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The Problem With Gun Control

Homophobic and racist violence won't be fixed by heavily armed police or discriminatory gun control.

The liberal call for gun control as a “solution” to mass shootings has been amplified since the horrific and homophobic massacre in Orlando on June 12. In certain respects the call makes sense. Should we live in a society with fewer guns? Of course. Does the right wing’s commitment to guns reek of double standards? Definitely. Are gun lobbies such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) absurdly powerful? Absolutely.

However, the current emphasis on gun control shifts focus away from the core cause of the Orlando massacre: the systematic oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people of color. It also ignores the historic and ongoing racialization of gun legislation, while reifying a narrative that legitimates state violence by the police and the military.

Since the Orlando massacre mainstream articles, analyses, and even cartoons about how easy it is to acquire a gun have proliferated. Gun control was a major theme at the June 13 Stonewall Inn vigil in New York City. A call for politicians to “get the guns off the streets” was met with strong applause from the four-thousand-plus crowd, and every elected official who spoke extolled the virtues of gun control and their record on the issue.

Yet most politicians have shied away from discussing the social and political attitudes shaping homophobia — the actual motivation for the attack. Several members of Congress conducted a theatrical “sit-in” on the House of Representatives floor to push for a bill banning those on the “no-fly” list from purchasing guns, but those same representatives have had little to say on the climate of hate leading up to the massacre.

The Pulse nightclub massacre was a site of homophobic violence against Latinx, black, and brown LGBT people. This fact should be straightforwardly obvious considering how common homophobic violence is in the United States and abroad. As Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, homophobic attacks are not an aberration, but rather, a feature of the negative political and social attitudes directed towards LGBT people. The National Center for Transgender Equality found that 63 percent of transgender people in the US have experienced severe acts of discrimination including loss of a job, school bullying, eviction, and physical assault.

Ethnic and racial LGBT minorities are particularly vulnerable. In 2014, 80 percent of anti-LGBT murder victims were people of color. In the United Kingdom homophobic hate crimes increased by 22 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 merely a product of individual acts. While the United States proclaims itself to be a bastion of democracy and liberation, over twenty-two states have legalized hate through anti-LGBT laws. More than a hundred anti-LGBT bills have hit legislative houses from local city councils to the United States Senate in recent years, much of it in response to the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015.

Rather than use the Orlando massacre as an opportunity to discuss state-sanctioned discrimination and rising anti-LGBT violence, the mainstream media has focused on gun control legislation or terrorism or a combination of the two. Politicians have been all too happy to play along, escaping culpability for this environment of hate.

Focusing on gun control also helps to sidestep uncomfortable questions about the racialized nature of existing gun laws. US gun laws give the illusion of equal treatment, but they are actually applied differently according to the race of the assailant, the number of people impacted, and the race of the victim(s).

Consider “Stand Your Ground” laws. A 2012 study 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 not guilty 59 percent of the time.”

In 2012, George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder despite killing a seventeen-year-old African American boy, Trayvon Martin, in cold blood. That same year, Marissa Alexander, an African American woman, was initially sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot when her husband threatened to kill her.

The current effort for gun control is also explicitly racialized. The typical mass shooter is a right-wing white man from a Christian background, yet Democrats’ strongest action for gun control has been based on the no-fly list, a racist Bush-era measure that targets Muslims almost exclusively.

Even ACLU lawyers litigating against the list do not know how someone gets on it or how they can be removed. The Justice Department admitted that a full third of the hundreds of thousands listed are only there due to outdated information. Democrats could not advance this bill without a racial frame.

Racism has been a linchpin in US society and it operates in duplicitous ways in the gun control debate. Discriminatory policies around gun control disproportionately target black Americans that possess arms while simultaneously making them a target of extrajudicial police violence. Yet US politicians have done very little to highlight this fact; Democrats have not held a sit-in to protest the murder of black and brown people by the US police or military.

Channeling the conversation toward gun control erases, and thus legitimates, violence perpetuated by the police. The rhetoric asking for the banning of assault rifles seems built on the pretense that the police are surrounding our protests with teddy bears and candy, not barricades and the very same assault rifles.

Indeed, politicians have been careful to include caveats for “legitimate” gun use. In response to the Orlando shooting former US Army Command general Stanley McChrystal said, “Our leaders can start by doing more to keep guns out of the hands of those who cannot be trusted to handle them responsibly.” Who are these people who could handle guns responsibly?

For politicians and for the mainstream media, the answer is the police and the military. Yet the state is the most violent agent in our society, and its use of violence has been anything but just or responsible. If liberals were really concerned about gun violence, they would disarm the largest perpetrators of brutality — the US military and police.

Speaking at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed that the United States was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” That observation is as true today as it was then. The US military continues to brutalize the Global South, while at home, 1,185 people died at the hands of the police in 2015 — a year marked by protests of police killing. That’s more than the number of people killed in mass shootings in the last fifty years.

Queer folks, particularly queer people of color, experience high rates of both physical and verbal abuse at the hands of the police. Make the Road’s astounding survey of residents in Jackson Heights, Queens is just one of many examples documenting police abuse of queer communities. A majority (54 percent) of their LGBT respondents reported having experienced a police stop. Of the LGBT folks who were stopped, over half said they experienced physical or verbal harassment. The number is 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 reports that in a 2014 national survey, nearly three out of four LGBT people and people living with HIV reported face-to-face contact with police in the last five years. About a quarter of those reported “hostile attitudes from officers.” Yet these are the people assigned to protect us?

Further, structural violence and militarization in the United States and abroad foster inclinations for mass shootings. The Orlando gunman worked for G4S, one of the world’s largest private security companies, and was obsessed with the New York Police Department. He purchased his assault rifle from an ex-NYPD officer. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues, the tendency towards “total violence” reflects a thirst for blood that has distinguished American military history, from the genocide of Native Americans to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is imperative to make the connection between these individual acts of violence and the state violence that is perpetuated domestically and internationally. Without demanding police and military disarmament, demanding gun control only strengthens the skewed power balance between police and the communities they terrorize.

People in the LGBT community have a special mandate to protect our radical legacy and keep the Democrats from co-opting our queer siblings’ deaths. Yet very few people at the Stonewall vigil on June 13 seemed concerned about the contradiction between calling for gun control and thanking the NYPD as they surrounded us with barricades and assault rifles.

The irony that this would happen in front of Stonewall, where in 1969 LGBT people rioted against police harassment and demanded their rights, dawned on very few of us. Instead, some vigil attendees even thanked the NYPD for “protecting us,” insulting the legacy of the uprising that made our meeting point a landmark.

Some will say we cannot fight for all the needed reforms at once, that we need to focus on particular issues. They will argue that mass shootings pose a more immediate threat than the problems described above (homophobia, racism, the injustices of policing and American militarism). Mass shootings are horrific and traumatic for the communities that experience them, but finding and challenging the root cause is the only meaningful way to address them.

Gun control in its current incarnation is a classic liberal solution. It’s a paint job for a crumbling house. Mainstream approaches to gun control treat mass shootings as isolated phenomena rather than central features of a divisive capitalism that pits working-class people against each other and promotes violence as a method of expression. Assailants have had a lot more in common than guns: they often found themselves at the nexus of alienation, atomization, and xenophobia.

If the Democratic Party actually cared about our safety they would create legislation that addressed poverty, racism, and homophobia. But they do not and they will not. It is up to us to push for a society where Orlando would never again happen.