ON Monday 16 April a 23-year old South Korean student opened fire at Virginia Tech university, killing 33 and injuring at least 29. The latest in a string of shooting sprees going back as far as 1966, the massacre at Virginia Tech begs the question; why does this keep happening, and why particularly in the USA?
The killer, Cho Seung-hui, was clearly mentally ill, but there are too many common trends in mass killings, particularly school shootings, for the phenomenon to be solely the product of a series of deranged individuals. Other factors — the class background of perpetrators, the easily availability of guns in the USA and the general alienating unpleasantness of school life — need to be considered.
The Virginia Tech shootings fit the profile of most school killing sprees — a lower middle class student under pressure to achieve amongst more affluent students. Cho’s suicide note denounced his fellow students as "rich kids" and "deceitful charlatans". Clearly the vast majority of students don’t shoot their classmates, regardless of how much pressure they’re under, but socialists must acknowledge the effect the education system has on young people — we might not, for the most part, turn to random mass violence, but the boredom and monotony of bourgeois education and the brutal, humiliating hierarchies that exist in schools and colleges play a large part in such tragedies. Similar gun violence in workplaces, such as the 2006 shooting of seven postal workers by a former employee, and within families, just serves to highlight how these brutalising conditions are not limited to school days — they pervade capitalist society as a whole.
Living in small, isolated units, under tremendous pressure to achieve and accumulate wealth, attending repetitive, unfulfilling school courses or repetitive, unfulfilling jobs is the general pattern of life in all countries; but not all countries produce the staggering amount of random mass gun violence the USA does. The comparative insecurity of the USA, with no state healthcare, an even lower minimum wage than Britain, weaker unions and greater crime rate undoubtedly plays a part here, alongside the liberal availability of guns.
Virginia has some of the most liberal gun laws in the USA, allowing residents to buy one handgun a month, and not requiring background checks first. Whilst there is debate amongst socialists around whether we should call for stricter gun controls, and how, it is surely the case that allowing and even promoting individual gun ownership in a society with such tensions is a recipe for even more random violence and mass killings.
We might not want the bourgeois state to have a monopoly on guns, but we don’t want anyone a bit pissed off with school or work to be so easily able to resort to gun violence either. Individuals being able to buy guns (and in the case of the USA, powerful semi-automatic assault weapons) is an entirely different question from the availability of weapons for workers’ militias in a potential revolutionary situation.
As socialists we want a society which doesn’t produce such violence — it is important to address the social causes of violence as well as the need for better gun control, particularly when calls for controls have lead to greater state and school power over pupils.