Our entrenched, public reactions and political rituals around mass shootings are growing shorter, as these nightmare scenarios become an almost normalized aspect of the U.S. landscape. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with author and educator Patrick Blanchfield about what isn’t working, why and what we need to do instead.
Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. We talk a lot on this show about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. In the last week, we have seen a number of mass shootings across the country in places like Pittsburgh, New York City and South Carolina. Lamenting the regularity of such events, and the speed with which they are often forgotten, has become part of our public ritual of response. Today, we are talking about mass shootings and some of the questions they raise for us as activists, organizers and human beings. I want to be clear that I am not trying to tell you how to organize in the wake of a mass shooting, or how to organize to avoid one. I don’t have those kinds of answers, but what I hope we can do today is to offer a potential interruption to the usual political rituals around mass shootings. The righteous proclamations, pre-emptive condemnations and heated arguments with strangers on social media — and of course, policy debates that never seem to translate into any actual changes in policy. I think most of us can agree that those routines are exhausting, unsatisfying and unproductive. So if you want a time out from all of that, I thought we could take some time to try to really reflect on why this violence is happening, how we’re experiencing it and where we should go from here.
We all know what happens now, when one of these events grabs national attention. People express their horror, sadness and maybe some cynicism over the constancy of it all. There’s some banter about thoughts and prayers. There are official responses from high-profile politicians and debates over how well they responded. There are emphatic demands for gun laws that neither party intends to pass. Politicians fundraise off the aftermath, then wait for the emotional uproar to pass, so they can continue with business as usual. Many people, including a lot of highly intelligent, politically engaged people, are locked into this ritual. People seem to experience this cycle of grief, outrage and perpetually unmet demands as a sort of knee-jerk, collective moral obligation. But in addition to the cycle’s fruitlessness, it’s also growing noticeably shorter. As mass shootings have multiplied, they have dropped from the headlines with greater speed, quickly replaced by other horrors.
To me, that suggests, we are not simply failing to prevent mass shootings, we are being overcome by them, socially and psychologically. As a prison abolitionist, I know I am usually the last person a lot of people want to hear from in the wake of a mass shooting. But the carceral mindset has not saved us from this phenomenon of mass shootings, so I think, to honor those we have lost, we have to be willing to interrupt our patterns and rituals, and try to ask better questions.
In an effort to do that, I talked with Patrick Blanchfield about the role of guns and mass shootings in our society, and how we might think about those things differently. Patrick is an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and his forthcoming book Gunpower promises to change the way we think about gun control debates, and U.S. violence in general.
First, I wanted to honestly and thoughtfully assess what the cycle of reaction to mass shootings looks like, because I don’t think we can interrupt the cycle unless we are real with ourselves about what these patterns look like.
Patrick Blanchfield: It’s a definite clearly recognizable pattern. Just to sketch that out, because I think in some ways, the pathways that are emotional, and we could even call discursive, are pretty well channeled into the edifice of our political economy. That’s like, “Everyone is horrified. How could this happen here? This could happen to anyone,” et cetera. A whole series of very understandable postures of bewilderment, and horror, and terror, and anxiety from the public at large. That generates unequivocally, and also understandably, an immediate desire to do something. The emotional weight, the felt urgency of that desire to do something, oftentimes seems to track or reflect in mirror form the intensity of those negative effects. This tragedy must be beyond the pale. It’s the one step too far. These victims were too innocent. This place where the violence happened is too close to home, etc. A whole series of creed occur, and plangent worries, which express themselves more generally as a social mobilization, at least for a brief moment to do something. That something is supposed to be given, presumably, to be as emotionally vindicating, or as righteous, or feel as powerful as the tragedy, or the trauma itself felt bad. That is a recurrent thing that happens every time one of these types of events reaches national media and public consciousness. And of course, that type of emotional energy is unsustainable. It burns itself out very quickly. It’s further complicated by this added learned neolism and sense of impotence that people have. “Oh no, here’s another one. We’re going to say the name of this place. We’re going to send our thoughts and prayers there,” et cetera.
