By Stephen D’Arcy
The mass killing of twenty-six school children and education workers in Connecticut, a little over a year ago, horrified everyone concerned about public safety. It also re-ignited the longstanding debate about ‘gun control,’ and whether there is anything more that can or should be done to protect people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces from attacks by violent people armed with assault-type weaponry and wearing body armor. Normally, the debate is dominated by two positions: a “libertarian” position that favours the unfettered right of people like Ted Nugent to bring an assault rifle into a coffee shop or a school whenever he chooses, and a “liberal” position that wants “the authorities” to be empowered to exercise unilateral power from above in imposing gun regulations deemed by politicians to be “sensible.” Is there a third position? More specifically, is there a radical-Left position, based upon the values and principles of egalitarian democracy and worker empowerment?
I believe that there is such a position, but that it has not been adequately articulated, with the result that many on the Left have come to believe that the “libertarian” and “liberal” positions are the only ones available. The following comments attempt to introduce a Left perspective into the debate, sketching the elements of a community-based, radically democratic approach to firearms regulation.
The present situation in many jurisdictions (such as Utah, to give an extreme example) is intolerable, from an egalitarian and democratic point of view. What makes it unacceptable is that (i) it shows callous indifference to the most basic standards of workplace health and safety, allowing anyone, including open fascists and violent police officers, to bring guns, in some cases even assault weapons, into workplaces and classrooms; (ii) it prevents workers and communities from taking grassroots action to limit the capacity of fascist or quasi-fascist militias to set up and train paramilitary organizations (of which there are several dozen in the US), whereas if anyone on the Left attempted to do the same thing on a similar scale they would be brutally suppressed by the state, regardless of the law, as history amply illustrates; and (iii) it assigns sole authority to regulate or not regulate firearms to the least trustworthy institutions in society, employers and the capitalist state, completely disempowering workers’ organizations and neighbourhood-level community organizations.
This situation can and should be changed, by bold action from below, to reclaim public authority that now wrongly resides with employers and the state. Such authority ought to be exercised democratically, by participatory-democratic public assemblies. Only democratic regulation of firearms by the people, in workplace and neighbourhood assemblies, can be relied upon to put the public interest ahead of the interests of elites in (a) maximizing the unchecked power of the police, and (b) insulating far-Right militias from public accountability or limits imposed by those most endangered by such groups, especially the racialized groups and immigrants that are their main targets.
In practical terms, a community-based approach to gun regulation would begin by establishing Public Safety Assemblies in every neighbourhood, and Workplace Safety Assemblies in every workplace. These Assemblies would be empowered to impose substantive limits on the carrying of weapons within the areas of their jurisdiction. No employer or state agency should be able to force workers or other persons to endure unfettered gun-wielding by strangers entering their neighbourhoods or work sites. If such risks are to be taken, it should require prior authorization by democratic assemblies of the people who live and work in those places. These Assemblies would offer a means by which such authorization could be granted, or denied, on a democratic basis.
Among the substantive regulatory proposals that such Public Safety or Workplace Safety Assemblies could entertain, any of the following can serve as examples: that only persons with permission of the Assembly may carry assault weapons in the workplace; that no police officers may carry weapons into the workplace or neighbourhood, except under specifically enumerated circumstances set out by the Assembly, or with special permission of the Assembly; that the storing of weapons by openly racist militias within the jurisdiction of the Assembly shall be prohibited; and so on. Such proposals could be rejected by the Assemblies, of course. The point here is that it should be up to workers to decide whether or not such regulations make sense for their workplaces; and it ought to be up to residents to decide whether such regulations make sense for their neighbourhoods.
Note that this proposal is not like conventional forms of “gun control,” as advocated by many liberals. Because community-based gun regulation relies on democratic control from below, by workers’ and neighbourhood Assemblies, the process is actually neutral between those who believe that arming people more heavily would improve public safety and those who believe that restricting firearm use, at least in certain areas or by certain people, would improve public safety. The Assembly process would require people to deliberate publicly with their co-workers and neighbours about the merits of various proposals. In some cases, this might lead to ‘stricter’ controls; in other cases, the controls might be made ‘less strict.’
For example, under a community-based gun regulation system of this type, Starbucks workers would be empowered (as they are not, as of now, as a matter of company policy) to designate their work site as a gun-free zone. Conversely, those same workers could decide to allow open or concealed carry of firearms in their workplace. Or they could allow workers to be armed, but not customers. And so on. The most basic commitment of a community-based approach to gun regulation is not a commitment to ‘strict’ or to ‘lax’ gun regulations, but to democratic gun regulation, from below, on the basis of empowered, participatory deliberation in public by workers and neighborhood residents.
This proposal cuts against the “libertarian” impulses of many on both the Left and the Right. But where libertarianism promotes, not liberation, but the disempowerment of workers and community members, and serves objectively to insulate the police from public control, and to embolden fascists to militarize their operations, we ought to choose egalitarian, horizontal Assembly democracy over “libertarian” misunderstandings of freedom.
Community-based, democratic firearms regulation, on a horizontalist, participatory-democratic basis, is an idea whose time has come. It ought to be embraced by the Left, both for the benefits it offers in terms of public and workplace safety, and for the challenge it poses to the unchecked power of irresponsible elites to usurp powers that rightly belong in the hands of the people.
[Note: An earlier version of this text was posted on ZNet]