The shooting of innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan police on 22 July poses issues not just about the arming of the police, but about the broader question of who should have access to guns.
Whatever the qualifications introduced by the difficult issue of suicide bombers, I think socialists should continue to oppose the police in general being armed. We do not want a situation like that which exists in the US, where police officers routinely carry guns and wield armed force, often against working-class and in particular black working-class people, with relative impunity. But what do we say about gun control exercised not over the agents of the state but over its citizens?
The US constitution famously states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”; historically, revolutionary democrats insisted on this right as a guarantee against arbitrary state power and the development of tyranny. But the early United States was a society composed predominantly of independent small farmers, with only a small urban population. It is obvious that carrying a gun around your farm is different from carrying a gun in the hot house of a big city packed with people, full of social tension and with numerous potential flashpoints for violence.
Nonetheless, in recent history too, some socialists in the US have opposed gun control on the class grounds that the working class movement should not endorse - even when it is not strong enough to decisively challenge - the bourgeois state’s monopoly of force. This was the position of the James Cannon and the American SWP, for instance. As Trotsky put it in the Transitional Programme, socialists must dispute the reformist idea “that the sacredness of democracy is best guaranteed when the bourgeoisie is armed to the teeth and the workers are unarmed.” The working class and oppressed groups may need arms for self-defence, as in the late 1960s when the Black Panthers armed themselves for protection against the police. In a revolutionary situation or even major class struggle, this becomes more important still — how can we even begin to prepare the ground for a workers’ militia if we have supported laws which prevent anyone except the state from acquiring weapons?
The problem, of course, is that the current beneficiaries of guns being freely available will not be revolutionary workers' organisations but petty criminals, not to mention the kind of disturbed individuals who carried out the Dunblane massacre and numerous shootings in American schools. Gun-related crime is a massive problem in US and increasingly some British cities (for instance Nottingham); and the victims of it are almost always working-class (and again often black working-class) people. Moreover, in Britain the situation is somewhat different from the US: although we generally oppose the police having guns, there is not a threat to the workers' movement and the oppressed from armed police and right-wing vigilante militias in the way that there at least has been historically in the US. It therefore makes a lot less sense to insist on the right of citizens to be armed.
In addition, the police are not the only threat working-class people face, and there is nothing progressive about communities being flooded with weapons. This suggests a case for some kind of gun control, but the question is how this can be done without strengthening the repressive powers of the state and disarming — ideologically and, in the end, physically — the workers’ movement.
Perhaps the solution is what I understand some socialists in Australia have advocated: gun control administrated not by the police but by the labour movement (or is this simply advocating revolution under another name?) In any case, there is an urgent need for a debate on these issues, and first of all among the revolutionary left.