There is this cyclical, on the public’s part, expression of horror, and then exhaustion, and a kind of muteness, right. But what that also does though, is it interfaces with processes that are long established in terms of careerist politicians, a whole network of think tanks, academic criminology programs, and also institutions from fraternal orders police to police unions, to just the broader police and carceral apparatus. Those institutions, for decades, and for as long as the idea of a mass shooting in this grotesque public mode has been in the public’s consciousness, have routinely used such episodes and harnessed such widespread, well-meaning, well-intentioned expressions of public trauma to consolidate their position and demand more resources, demand more deference, demand heightened powers to stop people, to frisk them, et cetera, all in the name of supposedly responding to and preventing this type of event from happening again.
Of course, that prevention never happens. Instead, it’s more just a, “Well, we have to do something,” and that something, by default, when a person who has a gun does something bad, is more people with guns, but they’re going to be the good ones this time. And that’s essentially the song that remains the same over the course of decades of high-profile mass shootings.
KH: Now that we’re clear on the mechanics of how people tend to react, let’s talk about what they are reacting to. Because, while the words “mass shooting” may conjure some shared imagery and ideas for people, they do not have a fixed definition in the news media, law enforcement or popular discourse. And, as is usually the case, the silences and contradictions in the larger discourse are revealing, and point us toward key questions.
PB: We have this common language sort of thing. When someone says, “Well, there’s been a mass shooting,” and to the extent to which that maps onto what people would be saying casually, water cooler conversation, talking with friends on the phone, or DMs, or on a bus stop, or whatever, when that term comes up, people generally assume that means what you call a spree killing, or a rampage killing, but in any event, someone with a gun in a public space shooting a whole bunch of people, leaving behind a bunch of fatalities and more often than not killing themselves. That’s the common language denotation of what a mass shooting is.
It’s important to flag how much psychic real estate that takes up. It’s always this … It implies always, “Well, here’s a person with a gun in a place where they shouldn’t be.” It’s in a church. It’s in a school. It’s in a workplace. It’s in an office park. It’s on the subway, et cetera. But if you racket that common language understanding of what a mass shooting is, and you deploy more technical definitions, of which there are many, and also, I could say, there’s some institutions like the FBI, for example, they don’t have a definition for what a mass shooting is. There are different ways of breaking down what these episodes of violence, what makes them up. One way of defining it, for example, might be, let’s say three fatalities, not including the shooter, or, a certain number of injuries, but perhaps not including any fatalities. Or an act of violence that only stays in one specific place, i.e. a private home versus a public space.
If you have a more capacious awareness of the data on these other types of shootings, it becomes very clear that mass shootings in that first common language sense, namely, a high body count rampage by someone generally killing strangers, coworkers, casual acquaintances, et cetera, in a public space is in fact only a tiny fraction of a much broader landscape of gun violence that includes regular mass casualty events. For example, these happen in Chicago very frequently. There’s one, I think, in Baltimore, just the other week. These are regular events where a dozen will get shot by one or two shooters in a public space, but none of them die. That might oftentimes get, say, described as narrowly, just gang violence, or a shooting in a public park, or maybe locally, it will be described as a mass shooting, but it won’t break national media on that level. Or, for example, to give another common one, and this strikes at the fallacy that people you oftentimes hear now in this, COVID still going on, but we still label it a post-COVID moment.
Well, mass shootings went away with COVID, during the period of quarantine. Of course, that’s not true, because mass shootings, again, if you have a more sophisticated definition of this, and even if it’s just about fatalities, most of those happen inside American homes. They never go out into the streets. It’s men overwhelmingly killing their partners, children, and themselves. You have to wonder then, why is it that the media real estate, or the media coverage, and the psychic real estate of a mass shooting only encompasses these high-profile public events? I would contend, and I’m very eager to talk about this with you, that that betrays certain implicit hierarchies and assumptions about, well, where is it not exceptional that a whole bunch of people could get shot? Or, where are there places where a bunch of people getting shot is seen as sort of taboo to think about structurally?
