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Transformative + Abolitionist Responses to Gun Violence
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During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw increasing economic disparities, social isolation, and significant debates about government mandates and control. We also saw an increase in gun violence in the U.S., whether from homicide, suicide, or mass killings.In conflict, we consider there to be many complex causes of extreme violence: cultural beliefs or values that glorify violence and attribute respect for violence-doers; material, political, or social struggle for power and resources; retaliation or punishment, often related to social or spiritual wounds (humiliation, disrespect) or physical violence (war crimes); othering and hate-based violence that stems from fear or resentment (white supremacy, transphobia). Conflict transformation suggests that in order to address violence, we have to address these root causes of violence: our culture of dominance and fear, our scarcity/competition, our material and political inequalities and inequities. But, these efforts take generations—and we don’t have generations. So, in the here and now—as we struggle for transformation—we might ask ourselves how an abolitionist perspective approaches the systemic problem of gun violence.
First, we have to tackle our feelings of hopelessness in the face of so many seemingly insurmountable problems and the tendency for action to not be taken. Most people who thought slavery was wrong were also resigned to the fact that it was inevitable, not their problem, or that nothing would be done. Abolitionists were the exception: they imagined that a profitable, foundational “right” protected by the constitution could and must change, and were willing to risk their wellbeing, their reputations, their livelihoods, and often their lives to create transformation.
Today, abolitionism calls on us to find solutions to everyday conflicts, harms, and violence that don’t produce further violence in the form of impoverishing fines, nonconsensual confinement (imprisonment), and coercive control (probation).And particularly to prevent the disproportionate use of these forms of controlling violence against those people who have been historically enslaved, imprisoned, and controlled by the world’s elites. Transformative Justice, as framed by Generation 5, calls us to three core premises:
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.
An abolitionist response to gun violence must consider a larger perspective of gun violence: that violence waged by our military overseas, that violence waged by our police domestically, that violence waged on our borders and oceans, that violence occurring on the streets and in our homes (against ourselves and each other), and that violence of mass killings of all kinds. An abolitionist response to violence does not reinforce or further empower the first of these forms of violence: the control and policing of mostly poor people and people of color by governments and corporations. Abolitionism—especially paired with Transformative Justice—calls us to not depend on creating more laws imposed on individuals that will then be used to further police the most policed communities (Black, Indigenous, undocumented, and poor people)—but instead to address the underlying causes of violence in our society and communities.
Many organizations responding to gun violence are doing so by exclusively looking at mass shootings—these groups therefore often advocate for things like more thorough background checks before purchasing firearms, more surveillance of people online, more police check-ins with people who are suspected of criminal intent, faster police response times and police training, more police in schools or more armed individuals, and more regulations on the purchase or possession of firearms. These well-intentioned actions impassioned by grief, ultimately put more funding and weaponry toward a policing system that has done nothing to reduce gun violence.
So what do we do? Transformative Justice solutions might include:
Address the why of gun ownership—the most prominent reason that people claim to own guns is for “self-defense”(even more than hunting). Self-defense in many cases refers to militia formation which is rooted in white nationalism. Fear of the other and of government control drive our excessive gun culture. To address gun violence we have to address white nationalism, militarism, and hyper masculinity through tactics other than shame and derision—rural, white, anti-racist initiatives toward disarmament and healing are necessary.
Disarm the government—Some self-defense is based in real fears of the extreme violence of our government. Police forces have military grade weapons that are often beyond accountability. If we expect individual community members to disarm, we must expect the same of our governments.
Violence interrupters such as Cure Violence, who train people who have been involved in gun violence to intervene within their own communities. Cure Violence has proven successful in reducing neighborhood gun violence and provides people who are likely to engage in gun violence with different skills, opportunities, and resources to meet their needs, through people who know their struggles.
Basic safety resources that allow people who are in violent situations to have real autonomy and protection—such as communities who are overly policed or occupied to remove their occupying forces; such as people in violent home situations to relocate; such as people who are starving, thirsty, and unsheltered to be less precarious and therefore vulnerable. E.g. making our basic human needs accessible and affordable (or free).
Regulation of gun companies such as prohibiting the creation and sale of certain weapons or ammunition or the quantity. We have to anticipate then the growing production of “ghost guns” and aim regulations at the production of resources, materials, and sale of large quantities of weapons. By regulating companies and organizations rather than individuals, we are targeting consequences against the profitization and proliferation of guns, rather than on the individuals who are often catch-alls for the criminal-legal system—those with the least power and who are most vulnerable.
Deeply connecting communities to material and social resources that undermine violence done out of fear, hopelessness, and desperation—capitalism is itself inherently violent and exploitative and we respond to that competition with violence at every level and sector of society. This critique is often leveled at the urban Black communities, but white, wealthy communities are rife with violence that is often hidden or seen as “isolated incidents.” This is a culture-building project of moving our communities away from materialism and competition and toward having our material needs met equitably by society as a whole.
Meeting needs for care and healing that often motivate retaliatory violence. Humiliation is among the chief motivators for escalations in violence. Societies that have humiliation and alienation baked into the culture (through hyper masculinity, white supremacy, etc.) are more likely to see violence. Community conferencing (a restorative practice) and healing resources should be more widely available, so that people who have been harmed can seek care and support in meeting their needs, seeking amends, and finding nonviolent forms of justice.
Creating conflict infrastructure related to responding to people who are showing signs of aggression and violence that are disconnected from policing. Often, our response to individuals who show early signs of violence is to report them to police or commit them to institutions that don’t address their underlying needs. Beyond community-wide programming like Cure Violence, we need more individual skills and resources to be able to approach our cousins, friends, and classmates who are communicating violent ideas: how do we talk to each other? how do we help each other move away from violence? how do we help each other take accountability? Restorative response programs have been proven to be effective in preventing violence.
Defund the military and the police. We need to be more creative, visionary, and exploratory about how we respond to violence if no policing or military existed. When we feel threatened or scared, we currently respond with systematic gun violence and weaponized control. What if we didn’t?
As an abolitionist, the question of whether individuals should have the right to own guns is not the right question. Conversations about the second amendment obscure the more meaningful questions that we must reckon with if we truly want a less violent society:
Why do we put so many shared resources into weapons production and use here and abroad? What cultural touchstones justify (and glorify) that, which then extend into our day-to-day lives?
Why do we actively prevent access to the basic needs which would create safety and healing for people confronted with violence?
Who do we justify killing (e.g. who deserves to be killed)? Why?
Given those things,
What would have to change (culturally, economically, politically), to make it extremely unlikely that we would kill someone?
Share additional reflections, efforts, and ideas in the comments!
We Can Fight for Gun Control Without Locking People Up, In These Times
The Socialist Case for Gun Control, Jacobin
The Other Gun Violence, Decarceral Pathways
Gun Control and Producing Dangerousness, Barnard Center
Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz
For more on the history of abolition: Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition