The Solution to America’s Gun Problem Is Noncooperation - Priya Satia

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Supporters of gun control and firearm safety measures hold a protest rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears oral arguments in State Rifle and Pistol v...

Amid a continuing spate of mass shootings across the United States, and as House bills addressing gun violence languish in the Senate, U.S. President Joe Biden announced, as a starting point for action, executive orders addressing the proliferation of so-called ghost guns (kits enabling assembly of guns from parts) and regulating stabilizing braces that effectively transform pistols into rifles (used in the Boulder, Colorado, shooting in March). These modest measures acknowledge the reality of a Senate too committed to gun rights to entertain even common-sense measures such as the background checks that around 90 percent of Americans desire. But more substantive action will require contending at last with the structural importance of massive American civilian gun ownership in the global industrial-capitalist system—the material foundation on which the American culture war around the Second Amendment has deliberately been erected. An awareness of that foundation will allow us to grasp the stakes and thus the scale and type of response required for substantive change.

Many Americans see guns as a means of securing freedom from tyranny, crediting the Second Amendment for consecrating the right to possess them for that purpose. After all, the amendment was written in the aftermath of the colonies’ armed struggle for independence from imperial British rule. And Britain went on to restrict arm ownership in other colonies.

Or so the story goes. In fact, in 19th-century British colonies such as India and New Zealand, arms continued to be freely available to white people enforcing the colonial presence; only nonwhite colonial subjects were refused arms. The new United States, nurturing a slave economy and expansionist ambitions, followed a similar pattern: Whether or not firearms secured the people from tyranny, they were routinely used to establish tyrannical control over Black and Indigenous populations.

Indeed, the spread of guns proved central to the emergence of industrial capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, which depended on raw materials sourced through colonialism and slavery—and thus, on the racism that enabled colonialism and slavery. Besides firearms’ uses in conquest and on plantations, the effort to mass-produce them for the continual wars that allowed conquest and enslavement was critical to the invention of the production techniques we associate with industrialism: intense division of labor, factory production, machine production. These were the techniques the British Ordnance Office cultivated to enable Birmingham smiths to expand production from tens of thousands to millions of firearms in the 18th century; later, the U.S. federal government’s investment in inventing firearms with interchangeable parts launched the “American system of manufacture” that was adopted across other industries and copied around the world. The post-World War II military-industrial complex is only the latest iteration of a partnership that dates to the 18th century.