That maps on to it. A mass shooting in a … When people a whole bunch of people are hanging out and showing off their cars on a street corner in Chicago and there are a dozen people shot, that may not, again, from the perspective of newsrooms, or from the perspective of well-meaning liberal consumers of news, just be seen as de rigueur, to be expected. That’s not exceptional. That violence is happening where it should be happening to the people who it lamentably, it should be expected to happen to. I think that that’s, apart from being more repulsive, that betrays how, in a perverse way, how we socially metabolize this ongoing broader phenomena of mass death from guns.
It’s almost like a kind of resignation to it. Because things happen in private spaces, people don’t like to think about it that much. But also, and even more than that, there are logics of privilege and social deference. To give a very clear example about this, you’ll know it if you follow these things, that in almost all cases where there is a man with a gun that goes into a public space and begins to shoot people, it will sooner emerge, and this is a more of a consistent through line than any other ideological inclination, or who or where he posts on Facebook, or who he says he admires, or who he watches on YouTube, et cetera, is that he probably has a long line of … He has a rap sheet involving a whole bunch of encounters with women, he has restraining orders, there’s stalking claims, there is perhaps other physical domestic violence, or threatening, et cetera. In other words, there were red flags all along. And in fact, oftentimes, many of these public mass shootings start with a person killing a former lover, or someone who they feel they have this, a woman most generally, that they feel they have a right to kill. Then it just extends naturally from the home into their going out and killing other people. But I’m struggling to think about the last time there was a front page, like Time… Or any like Newsweek, US World Report, whatever, cover that was about America’s epidemic of femicide or what is going on with this country that American men seem to have, it’s not just imaginable, but somehow tolerable in this weird way that they can just do this, that they can liquidate their families and then themselves. But in so far as that’s talked about, it’s generally talked about separate from the quote unquote “mass shootings” in the public common language sense. But also I think I would suggest that the reason that these things are talked about differently is because, I mean put very bluntly, the lives of women are valued less, or at least they’re valued when they’re right to not be shot or their claim not to be shot comes into conflict with the right of men in general and physically abusive men here to have access to weapons.
They get thrown under that bus. And just to really drive this home too, you’ll oftentimes hear these news stories that are like, “Well, where was there a red flag? Where did the institution of preventing mass shootings and protecting women fail such as the given shooter, who had had multiple experiences of threatening women with guns, et cetera, could be allowed to go out, like who dropped the ball? What institution dropped the ball to make this possible, this escalation into public space happen?” And the reality is, I think, that looking at those types of circumstances as a dysfunction is a category error. The system defers to the right. It’s very hard in many states to take guns away from a domestic abuser.
Police are very unwilling to do this, all the more so when police themselves are those domestic abusers. It oftentimes, and this is the case, even like the Sandy Hook shooting, for example, where years before Adam Lanza shot up Sandy Hook, the police had received warnings that he very explicitly says — it sounds conspiratorial when I tell people this, but it’s a hundred percent true. The police were informed by a friend of Adam Lanza’s mother that Adam had access to an AR-15 and was planning on shooting up the Sandy Hook Elementary School. And they told her, the report is heavily redacted, but they basically told the complaining friend that they had no right to do anything about that despite that actionable intelligence because the guns belonged to Nancy.
So in other words, in a situation where we have established a primary commitment to allowing people with resources, above all men, to have weapons in their homes, and that’s like a “first freedom,” to borrow the language of a lot of gun rights advocates, the fact that leads to both femicide and familicide inside the home and also to regular breaches of containment in the mode of public mass shootings, that just seems to be, descriptively, I’m not endorsing it, that seems to be the price that people are willing to pay.
