My friends are mostly in the left-progressive-liberal spectrum, at least as measured in relation to US politics. This means that they’re generally opposed to wars of aggression, generally in favor of a social safety net, generally think that racism is unacceptable, and generally oppose attacks on civil liberties. And they almost unanimously believe that something must be done to curb gun violence. That ‘something’ includes federal legislation to illegalize or at least strictly control the sale and possession of so-called assault weapons.

This is a recurring desire that flares up whenever there is a mass killing - 5 or more people - an event that occurs with depressing regularity about 4 or 5 times per year. If only there were more legislation and more restrictions on the use of high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons, the logic goes, these mass killings wouldn’t happen, or wouldn’t happen as often, or wouldn’t result in so many deaths. And besides, we just don’t want military style weaponry in the hands of just anyone - only the police and the military actually need such weapons. After all, do you need an 18-round clip to go hunting deer in the fall? You do not. So what possible reason can there be for opposing simple legislation to limit the sale of these types of weapons?

On another side of this debate (if we can call it that) are the purveyors of the argument that Obama and those other socialist muslim atheists are out to take our guns so they can take over America and end our Christian way of life. And only if we take up arms and resist do we have any hope of keeping our freedom. The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants, and all that.

And naturally the would-be constitutional scholars come out of the woodwork whenever this issue comes up. Accountants and programmers and insurance salesmen by day; by night experts on all aspects of the history, evolution, interpretation, precedents historical, logical, and legal, of the 2nd Amendment, a befuddling incoherent one sentence declaration that seems to have something to do with guns. Maybe. Or militias, whatever those are. Ask the newly minted constitutional scholars. They know.

From my perspective the entire argument is beside the point for those on the left; participating in this argument is yet another case of liberals and progressives taking their eye off the ball. The ‘ball’ in this case being the class struggle that the wealthy elite have been winning these past 35 years.

The left and the working class have been pretty thoroughly stripped of economic and political resources, a process that began in earnest in the late 70s with the repeal of federal usury laws in the Carter administration (a signal that financialization of the economy was well underway) and that has only accelerated in recent years. Unions ceased being a significant force in the private sector by the early 80s. The Democratic Party stopped even pretending to be on the side of the people during the Clinton administration. Would-be progressive organizations demonstrated in the past 2 major elections that they are mostly Democratic Party flacks, with no principles that extend beyond partisan politics. So we have very little to work with, and to expend energy on gun control is foolish.

But what about all the lives that are lost in America to gun violence? Surely something must be done!

But if our aim is to preserve life and to reduce needless deaths, there are bigger targets. For example:

  • Fight for universal health care that includes collective negotiation on drug prices, as is done in Canada.
  • Fight to not just prevent the gutting or privatization of social security, but to actually increase its benefits and lower the retirement age.
  • Fight to immediately stop the multiple wars of aggression currently being waged by the US and to institute policies and institutions to ensure the US never again instigates a war of aggression.

These battles would not only directly and immediately improve people’s lives and save more lives that any gun control legislation could achieve but would also have the benefit of hitting the wealthy elite where it hurts, by depriving them of ways to extract further wealth from the working class. All of those areas: war and the military, privatized health care, and privatized social security, are current or potential methods of looting the little remaining income and wealth of working people. And each of these has direct cost in lives.

  • Obamacare when fully implemented will cost approximately 40,000 excess deaths per year compared to a universal health care system with good cost controls on drugs.
  • Raising the retirement age and cutting benefits will mean that millions of people will be faced with the option of working until they are dead or living out their last few years in dire poverty.
  • The wars being fought in the middle east have already led to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths, with many more to come. Not American lives, mostly, but can any person with a moral sense think that it matters whose lives are lost or saved?

Oh, but there are so many gun deaths in America every year. We must do something!

How many of those deaths are caused by ‘assault weapons’? Many of the deaths are accidental: a result of being drunk, inept, or careless. And none of the accidental deaths required an 18-round clip: a single round in the chamber was all that was needed. Many others are suicides: again, one bullet and one bullet only. And as for the homicides, a so-called assault weapon is not really the weapon of choice if you’re simply out to kill your spouse or that asshole driver that cut you off or, really, for most of the impulse killings that occur.

Would an assault weapon ban, or strict regulations, reduce gun deaths? Yes, a little bit. Is it how we on the left should be spending our time? No, absolutely not. Why alienate millions of working class gun owners over an issue that is so relatively unimportant, in order to get legislation that is likely to be toothless, at best, or applied mostly or entirely to relatively powerless people, mostly black and brown? Do we really need yet another war, the War on Guns? How well have those previous wars worked out: the War on Drugs, the War on Terrorism? Hasn’t the effect been principally to reduce civil liberties for all of us - and do we want to give the federal government yet another pretext for further encroachments? I don’t. And I don’t think you do, either.