Bulletin of the League for the Revolutionary Party

August 17, 2013

Gun Control, “Stand Your Ground” and Self-Defense

Justice for Trayvon Martin!

The acquittal of George Zimmerman was an outrageous verdict. To add insult to injury, the feelings of grief and anger over Trayvon Martin’s murder are being used by many politicians, including President Barack Obama and Reverend Al Sharpton, to push a counter-effective and dangerous remedy. The Democrats especially are raising false hopes that the government can protect people from murderous violence through gun control laws, even in the unlikely event that such measures were to pass in Congress.

As revolutionaries, we see the need to carefully analyze and to expose the false arguments being put forward by the liberal politicians, as well as the labor unions and civil rights organizations, on these issues. After all, as Malcolm X put it, the Democratic Party is part of the problem, not the solution. Indeed, Obama presides over a violently racist incarceration system as well as a violently racist immigrant detention and deportation system. And as Commander-in-Chief, he is overwhelmingly responsible for imperialist warfare around the world – from traditional armies to the escalating use of drones. These bloody and repressive activities are necessary for the well-being of the imperialist capitalist system.

In this light, the Democratic and Republican politicians who preach against violence and guns are hugely hypocritical at the very least. These two parties, with different styles, have always served the interests of the capitalists and enforce the subjugation of the masses to their quest for profit. A safe and peaceful world is what most of humanity yearns for, yet it cannot be achieved under capitalism. That is why the League for the Revolutionary Party stands for building a vanguard working-class party dedicated to the fight to overthrow the capitalist class and system in favor of a socialist world of peace and plenty.

Pervasive Racism and Gun Control

The Zimmerman acquittal was consistent with the racism that is pervasive in American capitalist society. (See America’s Racist Injustice System: Trayvon Martin’s Murderer Goes Free.) The ruling class scapegoats people of color for the economic and social misery created by the capitalist system – at the same time that the racial oppression it relies on ensures that people of color suffer disproportionately. It promotes the stereotype of Black and Latino youth in particular as criminals, and encourages the police to brutalize them. Precisely this upside-down, blame-the-victim game was played out in the Zimmerman trial, where Trayvon Martin was blamed for wearing a hoodie – as if it is reasonable to assume that anyone so dressed is a criminal.

Back in the real world, Trayvon Martin, the real victim, had every reason to feel threatened by a stalker like Zimmerman. Stopping racist vigilantes, stopping violent criminals that plague poor communities, and preventing dangerously mentally-ill individuals from going on shooting rampages like in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut are all obviously desirable aims. No wonder that after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, support for gun control measures ran very high. It was only the moneyed influence of the reactionary National Rifle Association (NRA), along with like-minded Republicans, which prevented gun control legislation from getting through the Senate. The NRA represents the interests of the big capitalist corporations that manufacture handguns, and they care more about their profits than about the possibility of their weapons ending up in the hands of crazed killers.

The liberals’ advocacy of gun control taps into the understandable opposition of most people to the obvious horrors of gun violence. And the cold enthusiasm for guns among racist reactionaries can add fuel to a liberal argument for curbing guns through legislative controls. But gun control means that the general population should be denied their democratic right to bear arms. Gun control advocates in essence are saying: trust the government, leave the business of arms to the army, the police, and other forces of the capitalist state. The idea that gun control will keep weapons out of the hands of criminals is a pipe-dream, since criminals don’t necessarily get their guns legally. But it would be a dream come true for the ruling class, which wants the masses to have as little power as possible.

Politicians bemoan the fact that violent crimes are pervasive in poor communities and even point to the fact that young people of color are disproportionately victims of these crimes. Certainly, some criminal activity comes out of desperate poverty. But a great deal of crime, from major drug cartels to local dealers, does not originate in poor communities. Isn’t it obvious that the most dangerous criminals are the ones that always will be armed in a capitalist society, no matter what the laws on paper say? And aren’t the police also a dangerous armed gang patrolling communities of color?

In general, capitalism as a social system breeds and actually encourages all kinds of crimes on many levels. The eradication of poverty is something that U.S. capitalism has often promised but has never been able to do, not even when the economy has been going well enough to support a large middle class and a large sector of well-paid people within the working class. It is certainly not going to happen with the society facing the degree of economic decay it is at now. Massive protests and class conflicts are escalating in many areas of the world, and are being met by deadly police and army repression.

Revolutionaries see that the U.S. imperialist capitalist state and its armed forces represent the major threat of violence. This is becoming already increasingly evident, especially to Blacks and Latinos and immigrants who have been on the receiving end of police and vigilante violence. It will become more obvious in the future, when there will inevitably be major working-class rebellions against capitalist attacks, upsurges extending across the divisions of race and nationality.

Such uprisings are already happening in countries from Greece to Brazil to the Middle East: they will happen here too. As the ruling class demands more cutbacks, poverty and unemployment will continue to rise, and that will inevitably inflame people to take to the streets beyond anything we’ve seen in years. Then it will become clear that the police and other armed forces are not just about repressing people of color, the main thing they have been doing. They also aim to clamp down on the entire working class when workers in general begin fighting.

The Democratic Right to Bear Arms

The revolutionary view is that workers and oppressed people have to unite against the capitalist attacks. And when there are big struggles in the U.S., it will become clear that organized mass self-defense is part of what is necessary to protect our struggles.

The capitalist classes of all countries defend their power over exploited and oppressed people by holding the legal monopoly of armed force. They would not be able to stay in power without it. As we pointed out in Big Brother USA, that is why the government is expanding its programs of domestic spying and repression. That is why they abhor the idea of masses of working people being armed and organized. And that is why we believe working class and oppressed people should never give up the right to bear arms.