KH: In my experience, most white people do not use the language “mass shooting” about events that only involve Black people. For violence committed against Black people to occupy that dreaded space of the unthinkable, it must occur in a context that the public considers sacred or exceptional, such as a church. Otherwise, most gun violence inflicted on Black people, whether experienced alone or in groups, is forcibly blurred into larger statistics in the media and popular discourse.
As Patrick said, there are appointed places in this society where acts of violence do not cause popular alarm. Mainstream pundits and ideologues tell us that the people in those places are victims of their own bad choices. People who are impoverished, experiencing domestic abuse, caught up in family monitoring services or the prison system — the thinking goes, these people made certain choices, and they are ultimately responsible for the consequences of their actions. To accept this narrow focus on individual choices, we must dismiss the many ways that conditions shape people’s experiences and inform people’s choices — as well as what choices they actually have. It also ignores the power of the state and of people to change these circumstances. The confinement of this violence into isolated spaces functions to create an emotional numbness toward the people who suffer these losses. It also creates the illusion that these worlds are disconnected. Failing to recognize our connectivity, and fight accordingly, has consequences. We now know, for example, that, as imprisoned people and activists warned all along, jails, prisons and detention centers have served as major engines for COVID-19 infection — not just within prison walls, but throughout our communities. Officials like Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot resisted demands to release imprisoned people, saying Chicago could not risk the spread, but by failing to release state captives, politicians made the pandemic worse. In both cases, there were people who believed that suffering could be isolated somewhere else, but violence, much like a virus, incubates and spreads.
PB: I think that to draw a parallel between the longstanding normalization, if you want to use that word, or what we could call like the necropolitics, to use a fancy word for systems, hierarchies of disposability, as we’ve seen that demonstrated by COVID, I think it directly maps on to the gun stuff in a variety of ways. It synergizes in some very particular ways. For example, school shootings didn’t go away during COVID lockdowns because homes became schools. And of course there are unique parallels too in terms of the populations that are most affected by this. Much of the COVID body count has a distinctly racialized and class representation to it, so too does a lot of this gun violence. It’s seen as being, again, acceptable.
And I think it’s worth calling to mind some of these interesting ways in which the people who are put in prison or people who are consigned in the public imagination to being inured to gun violence or for whom gun violence is just so understood to be part of the world in which they live, that process of invisibilizing them or kind of normalizing that ongoing perpetration of trauma is by appealing to these kind of bankrupt kettle logic arguments about moral dessert or personal failure. “Well, yeah, it’s terrible that these things are happening in prison, but people are in prison for a reason and therefore it’s okay that terrible things are happening there.” Which is of course monstrous, but there’s a kind of weird tautological buttressing to it.
And so for example too, you’ll hear people be like, “Well, yeah, it’s really terrible that,” I don’t know, I have — the work of a friend who studies this phenomenon in north Philadelphia where it’s like, “Well, it’s really terrible that all these people get shot in north Philadelphia. But a lot of them, maybe are involved in the drug trade or have gang connections, et cetera.” And of course these are all things that are said very easily from the outside and ignore the fact for example that what constitutes a “gang connection” in any police database can be basically anyone that lives in the zip code or is friends of friends in a blended family situation. But also that statistically speaking, and I’m thinking here of some very granular research on this, a lot of people that wind up getting shot in struggling, poor, minority, urban spaces are oftentimes bystanders. Not that I’m saying that people who are in the black market deserve to get shot either, but think about the logic by which we process these things. The empirical reality is that people are much more likely to become involved in illegal marketplaces and in doing things like trying to find illegal prescription drugs after they have been shot, because there’s no social support network for them afterwards.
And so there’s something, you know, and then they need to self-medicate and they need to have all these resources for care that just aren’t there. So it’s this process of both consigning people to places where they can be variously disposed of fast and slow, out of sight, out of mind, but then also having those processes of abandonment and neglect and invisibilization be ratified by these, frankly, twisted and tautological kettle logics of, “Well, if this happened, then they must have deserved it.”
