President Obama took a moment to pause on Tuesday during his speech unveiling a series of executive orders designed to curb gun violence through policies generally labeled by those on both the right and the left as “gun control.” He had been lamenting the “inalienable right to life” that had been taken from “college students in Santa Barbara, and from high schoolers in Columbine, and from first graders in Newtown” when he was suddenly overcome. He stopped speaking, leaned into the podium, let his eyes well up, and repeated “first graders” in a voice close to breaking. Then, Presidentially, he dried his eyes and continued.
The executive orders, which basically streamline the process of background checks and expand the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, are accompanied by proposals for congressional actions to ban assault weapons, limit ammunition magazines to ten rounds, expand local law enforcement with $4 billion, and require background checks for all gun sales, which are unlikely to succeed in Republican-dominated congress. Liberals have applauded the President’s speech (and his Thursday New York Times OpEd, in which he stressed the need to hold weapons manufacturers responsible for gun violence) as an impressive commitment to bring about meaningful change before leaving office next year. Even those skeptical of the actual substance of the executive orders were impressed at the President’s sincerity.
But if the President feels sadness about the murder of innocents, or wishes to block criminals’ access to deadly weapons, that is not reflected in his policy history. Barack Obama is the world’s greatest dispenser of violence, and his (and the Democratic Party’s) focus on mass shootings and gun control is a blatant diversion that distracts the left from the larger scale violence that they are deeply complacent in.
Before I continue, I will briefly note: America’s cultural obsession with guns is a result of mass panic (often with racist undertones) inspired by an industrial media fueled by the same fear-based consumerism that drives the weapons industry. Legal gun ownership does not prevent crime; women living in a house with a gun-owner are three times more likely than other women to be the victims of homicide, women who purchase their own guns are 50% more likely than other women to be murdered by their partner, gun owners are four and a half times more likely to be shot than non-owners, those who carry guns in public are five and a half times more likely, and those in households with guns are almost three times more likely to commit suicide than others. America’s violent crime rates, unmatched in the industrialized world, are directly related to (though not directly the result of) the availability of guns in this country. And the National Rifle Association, which is rooted in the same late 19th century southern racism as the Ku Klux Klan, subverts democracy through bribery and propaganda while protecting only those who profit from violence.
But in a country where wealth disparity is so vast that the supercapitalist class claims the right to a volume of resources that is only possible in a theoretical projection, where hundreds of thousands of human beings are forced to work in slave-like conditions because they have no safe path to legal documentation, where the state is conducting illegal and intentional bombings of civilians in four countries on a daily basis, where a false war on drugs has resulted in the highest rate of incarceration in human history, and where the few people who control virtually all accessible media are also deeply invested in industries that rely fundamentally on the exploitation and slow destruction of the working class and the environment, the left can not afford to focus on gun control.
Despite industrial media and the Democratic Party’s panic-inducing focus on mass shootings, especially school shootings (which claim the lives of 1 in every 2.5 million students a year, four times lower than the average American’s odds of dying from falling out of bed), most victims of gun violence live in impoverished and racially ghettoized areas where they would be more likely prevented by investments in infrastructure, education, and health care than by attempts by an already invasive police force to confiscate illegal firearms. The so-called progressive party has not chosen gun control as a token issue because they want to save lives. They have chosen it because it is sensational, it is emotionally evocative, it is logically straightforward, and it could conceivably (if poorly) be resolved without a significant change in the status quo (unless you buy into the libertarian delusion, fueled by NRA propaganda, that a populace armed with commercial firearms could stand up to that largest, wealthiest, and most technologically advanced war machine ever assembled that is the American military-industrial complex, which for the purposes of this essay we will dismiss). It makes mainstream “leftists” angry, it leaves them with barely significant yet emotionally fulfilling victories, and it lets them forget the actual crisis of global capitalist imperialism.
And don’t for a second allow yourself to believe that President Obama actually believes in gun control.
Obama’s executive orders, while they accomplish very little, do at least simplify the process of performing a criminal background check before selling a deadly weapon. In the world of international affairs, such background checks are performed regularly by organizations such as Amnesty International, which annually details the crimes of countries, such as, say, the absolute monarchy Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 publically executed over 150 political and religious dissidents, sometimes through decapitation or crucifixion, tortured and starved prisoners in direct violation of international law, deported over 350,000 migrants (many of whom had literally been abducted from their homes in Southeast Asia by corporations protected by the Saudi government), and led a massive bombardment campaign in Yemen to prevent a populist movement from controlling the government there, killing at least 2,500 people. But over the past five years the Obama administration has authorized over $100 billion in arms sales to the oil-rich kingdom, including, in 2010, a $60 billion package that was the largest single arms deal in American (or world) history.
And Saudi Arabia is not alone. The Obama administration broke records with its $30 billion deal with Israel, despite that country’s internationally condemned invasion and occupation of Palestine. It has made deals with with the violent military junta in Egypt that has been murdering pro-democracy protesters since the Arab Spring, and with the fascist regime in Turkey, which toes the line of ethnic cleansing in its ongoing suppression of Kurdish rebels. It has heavily armed and even trained militants, including religious fundamentalists, in Syria and Iraq during its unconstitutional war for control of the region. In the first five years of his presidency (before multibillion dollar deals with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and India, and before his now-catastrophic engagement with ISIS), Obama authorized over $169 billion in weapons transactions. Even adjusted for inflation, this is more than any US president since World War II. And that was two eventful and violent years ago. The Nobel Peace Prize winner who was elected in part because of American frustration at two illegal wars has given more weapons to pro-US governments, in order to protect them from the people reacting to their imperialist oppression, than any Cold War president (including Reagan, who gave the world the Contras, Al Qaeda, and Saddam’s WMDs). Incidentally, the multi-billion-dollar profits from these deals go largely to the exact same weapons manufacturers who fund the NRA, while their expenses are subsidized by taxpayer dollars on the President’s authority. Perhaps it was classic Obama meta-humor moment when he wrote in his Times OpEd this week, “Gun manufacturers owe it to their customers to be better corporate citizens by selling weapons only to responsible actors.”
When the President wiped tears from his eyes talking about Newtown, was he thinking of the 300 children murdered in Gaza from the helicopters he sold Israel in the summer of 2014? Was he thinking of the children buried in the rubble after bombers he sold Saudi Arabia specifically targeted Shi’ite schools in Yemen this fall, putting over 1,000 schools out of operation? Was he thinking of the three children (already victims of his occupation) who died when he authorized the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan a few months ago, a fact only made public because the hospital happened to be operated by a French NGO? Or could these crocodile tears have possibly been the latest act in a charade that will occupy a nation of mislabeled liberals for another election cycle?