I had something like this in the works for more than a week now, but because of several reasons, mainly my exams and the difficulty to give good treatment to this topic, I couldn’t publish as soon as I would have hoped to. The reason I thought it a good idea to treat the topic of gun rights was the recent US Supreme Court decision which recognizes an individual right to gun ownership. I thought that was a good pretext to think about an issue which I find particularly difficult to decide on.
Let’s start from the beginning, on a historical review of the issue of violence, the State, and weapons. Note that I’m using the word State in a wide sense, and not referring exclusively to the sovereign nation-state born around the 16th century. Consider then class division in Ancient Greece, very much driven by the needs of the State to conduct foreign policy–i.e., war. The class separation itself was based on wealth differences, and the thresholds had to do with the ability to arm oneself in defence of the State, certainly under Solon’s constitution. Thus the thetes rowed the ships, the zeugitae fought as hoplite, and the Hippeis formed the cavalry. In a social context like this, in which there is no compulsory levies and standing army, the city-state is best protected by the highest diffusion and availability of weapons that can be economically supported. Restriction of individual ownership of weapons of war would have seemed inconceivable. A similar dynamic applies to the Roman army, based on volunteers who had to buy their own equipment. The situation in the Persian Empire, which used conscripts and a class division similar to feudalism, I haven’t been able to ascertain. As to the fall of the Roman Empire, which gave rise to the feudal system in Europe, we can find some interesting items. Take the Assize of Arms, promulgated by Henry II in 1181 CE. While many advocates of gun rights today see in this act a legal precedent, as a matter of fact this is establishing a duty, and not a right: a feudal duty to pledge–and actually possess inalieanably–arms to the King’s service. Also, those who believe this is the grounding of an individual right to bear arms, as many and as varied as one wants, should read the text of the act in its entirety, and pay special attention to the language employed. For example, consider this fragment:
“6. Any burgess who has more arms than he ought to have by this assize shall sell them, or give them away, or in some way alienate them to such a man as will keep them for the service of the lord king of England. And none of them shall keep more arms than he ought to have by this assize.” So much for unrestricted gun ownership as a fundamental right in the Common Law. A far more promising development we get in Iberia–as much as it is so often depicted as an enemy of liberty, especially in the anglosphere. I am referring to the so-called caballeros villanos (difficult to translate, but perhaps village knights would do it). When the communities which repopulated the strategic Duero desert were given charters (fueros) these often included a duty of auxilium, military aid, to their grantor. As a useful glossary of Spanish colonial terms explains:
caballero villano: Common in the reconquered towns of Castile were the caballeros villanos, which translates to knights-commoners–that is, knights who had not won hidalguía. Caballeros villanos typically dwelled in reconquered towns, where they maintained a horse, military accoutrements, and–the wealthier among them–bands of retainers. According to McAlister, “they stood ready to serve in the king’s cavalry and in returned gained exemption from personal taxes and a virtual monopoly of municipal offices. Neither nobles nor burgers, they constituted an urban patriciate of military origin and function and of knightly mentality.”
Proceeding to the rise of the State strictu sensu, we find such items as the English Bill of Rights 1689. This bill contains language to the following effect:
“That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” This, far from a universalist recognition of an individual right to bear arms, is the assertion of class and religious privilege. Note in particular the fragments suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law. This clearly shows how the right not to be disarmed is conceived as a mechanism to defend ruling-class privilege as well as the State religion from revolutionary violence. If more justification is required, consider the preamble where the right to bear arms is justified in the following terms:
“By causing several good subjects being Protestants to be disarmed at the same time when papists were both armed and employed contrary to law”. I believe more substantiation of this point is unnecessary by now.
The US Constitution contains the famous second amendment on which the aforesaid court ruling is based. I believe its language is sufficiently known (or knowable) so that quoting it would be superfluous. The most common dispute about it–reaching at times talmudic dimensions–lies on whether it is supposed to configure an individual right, often justified as the necessary precondition for the exercise of the right of resistance, or whether it configures a collective right, probably in favour of the states, to bear arms for the purposes of national defence, in a militia. The quoted article by the World Socialist Website chooses the latter interpretation, whereas the right wing typically chooses the former. I think though, that as Marxists it is all too easy to fall in with the liberal bourgeois “left”, and think this position needs to be assessed carefully. On the one hand, it is clear that a key element of State power is founded on the existence of specialized organized armed bodies in possession of the most advanced weapons, the most developed training, and so on, what Lenin would refer to in State and Revolution, Chapter 1, class society and the State, as special bodies of armed men. On the other hand, it is useful to see what Lenin places in contrast with these bodies, and it is a self-acting armed organization of the population, which at least to a naïve reader like me, suggests distributed, descentralized bearing of arms by the people as a whole. Another important factor is that a revolution is unlikely to succeed against these very same bodies of armed men if it is deprived of weapons, although I do believe the main factor is going to be organization, training, and the quality of such weapons. After all, if conservatives were really about the right to resist and overthrow constituted government, they’d have to claim a right to RPGs and portable SAM launchers, not machine pistols and hunting rifles.
In the meantime, the problematic of private ownership of weapons is present in the US, and cannot be easily solved through legal means. Once the weapons have been distributed and held by the people, it is nearly impossible to retrieve them, absent far more political will than I can imagine. So what is most urgent is to think of ideas on how to cope with this problem for now. Perhaps the only reasonable strategy is escalation: the creation, step by step, of a self-acting armed organization of the population, or at least nuclei of people willing and able to bear weapons for individual and communal self-defence. In States where this problem does not have the same urgency, like my own, I suspect gun rights are not a particularly urgent progressive demand that we need to concern ourselves with. After all, in almost every revolution, the people start out mostly disarmed, disorganized, untrained and undisciplined, and fight the defender of the State, holding a practical monopoly on organized violence, yet the people have been known to carry through, among other ways, by using confiscated weapons from State arsenals. If someone has any better developed ideas than these, though, I’d be very grateful to read them, as I can’t really make my mind completely on the issue. Thus this ambiguous and limited conclusion.