the process of lawmaking - is designed to fail at reducing crime. This doesn't mean that politicians maliciously maintain high levels of crime, but that they refuse to undertake the kinds of measures that could reduce it substantially where it is reasonable to expect that they understand the consequences of their inaction; and at the same time, they have pursued a drastic expansion of the punishment system, creating new crimes, extending sentences, making nonviolent or even victimless activities (such as prostitution) imprisonable, with the predictable consequence that crime rates continue to rise, declining only where exogenous factors impact on it: such as a decrease in unemployment, or a stabilisation of the drugs trade. They have created a heavily privatised penal system, knowing that this gives an incentive to providers to ensure that they do not have any effect in reducing recidivism, since high crime equals high profits. On the one hand, this programme of drastic expansion of prisons, harsher punishments and the reintroduction of the death penalty, a process initiated in the late 1960s when it was feared that crime was getting out of control, has coincided with a dramatic increase in that makes certain parts of the society unbearable; on the other, it tears up poor neighbourhoods, especially black neighbourhoods, since the criminal justice system disproportionately locks up young black men. And here I'm not playing any games: it isn't only disproportionate to the actual black population, it's radically disproportionate to the incidence of crime among black people. Incidentally, repeated studies suggest that not only one's 'racial' background, but also affluence is a primary determinant of the likelihood of one's incarceration: for instance, Reiman cites a study of convicted youths in Philadelphia by Terence Thornberry, which discovered that the more privileged youths were less likely to be incarcerated, and far more likely to get probation. There are similar trends throughout the entire system. The system is designed to fail at the task of reducing crime, although it happens to be a highly apt form of repression in a polarised liberal democracy, in which the manifestations of social distress can be contained rather than seriously addressed (which would require a redistribution of class power and privilege).
For, more fundamentally, that system is integrated into a capitalist society in which the very definition of crime results from an ideology appropriate to claims of 'property rights'. In particular, large amounts of harmful activity, which involve intent (inasmuch as the agents of it, usually corporations, cannot reasonably be unaware of the harmful effects their conduct has), is not criminalised. What is called 'white collar crime' is not merely underpunished in comparison to ordinary crime: it is often not recognised as such either by the state or in official ideology. And while most crimes committed are property crimes, Reiman estimates that 'white collar crime' (which includes mostly property crime, but also serious physical harm to human beings) is immensely more costly than the forms of crime for which most people are convicted. The total cost of 'white collar crime' in 2000 was, according to Reiman, $404bn, mostly pertaining to corporate offenses (theft from consumers usually, but also environmental crimes etc). That only includes those forms of conduct actually defined as illegal, not those that legally kill American workers and consumers every year. The reality of incarceration of mostly young, mostly working class, mostly male, and disproportionately black, people in America is a result of a process of decision-making mediated by ideology, that runs the whole gamut of the system. It runs from the decision as to what constitutes a crime, inflected as it is by class power and the lobbies and basic assumptions that append to it; to the decision as to what sentences there should be, given a prevailing conservative consensus that we're too damned soft (which is obviously inflected with racism and class contempt); to the enforcement of cops, often racist ones, but less famously often hostile to the working class and poor; to the decisions of magistrates and parole boards, whose decisions reflect the same basic biases.
If the legal system is designed to fail at protecting human beings and maintaining basic minimums of civility and security, it is also unlikely to overcome problems that the government itself introduces, such as the addition of crack cocaine to American streets in order to fund the Contra army in Nicaragua, under circumstances in which the drug is controlled by violent gangs as an artefact of its illicit nature (actually, if it wasn't illicit, you couldn't fund secret wars from it). One of the main contributors to violent crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s was precisely the struggle for control of the distribution of that substance. Indeed, every time a new substance like that comes into the market, there is a similar struggle for control before it becomes routinised: this accounts for some of the acute increases in violent crime, while the routinised control by violent gangs and the necessity of paying for the stuff through robbery and so on accounts for a part of the ongoing high rates of crime. State planners must be perfectly aware of the effect that the criminalisation of drug users has on crime rates, but continue to pursue it relentlessly, even while state bodies surreptitiously bring the substance into communities. This isn't a policy designed to reduce the use of drugs or the incidences of crime associated with drug use. The solution would plainly be, as a first step, to make cheaper drugs available in legal ways.