And I think we could also say that that implicates the part of what’s I think so queasy about a lot of the responses to mass shootings in public, where it’s like, “Well, this isn’t supposed to happen to me. I don’t deserve this. The shoppers at this high end strip mall don’t deserve this. It doesn’t belong here.” Or to use a line that I think is deeply dispositive and it comes up a lot of times in democratic discourse and this also makes us think almost more globally about this, like this whole idea that these weapons of war don’t belong on our streets. Well, whose streets do they belong on by that logic? There’s an implicit idea that there’s got to be somewhere where gun violence is okay and morally good.
KH: After the recent NYC subway shooting, many people pointed out that a ramped up police presence targeted unhoused people and so-called fare evaders, but did nothing to prevent ten people from being shot. And yet, we have predictably been met with calls from police, politicians and “crime analysts” to increase state surveillance and police presence on subways. These calls are being made despite the well-documented and constant police brutality that takes place on public transportation for infractions as minor as allegedly failing to pay a fare. We know that Black people are at heightened risk of experiencing this violence, as are unhoused, disabled people, and numerous others who are regular targets of police violence. On an annual basis, police kill far more people than mass shooters. But the popular solution to mass shootings is to deploy more police, and to empower them with greater surveillance capacities.
PB: I can say a bunch about those dynamics. We are either in a system that is terminally out of ideas and deeply cynical, or a system of kind of normalized madness, where if clearly having cops with guns saturating spaces yields little besides their harassing people who are vulnerable and shooting more than a few people themselves, why on earth would … And that can’t stop this, then why on earth would simply having more good guys with guns, supposedly good guys with guns in the form of more cops, change anything in those spaces?
But this I think is the, in my book, I call this kind of logic or this idea of space in place determining and legitimacy determining how guns are the answer to guns. Guns aren’t a problem. Guns are a solution, and they’re never more a solution than when guns seem to be the problem. And it’s a vicious cycle of just doubling down on these resources for more and more carceral control, for more and more encounters that result in civilian fatalities or people just being thrown into Rikers indefinitely. And it’s a type of doubling down that is … It’s horrifying and it happens every single time this happens. I should say, particularly, this is exactly what Joe Biden promised he’d do more broadly and it’s also what New York City governance has also consistently done.
And a lot of liberals who, again, I think let’s say their hearts are in the right place, will co-sign it because, well, one, they don’t necessarily feel unsafe about the police in a certain analogous way in which a lot of right wingers will be like, “Well, I don’t need a cop. I have a gun right here.” There are a lot of liberals who are like, “Well, guns are distasteful, but I can call a cop and he’ll be here in five minutes and he’ll be the gun.” But either way, the logic is like just get the right guy with the gun in there, either if it’s you or a cop.
But like the other thing I think that’s at play in this is this kind of tragically, just again, it’s a terminal exhaustion. There are no other ideas here. And of course the outcomes are already predictable. It would be folly to assume that there aren’t going to be more stops and needless arrests, that there won’t be more police-involved shootings, like not a thing you want to bet on, but at the point at which you’ve given cops the mandate to go look for guns in crowded public spaces, there’s going to be more violent encounters where the cops shoot people. And there’s empirical data on this insofar as that in all these cities around the country where people will fund sort of like anti-gun task force initiatives, and Baltimore being a perfect example of this, you have, Ohio has some other data on this, I think Cincinnati specifically, the police that are tasked with going to look for guns are far more likely to be extremely — transferred from other areas because they don’t want to be recognized on the streets or whatever, but they’re going to be much more aggressive about looking for guns in plain clothes. They’re not going to know the people they’re policing. They have a disproportionate number of brutality complaints against them, et cetera. But their actions are continually sanctioned because, again, there’s this imperative, “Well, we have to do something about guns.”
