The Solution to America’s Gun Problem Is Noncooperation
Substantive change will only come from protests and marches against the same global forces that brought us slavery and racism.
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.
In Britain, the 1783 defeat by the American colonies stirred consciences against one aspect of this global economic system: the slave trade, which they saw as the moral liability that had caused providence to forsake Britain and allow the Americans to seize the status of freedom’s torchbearers. In Britain, firearms had long been understood as the natural accessory of the property owner, whose lethal violence in defense of property was indulged by the law as common lands were newly enclosed and transformed into privately held land. The movement to abolish the slave trade changed that view. Guns’ central role in the slave trade and plantation violence made them newly repellent, as did new kinds of casual gun violence unleashed by the mass arming of Britons during the long global wars of 1793-1815 and the fear of armed rebellion by those deskilled, made landless, impoverished, and exploited during the Industrial Revolution that accompanied those wars. The early 19th-century British state disarmed its people and created new policing units that made arms in the hands of property owners redundant. Though guns continued to be understood as indispensable to Britons engaged in violent colonial efforts abroad, their formerly loose spread among colonial subjects was also arrested.
But an absence of guns did not mean an end to struggle against tyranny, in Britain or its colonies. Some struggles depended on networks of arms smuggling and were violent; others, like the Gandhian noncooperation movement in India, were nonviolent, drawing in turn on practices of hunger strike and boycott used elsewhere. Black Americans under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. borrowed from the Gandhian struggle to push back against racial tyranny, but armed struggle continued, too, with the Black Panthers asserting the Second Amendment rights of African Americans. Both these methods of resisting tyranny are American: mass movements of civil disobedience and armed revolutionary struggle.
Firearms manufacturers have always had to cope with periodic lulls in government demand. At times, they did so by supplying other kinds of customers, like slavers; at times, by making other kinds of things, like typewriters. Governments supported these adaptive practices. But the options became constrained by the late 20th century as the United States emerged as a military behemoth. During the Cold War reboot of imperialism and military-industrialism, the United States became the firearms depot of the world, with major European manufacturers such as Glock, Beretta, and Sig Sauer opening subsidiaries there, too. Britain let its firearms industry wither, confident that it could rely on such manufacturers abroad when its military and policing units needed new firearms. As a result, when mass shootings occurred there in the 1980s and ’90s, the government was able to pass tight regulations on gun possession without pushback from a local gun industry. A similar dynamic allowed many countries around the world to adopt sensible laws regulating civilian gun ownership.
Their governmental agencies—policing and military units—however, still needed firearms manufacturers to remain prosperous to fulfill future needs, as did American military and law enforcement agencies. From the 1970s, the National Rifle Association (NRA), representing the interests of an industry whose center of gravity was now in the United States, ensured that manufacturers could continue to sell to one market that the American government could help them keep as open as possible: American civilians. When the Swedish manufacturer Interdynamic AB could not find a civilian market for its TEC-9 submachine gun at home, its Miami subsidiary Intratec sold it to Americans, who made it a notorious instrument of mass shootings. American civilians now own over a third of the guns in the world and are the largest single market for firearms. New Zealand quickly passed new regulations after the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings without concern for the prosperity of the European and American manufacturers its military relies on for firearms, which continued to sell to an insatiable American market.
To achieve and then sustain this robust civilian market, the NRA propagated myths about a historic American culture of unregulated firearm ownership (though gun possession has in fact always been regulated in the country) constantly under threat by government (though government has historically been a patron of the industry). Gun rights activists who claim that only firearms stand between us and tyranny succumb to this structurally induced brainwashing.
Governments around the world depend on the firearm industry’s survival and thus, now, on prodigious American civilian gun ownership. In other words, the plague of gun violence in the United States today is only superficially the result of a particular interpretation of the Second Amendment and claims about American culture; at a substantive level, it is structural. Certain pillars on which the global industrial-capitalist way of life are founded have created a debate about the Second Amendment.
After all, the amendment actually refers to “arms,” not firearms, but we have allowed common sense to dictate that this doesn’t mean civilian entitlement to tanks, nuclear missiles, or other tools of war. The only reason we don’t allow common sense to carry us further to rule out civilian possession of, say, AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles is because the NRA has worked so hard to make us think the amendment is about firearms specifically and without distinction—though it actually emerged from the sense of an important distinction between different sorts of firearms: It strove to ensure that if the federal government neglected to arm the militia with military-grade weapons, state governments would ensure that they were not left only with their militarily inadequate fowlers from home.
The structural causes of the United States’ gun violence problem—the needs of a system of global “security” whose norms evolved in the era of colonialism—help explain why petitions and lobbying individual politicians have not been effective in addressing it. As long as the basic problem of sustaining firearms manufacturers remains and other countries maintain tight arms controls, American civilians will be pushed to buy guns. And, as the research confirms, more guns mean more gun violence.
Gun proliferation is a result of the same global industrial-capitalist way of life that has also depended historically on racism and, we now know, environmental degradation. Addressing it, then, requires the kind of tidal political protest that has been used to address those related historic forms of exploitation, whether we take the Gandhian movement as a model or Black Lives Matter or the gathering movement against climate change or the farmers’ protests in India—all of which have also depended on global support. These are movements against tyranny—and what else can we call a situation in which 90 percent of Americans are hostage to the will of an interested minority? It is time for noncooperation with the global war machine that shaped our modern history of slavery and colonialism.
The continuity of today’s gun violence with that era is clear in mass shooters’ frequent targeting of minorities (as, for instance, at the Wisconsin Sikh temple, Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the Charleston church, the El Paso Walmart, and the Atlanta spas) and embrace of a combat-style white American masculinity adapted from the country’s post-9/11 wars. Military-style assault weapons may not cause the majority of gun deaths, but the incidents in which they have figured, such as Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Las Vegas, are the primary source of our generalized terror today. Meanwhile, colossal levels of gun ownership among American civilians help justify the lethal use of firearms by militarized police forces shaped by a history of institutionalized racism.
Biden’s executive orders show leadership, even if they fall far short of fixing the problem of rampant gun violence. They show Americans that while Congress is paralyzed, doing nothing is not OK. So too does the state of New York’s lawsuit against the NRA. Americans’ tax dollars fund their local police units’ contracts; there is leverage there—they might insist that lucrative government contracts should not go to companies that lobby against tougher regulations on civilian gun ownership—and with state legislatures. Consumer pressure on companies affiliated with the NRA also matters. All of this may help dent the problem of gun violence. But truly substantive change will come with cultural change, which, in turn, depends on constant democratic action in the form of protests, marches, mass boycott, and mass noncooperation. The gun problem is the same as the racism problem is the same as the climate change problem. Recognizing these historic and present-day connections, it is time to recover alternative ways of organizing, supporting, and protecting communities based on values of human and natural coexistence.
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.