Veterans for Gun Reform, March for Our Lives, gun reform, march for our lives protests

One of the headlining endorsers of #MarchForOurLives held last month in Washington, D.C. was the organization Veterans for Gun Reform. The group released a video that played during the flagship march, featuring 16 veterans who had served in wars from Vietnam to Iraq. They spoke to their personal experience using the M-16—the military-grade counterpart to the commercially-available AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting—and the meaninglessness of differentiating between the two.

Throughout the video, veterans comment on their experiences with the AR-15:

“There is no reason...why anyone other than military and law enforcement should have an assault weapon like this.”

“High powered, rapid-fire assault rifles like the AR-15 are meant for one thing...That’s not something I want in my country.”

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, the video’s director and a veteran himself, says in reference to the availability of the AR-15:

"It's like taking a soldier off the battlefield with a machine gun and bringing it into the civilian world."

cover photo: screenshot from Veterans for Gun Reform PSA, above

The rhetoric of the video draws a familiar line between the acceptable use of gun violence on the foreign “battlefield” and its unacceptable use in the domestic “civilian world.” Yet, the persistence of this imagined dichotomy derails the very message many of the march’s young leaders were beginning to raise: Any real challenge to gun violence in the U.S. requires questioning the very culture of militarism that makes it possible—and the U.S.’ role in proliferating it globally.

The Israeli military came under international scrutiny in late March when snipers shot live ammunition into crowds of Palestinians participating in the Great Return March within the Gaza Strip. In the first day alone, more than 750 were injured, and at least 18 were killed--including youth, and journalists wearing clearly-designated press vests. Videos showed unarmed protesters murdered as they prayed, as they ran, at times being shot down to cheers from the soldiers. Days later, the U.S. blocked a vote by the U.N. attempting to launch an investigation into the Israeli military’s claim that the shootings were part of a “precision strike." Two additional protesters died from their wounds earlier this week.

There are deep ties between Israeli militarism in occupied Palestine and gun violence in the United States. From the U.S.’ multi-billion dollar fiscal sponsorship of the Israeli army, to the weapons tested on Palestinian protesters before they are sold to the U.S. military, transitioned into local police departments, and eventually made available on the civilian market, the way military, police, and interpersonal gun violence are connected internationally is exemplified by the relationships that bind the United States and Israel.

A prime example of this are the tactical trainings offered by the Israel Defense Forces to police departments across the U.S., passing on the very strategies used to brutally suppress Palestinian protesters to law enforcement and private security forces internationally. The St. Louis police department participated in these trainings in 2011—one of the many reasons the state’s response to protests in Ferguson after Mike Brown’s murder looked so similar to scenes from occupied Gaza. Indeed, military ties between the U.S. and Israel also lay bare the deep interconnectedness of the fight for Black lives with Palestinian liberation.

Ferguson, Missouri. 2015. (Photo via IVN)

Many Black organizers expressed dismay at how the country rallied to support Parkland youth in ways it has never supported the victims of police shootings. One of the primary demands of The Movement for Black Lives has been ending the militarization of local police departments—a phenomenon the Veterans For Gun Reform video perpetuates rather than criticizes.

Yet, as many pointed out, the difference between #MarchForOurLives and #BlackLivesMatter isn’t merely the skin color of lead organizers, nor their access to resources and the ears of celebrities. It is equally that the former calls for state intervention to stop interpersonal violence, while the latter implicates the state as a primary culprit for interpersonal violence. While one demands gun violence be restricted to “the battlefield,” the other acts from the knowledge that “the battlefield” exists wherever there are Black people, Muslim people, border-crossers, and those resisting the inherent violence of militarism.

Where is the line between “the civilian world” and “the battlefield?” Were protesters killed in Gaza, and the thousands of Palestinian children who have been murdered by the Israeli military, acceptable victims of gun violence? If automatic weapons weren’t meant to take the lives of young people attending school in Parkland, were they meant to take the lives of young people attending schools in Baltimore, Kabul, Brooklyn, Waziristan?

Only days before #MarchForOurLives stormed Washington, hundreds of protesters blocked traffic and interrupted a King’s basketball game in Sacramento, CA, protesting the death of Stephon Clark at the hands of police. While they had no permits, had raised no money, and had no celebrity endorsements, they insisted their message was just as crucial as the one lifted up by Parkland students. They insisted that being shot in your grandmother’s backyard is as unconscionable as being shot in your classroom, or being shot during prayer, no matter the qualifications of the individual pulling the trigger.

The same weapons that killed young people in Parkland are killing young people in Damascus, in Chicago, in Baghdad. And just as there is no meaningful difference between an M-16 and an AR-15, no meaningful difference between “the military” and “law enforcement,” there is no meaningful difference between “the battlefield” and “the civilian world.” The distinction merely delineates the communities the state deems deserving of gun violence, and the populations on which it condones the testing of deadly weaponry for the sake of private profit.

Instances of gun violence are connected through the governments, weapons manufacturers, and systems of dominance that make them possible. To truly challenge gun violence, our conversations about the international reach of militarism must be connected, too.


Rad Fag, Chicago abolition
This essay was written in collaboration with the inspirational, talented, visionary writer and dear friend Benji Hart of Radical Faggot. Benji is a Black, queer, femme artist and educator currently living in Chicago. They have essays featured in the anthologies Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (2017) and Taking Sides: Radical Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (2015), both from AK Press. Their writing has also been published at Black Youth Project, Truthout, Salon Magazine, and other feminist and abolitionist media.

They are the recipient of the Rauschenberg Residency (2018), Chicago Women and Femmes to Celebrate (2016), and the 3Arts Award in the Teaching Arts (2015).

P.S. We're also honored to have Benji as our official #BecauseWe'veRead discussant! Tune in to Instagram live at 11am CST Sunday, April 29th to join the conversation as we discuss Assata Shakur's autobiography!