And I would say too that in the example of New York City specifically, and this is worth just revisiting the history here. And I’m thinking here of work by people like James Forman Jr. or Elizabeth Hinton, who can historicize this more broadly nationwide and in New York specifically as well as D.C., there has been a pattern explicitly, and it’s not a hidden one, Eric Holder has more or less explicitly said this too, that at the point at which mass arrests and police brutality in the name of the war on drugs has become sort of seen as unnecessary, a failure or just sort of backwards, police departments have essentially managed very successfully and to be rewarded by tremendous amounts of federal funding to doing those exact same practices, except now they do it looking for guns. So stop and frisk, justified under Bloomberg et al as being, “Well, don’t worry, we’re not stop and frisking young men publicly, constantly and basically sexually assaulting them in public,” which is what a stop and frisk can be, “looking for weed. No, no, no, no. It’s about guns.” And at the point at which the same practices can not only be perpetuated, but intensified, and that continuity is ignored, and those practices are even praised by liberals because, “Well, now don’t worry, they’re going after guns,” that again, also speaks a kind of false blinderism and a kind of ideological exhaustion in a very sort of distressing way in which these powers, these institutions, have reaped the power of inertia.
KH: Mass shootings turn realms of everyday life into potential sites of mass violence, and for some people, an awareness of that potential can be a highly emotional experience. It can also lead people to latch on to virtually any reform that’s offered. I remember, some years back, there was a congressional sit-in, with Democratic officials demanding a measure that would merge background checks for guns with the no-fly list. Participants in the event were celebrated on social media for taking a stand against gun violence. When I would ask people if they thought this measure would really prevent gun violence, they would say, “At least it’s something.” People who, in some cases, are otherwise critical about whether or not a law will help them can become very uncritical about whether proposed gun control measures would actually reduce the kind of violence they are worried about, or even ultimately cause more harm through criminalization. I asked for Patrick’s thoughts about why people sometimes settle on demands around gun control without much analysis of the provision’s worth or impact.
PB: There are a bunch of different vocabularies I think that we could bring to bear to try and parse why this is, right? Some of it might involve… We could talk a lot about trauma, and about how certain types of risks occupy outsized psychic and also, hell, media real estate, right? The idea of a home invasion, right? The idea that anyone… You’re in your space, you’re with people who you love, and then suddenly a stranger comes in through the door. And they have a gun and you don’t, and you proceed to have a Truman Capote In Cold Blood situation. That’s an elemental nightmare for a lot of people. I track that back to a settler colonial, kind of homestead mentality, but that’s neither here nor there.
But the problem here again is that the power of those scenarios, like the power of these events, tap into these elemental fears of being vulnerable and not having any control, of being the object of someone else’s, some violent stranger’s designs on you. Right? And, never mind that those are not actually where most violence comes from, right?
And in fact, a good third of people who are shot by strangers in this country are shot by cops, right? The people who are more likely to do a home invasion in any given place are most likely cops, right? But, it’s these archetypal fears of the other having dominance over you, and you being helpless. And when that’s on the table, of course people want to do something. Right? Of course people … That’s a horrifying thing to think about, but in the same way, it’s a horrifying thing to look at scenes of people’s bloody footprints on a subway car.
But that impulse to do something, do anything, that’s … I’m not gainsaying it as wrong, but the nature of policy making decisions, or the nature of thinking about how we might respond otherwise, requires thinking outside just the temporality of a given event, or the temporality of one of these nightmare scenarios. Right? And that means, thinking about interventions that are not just on the level of, “Well, I would simply draw my gun,” or “I would simply wave at the more cops that were there,” or “I would simply count on AI using surveillance to dispatch robot cops.” Right?
Essentially, the demand is to think, is to resist the immediate desire for vindication. And also I think… This is a difficult thing to say, and people don’t like to hear it, but it’s worth saying. Like, there is literally nothing anyone could do in the way of a single policy alternative or a broad based law that could possibly make people feel as good as a given nightmare episode of violence makes them feel bad. Right? No law is going to bring anybody back.
