A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Gun Control, Abolition, and Transformative Justice

A radical Left response to gun violence

by Brandon AbsherJune 4, 2018

On May 18, 2018 Dimitrios Pagourtzis walked into an art class at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas and began shooting, ultimately killing ten people and wounding more than a dozen others. Of course, by now, this scene is almost banal in the United States. So common are such acts of mass murder - and so feverishly documented and ubiquitously broadcast - that Paige Curry, a student at Santa Fe High School, resigned to the inevitability of the horror that had befallen her, said in an interview that “I’ve always kind of felt that it would eventually happen here, too.”

Just as the shooting - or, at least, a shooting - was inevitable, so too the responses to the shooting at Santa Fe High School rolled out according to the iron laws apparently governing such things. Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick appeared on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos to blame abortions, video games, and divorce. Nearly simultaneously, newly minted NRA-president Oliver North appeared on “Fox News Sunday” to decry a “culture of violence,” referencing violent films, television, and video games. He also claimed a (non-existent) link between mass shootings and Ritalin. On the Left, of course - and, in fact, among the majority of Americans - calls for increased regulation of firearms again resounded.

Such calls are by now orthodoxy among Liberals and Progressives. Nonetheless, there remain many on the radical Left who resist gun control for a number of important reasons. As Nivedita Majumdar has detailed in her defense of gun control, Left arguments against increased regulation are based on two significant premises. First, that the criminal legal system in the United States is hopelessly racist such that tighter restrictions on gun ownership will be used to further criminalize and surveil people of color, exposing them to even greater amounts of state violence. And, second, that armed resistance is sometimes necessary. Since stricter gun laws would compromise the ability of the oppressed to defend themselves against their oppressors, the argument holds, the Left must support rights to gun ownership. Majumdar criticizes both of these arguments.

Unlike Majumdar, I take the first argument very seriously. In contrast to what she suggests, I do not think the criminal legal system is an otherwise neutral tool which is only applied or used in a racist way by bigoted individuals. Rather, as I see it, the system is constructed on fundamentally racist premises. As I have argued previously, the modern state is not an expression of the will of the people so much as it is an expression of the rule of dominant groups over subordinate groups. It is important, then, that we consider concretely who will be affected by new gun control legislation and how they will be affected.

According to Mujamdar, Leftists who support laws against homicide, sexual assault, and other violent crimes are inconsistent in their opposition to gun control legislation. After all, these other laws are also applied in racially biased ways. Perhaps. But, as Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” There are times when we must embrace contradiction. In this case, the Left should offer qualified support for some forms of gun control in the near-term while emphasizing the long-term goal of an alternative to the criminal legal system and the modern state which supports it.

Many in anti-racist circles, myself included, now follow the lead of figures such as Angela Davis in calling for the abolition of prisons and police and alternative approaches to justice. Decarceration and decriminalization are central strategies within this abolitionist movement. While almost everyone agrees that murder and sexual assault are serious issues that must be addressed in some way, then, there are many in fact who challenge the idea that the best response to such violence is to further empower the racist criminal legal system, relying on its violent repressive and punitive methods (primarily policing, surveillance, and incarceration).

As Mujamdar notes, black people in the United States are much more likely than whites to be affected by gun violence. Yet, only the spectacle of the mass murder of white children has been sufficient to motivate large numbers of whites to support any kind of serious response, mostly in the form of stricter gun control laws. Away from the spectacle of mass shootings, there is the everyday reality of gun violence faced disproportionately by people of color. In the words of Trevon Bosley, a Chicago youth who addressed the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, “Everyday shootings are everyday problems.” Clearly, the tendency of white Liberals and Progressives to ignore this violence is part of a pattern of racism.

However, there are effective, community-based ways of responding to this violence outside the criminal legal system. To take only one example, consider the Cure Violence program which responds to gun violence in impoverished communities of color in Chicago and elsewhere using a public health model focused on insider intervention. As documented by Tina Rosenburg, the program has been incredibly successful. In contrast to such programs, responses that focus on surveillance, policing, and incarceration are themselves violent and only perpetuate further violence by destroying communities and alienating and disenfranchising people within them.

The organization Generation Five, whose mission is to end child sexual abuse, has argued that the Left must develop a liberatory approach to violence built on the principles of “Transformative Justice.” They list three “Core Beliefs” animating such an approach:

  • Individual Justice and collective liberation are equally important, mutually supportive and fundamentally intertwined - the achievement of one is impossible without the achievement of the other.
  • The conditions that allow violence to occur must be transformed in order to achieve justice in individual instances of violence. Therefore, Transformative Justice is both a liberating politics and an approach for securing justice.
  • State and systemic responses to violence, including the criminal legal system and child welfare agencies, not only fail to advance individual and collective liberation but also condone and perpetuate cycles of violence.

We can and must envision a radical response to gun violence. Community-based programs focused on transformative justice provide the model for such responses. Of course, it is a positive development that the majority of Americans are beginning to reject the control exercised by the NRA and the gun lobby over the US government. And, indeed, limitations on gun access will almost certainly help to ameliorate mass shootings and everyday gun violence. Ultimately, however, a reliance on the criminal legal system and its methods must not be the Left response to gun violence.