To allow the right wing to pose as the genuine champions of the right to bear arms is a big mistake. The NRA claims to want people of color, working class and poor people to all be equally entitled to bear arms, but to believe this is absurd. The NRA is the leading outfit in this regard; it may attempt to veil its political character at times, but everyone knows that is an almost exclusively white club, catering to its cronies in the ruling class. It is aligned historically with the U.S. military, especially the National Guard, which is often called on to break up “riots” and strikes. Solidly aligned with the racist reactionary right on most issues, the NRA would definitely oppose collective fightbacks against attacks coming from the capitalist system. On the contrary, elements from this milieu will be part of a future fascist oppression against workers and people of color when things heat up.

Unlike the right wing, revolutionaries and other militant fighters against injustice have a long tradition of rejecting gun control – and when appropriate have called for armed self-defense by people of color and working class people under attack. Armed self-defense was championed by the most militant wings of mass struggle throughout American history. In the civil rights movement, for example, the Deacons for Defense and Robert F. Williams led heroic struggles using armed self-defense of Black civil rights groups in the South. The best-known champions of Black self-defense were Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party; the Young Lords and the Brown Berets also advocated self-defense. Individual self-defense can be lifesaving and absolutely necessary. But these examples, along with recent events, show that what is needed most of all is a plan for mass organized self-defense as part of an overall revolutionary strategy.[1]

On “Stand Your Ground”

Along with advocating gun control in general, the movement inspired by Trayvon Martin’s murder has advocated the overturn of “stand your ground” (SYG) laws. The first such law was passed in Florida, and since then similar laws have been adopted in more than twenty states. The liberal politicians oppose these laws on much the same basis as they oppose the right of gun ownership and self-defense. They argue that such laws expand the legal definition of self-defense and therefore encourage the greater use of guns.

These laws do expand the situations in which people can defend themselves against attackers by the use of lethal force. In states without SYG, the prevailing legal idea is that a person is obligated to try to flee from a threatening situation in any way possible – not remain where they are and resist (hence “stand your ground”) – even though the attempt to flee may itself be risky and even life-endangering. This narrows the legal definition of what constitutes self-defense.

There is a strong case made that such laws are inevitably implemented in a racist way. The fact that verdicts in SYG cases tend to favor white defendants over Black defendants is indeed an enraging injustice. The wording of the laws is color-blind, but in practice it is not implemented that way. However, this racial disparity – in terms of both defendants and victims being treated differently according to race – is in fact pervasive in general in the judicial system. It would not in itself be a reason to overturn a beneficial law. And there is already evidence that Black defendants have benefitted from SYG-type defenses, although not to the same degree as whites.[2] So if a SYG law only extends the right to self-defense, on balance we think it should be defended, not opposed. Under such circumstances, the issue is to fight for it to be implemented equally for all.

However, we object to the Florida law and other SYG laws that follow the Florida model – on a different basis from the liberal opposition. The SYG law in Florida provides a special protection granting the defendant in a potential self-defense scenario the possibility of immunity from prosecution, and from forthcoming civil suits, if a judge so decides. Leaving it up to judicial discretion, rather than to be decided by a jury, makes these SYG laws particularly undemocratic and exacerbates the propensity for racist decisions that is already imbedded in the judicial system. For example, even though Zimmerman’s lawyers did not use SYG in presenting their case, the judge did tell the jury to consider SYG law in rendering their verdict. And should Zimmerman face a civil suit in the future, his lawyers could still ask a judge for immunity to block it based on Florida’s SYG provisions.

In pointing to the pros and cons of different forms of legislation, we hope to show that it is necessary for oppressed and working-class people to analyze laws concretely. Are they on balance potentially weapons to be used against the masses, or do they represent a democratic right that is worth defending and extending? These are often not easy questions to answer, and the key issue is not the laws in themselves but how they affect the class struggle. Fights must be waged for equality under the law in a capitalist society, but equality cannot be fully and permanently achieved until capitalism is overthrown.

Thus we not only argue against gun control as a strategy; we also oppose the emphasis on a narrow legal and legislative strategy that stifles building an independent mass movement to take on the system. Today in the U.S., building a united struggle that fights intransigently against racism as well as against capitalist exploitation in the interests of all workers and poor people may seem like pie in the sky. Over time, however, we hope to prove to our fellow workers and youth that not only is this possible but that building a revolutionary party to lead the socialist revolution is also a serious and realizable goal.

In order to end the horrors of gun violence, the people who most need to have their guns “controlled” are those in the White House, the Pentagon, police stations and the militarized borders of the Southwest. Hiding their own violent system, the politicians who represent ruling-class interests would like to convince workers and oppressed people to accept the idea that only the capitalist state can decides who is armed and who has power. The road to socialism will see the working class overthrowing the capitalist state and its cops and military. The future workers’ state will have its own armed power, based on the masses of working people rather than elite forces answering to a racist and anti-worker class.


1. For further discussion on the question, see the pamphlet “Armed Self-Defense and the Revolutionary Program,” available from the LRP.

2. “In Florida, some of the most ardent defenders of the law have been black defense attorneys. ... In fact, if all cases are taken into account, black defendants have a higher success rate in claiming stand your ground than do white defendants, and they attempt to claim stand your ground at higher rates.” (www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2013/0806/Racial-bias-and-stand-your-ground-laws-what-the-data-show)