And also, no law is going to … Pardon the phrase, “Silver bullet fix the problem,” such that, somehow we will be vindicated. The dead don’t come back. Right? There isn’t a satisfying shoot out at the end, where the good guy wins. That’s just not how things work. And instead, you have to start talking about, you know, whether they be abolitionist or other types of interventions, but ones that make such outcomes less likely, less thinkable. What are alternatives that are not the cycle of “bad thing happens with a gun, therefore we need more of the right people with guns there?” Right? Or mandatory minimums, any of that stuff. Just, what would be something other than the same?
And the answer is that a lot of those policy interventions don’t even really fall within the traditional bounds of what constitutes gun control discourse. I actually think that gun control discourse is sort of a trap, right? But, if you take this broad-based phenomena of gun violence, and you disambiguate it into different types of violence that constitute it, from intimate partner violence or familicide to suicide, right, by gun, to accidental shootings, to homicides by strangers, homicides that happen as part of contests between rival urban youth sets, to shootings by police, which oftentimes don’t get counted as gun violence in some official data sets, et cetera, what you wind up with, are a whole series of different, but very germane cases, tens of thousands of cases of each, right, where you can ask questions like, “What makes a person who commits suicide with a gun turn to a gun as an option? Why is it that in a precarious, urban space, where young people have to count on respect in order to survive, is there a felt need to carry a gun? Why is it that femicide is such an epidemic in this country?”
And in each one of those questions, the answers generally don’t even put the gun in center. If you interview young people who are carrying guns in various sorts of neglected, inner city spaces, and you ask them, “Well, what’s the…” And this is just statistical data evidence, “Well, what would make you not carry a gun?” The answer is almost always, “Well, I’d like to have a job that paid with dignity. I’d like to not have to work in the underground economy. And, I’d like to not have to walk through the underground economy to get to my other job.” Right?
In other words, their choice to carry a gun is one they’re making based upon certain limited options. And if you expand their options, then that felt urgency of carrying the gun with them is no longer as urgent.
Likewise, if you think about things like … I don’t know, like femicide in homes. You have to ask questions about, like, “Well, what are…” And there’s an abundance of data on this. “Under what circumstances are men most likely to kill their partners or former partners? And, what are the complicating factors that increase the risk according to which a woman is more likely to stay in those circumstances and be exposed to risk?”
And it’s not second guessing her judgment, but then you start asking questions like, “Well, if women don’t have the resources to potentially live independently? If women have to worry solely about childcare? Or if women didn’t have to worry about the possibility that when they call the cops, or if they call the cops on a partner who might shoot them, that the cops might just murder him instead?” Right?
You arrive at a whole bunch of sort of like decision trees and forced choices that lead up to the moment where the gun is suddenly drawn from a hip, out of the bedside table, whatever. And I would suggest that for all the different types of violence that make up this broad category of gun violence, there are ways to deescalate structurally.
It sounds glib, and maybe it sounds almost jejune, but I feel like part of the reason that people turn to guns to kill themselves or hurt other people is because they’re miserable. And, that seems like a thinkable option at the time. It’s what the psychologist William James would call a live option.
And there are other countries that have tons of guns in them that don’t have our problems with femicide, with mass shootings, et cetera. And I think that has to do with the fact that culturally, guns are not a solution, or perceived to be a solution, in the way that they are here. So whether it be giving people more mental health care, right? Or, producing more opportunities for community involvement, such that if someone seems suicidal, there isn’t a stigma attached to their looking for help.
The suicide one’s another really good example of this because gun suicide, which is a type of gun violence, right? Basically, the risks of that start peaking radically upward the moment a man generally hits middle age, has health problems, and a divorce. That trifecta right there… And may lose his job, if you put a fourth thing on there. And, there’s a gun in the house. From an actuarial perspective, the chances of a gun homicide or familicide just start skyrocketing, right?