Now add one more element: the guns. You have a society in which millions are intentionally, knowingly fucked over on a regular basis. Aside from being exploited and oppressed, their lack of control over the means of production, never mind the means of state rule, means that they are denied adequate healthcare, and often killed by the companies they pay to cure them; are often killed by their work, if they can find employment; are often killed by the food that they eat, especially if it happens to be low-cost food. They are criminalised, often for harmless behaviour, imprisoned, often for nonviolent offenses and petty crimes. Others are incorporated into illicit economies that operate through coercion. And you have this immense industry that thrives off social breakdown, whose impact on American society is almost uniformly negative: I speak of the weapons industry. When they're not producing the means by which Iraqis are gunned down in their cars or houses, they are encouraging homeowners and middle class suburb dwellers to fancy themselves either inheritors of the American Revolution, or hardass homesteaders, wild west heroes, war veterans or something else appropriately ridiculous. Grandad therefore has an arsenal which one can loot from to shoot up the local school. On top of that, you create a demand for property-driven criminal activity, create the supply of propertyless criminals to carry much of it out, and then you have an industry that is desperate to sell its product, with the reasonable expectation that they will be used in criminal transactions. In the United States, between 1965 and 2000, more than a million Americans were killed by firearm, and almost the entirety of increases in the murder rate in the early 1990s was provided by lethal semi-automatic weapons. Aside from that, many of the murders are committed within the household, and those households with at least one gun (over half of American households today) have been more likely to experience a homicide for that reason. The facts suggest that the circulation of firearms in America is far too free, but under the rubric of states rights, many states opt out of obligations proposed by, for instance, the Brady Bill, which simply proposed a five day waiting period, (and even that no longer obtains). If the system was designed to succeed in reducing especially violent crime, then a waiting period and a register of gun ownership would surely be a minimum expectation.
So, this is why Cockburn's contrarian swipe at the 'anti-gun lobby' comes rather cheaply. In a capitalist state there is always de facto gun control, since the state ensures that it has the biggest and baddest weapons. The current gun industry has nothing to do with ensuring the democratic right of citizens to resist an overly aggressive or tyrannical state, as per the libertarian fantasists. It is an industry that has killed more than enough Americans, usually poor Americans. The question is, what kind of gun control should be permitted and under what circumstances. On the other hand, Cockburn's call for the replacement of quasi-military and police rule by popular militia rule could in principle be a revolutionary demand. Duncan Hallas made a similar argument, much better put, in 1985. Standing armies are indeed inherently undemocratic and permit the state to wage aggressive wars; the current police and death penalty regimes are brutal and racist. To transfer control over the means of violence in this way would be a revolutionary change in itself: as such it could only occur as a result of, or in the process of, a serious social revolution. Yet, the context of Cockburn's argument is otherwise. Invoking the posse, or the popular militia, he actually calls for teachers and hall monitors to be armed as an alternative to cops on campus and SWAT teams. It is true that the campus cops did not evacuate the campus as they should have when the first two bodies were discovered, and that the SWAT teams did not intervene to stop the killings. It is also true that they are given to torturing students from time to time. Yet, hall monitors are as likely to plug an overactive student as a dangerous assassin. Teachers are as likely to shoot their own students as a mass killer on the loose. It's curious, since Cockburn is so dyspeptic about the absolute failure of the institution and its teaching staff to respond to the warning signs apparently so evident in Cho, that he thinks they can be trusted with brandishing pistols. This isn't a society on the brink of a democratic revolutionary upheaval. It is a society experiencing serious disintegration and polarisation, and it isn't sensible to proliferate weapons in the school system. The number of guns and access to them is contributing to widespread social misery - not originating it, but compounding it, and making its effects more deadly.
There is a lot of romanticism in the imagery of Black Panthers holding guns outside police stations, thus symbolising the defense of black communities against state repression. I don't propose that their right to do so should have been abolished, nor should it be today. But what did that achieve in itself, and since when has the strategy of armed combat with the police been effective? Since when have people not been easily outgunned by the cops? And such is the ideology of crime in a capitalist society that even armed self-defense against criminal agents of the state, or even against the wrong kind of civilian, will invariably be treated and prosecuted as a capital crime. The left's attitude to gun control has to be situation-specific, and pragmatic. In some societies, restricting guns would make precious little difference, since the murder rate is already quite low. In the US, the opposite obtains.