Well, what if we had universal health care? What if mental health care was available to people? And this is not the same as blaming the mental ill for gun violence, please don’t hear me as saying that. But I am saying that we have more generalized conditions of immiseration, and more generalized conditions of neglect, that lead to people turning to guns as a way to assert their agency or to express their distress. And, maybe we could work on … As opposed to giving yet more billions of dollars to people with guns that have proven that they can’t stop other people with guns, maybe we could try to do something else that would involve those interventions.
KH: Some of the strongest programs we could pass to prevent gun violence would not involve guns at all. They would provide the housing, education, food access, and clean air and water that we know makes intra-communal violence less likely to occur. But these kinds of public expenditures have been delegitimized under neoliberalism, so in the face of a terrifying phenomenon – mass shootings — we are told that the world is simply a dangerous place, and more violence, surveillance and guns are needed. But what if our demands around gun violence were grounded in the larger work of keeping people alive?
Of course, not all violence can be overcome through community building. We are living in a moment of great instability and right-wingers are armed to the teeth. While some people on the left may be focused on legislative action around guns, others may be evaluating their own relationship, or lack thereof, with firearms. If you have heard me talk about self-defense on the show in the past, you know I do not speak in prescriptive terms, but rather, urge people to be thoughtful, informed and intentional in their actions. Patrick shared a similar perspective.
PB: I think the first thing, which I’ll say to you, and I’d also say to anyone else, is just telling individuals what to do in circumstances that are extreme, and painful, and desperate. That’s just not my ministry. Right? I just don’t want to do that. And I think we could also say too, think about the way these arguments can be stacked, where someone’s like, “Well, are you telling me I can’t have a gun in my house when Freddy Krueger comes through the door?” I mean, like, no. You can’t be like, “Well, yes, I believe that you don’t have a right to bear arms and defend yourself.” That’s both a ludicrous scenario but also a morally monstrous position. Right?
And I should say, I know plenty of people who are non-gender conforming, or I know plenty of women who’ve been stalked by people, including by police officers, and they know full well the risks about carrying a gun or having a gun in the house. They know that having a gun in the house where a woman is living, no matter if it’s her gun or someone else’s, increases their chances of dying fivefold. But they still do it anyways because that’s what they feel that they have to do, and that makes sense to them as a choice. Right? So, I think there’s too much individualistic moralizing that happens in this discourse, and I just don’t do that. I also think, too, that people will sometimes ask for political advice, like “Well, should my group start practicing with weapons, et cetera? Should we start doing open carry stuff, et cetera?”
My thought again on that is I’m not giving specific advice to anyone, but what I will do is I’ll just call attention to how guns themselves are, and the situations in which they may or may not be deployed or turned to, are not unequivocal restorers of power or ways for achieving power. There’s a whole other universe of social prerogatives, of capacities, of social capital, right, that are very germane, and that probably disproportionately affect outcomes once you step away from the immediate scene where the gun is used. For example, right, the person who defends themself with a gun in a legal “stand your ground” situation, right. Everyone nominally may say, equally, legally has that right. But when you look at the actual way in which those cases are adjudicated by juries and justifiable homicide verdicts, or self-defense findings are cashed out, that betrays a clear racialized preference, right.
It’s much easier for white people to get away with killing Black people in supposed self-defense in this country. And women who attempt to defend themselves against their partner are fully penalized, I would invoke the work of Mariame Kaba as being very astute, right? So, again, in individual, and likewise too, when groups choose to arm themselves to do public demonstrations of power using guns, generally speaking if they’re on the right, they will do so with a hand in glove or sometimes outright support from right-wing elements. Whereas left-wing ones, we can think of the example of the [Black] Panthers here, no matter of the gains that they make, they’re also targeted for vicious counterinsurgency extrajudicial murder. Right? So, what I would say to people who were considering options in these terms is that they should do that fully aware of those trade-offs.
And oftentimes, they already are. But I think what should be central in people’s minds is the ways in which choices are forced, right? And the ways in which… Well, I guess, something that worries me sometimes, and I seen this in some left-wing and also right-wing circles, but even left-wing circles, the ones I care more about where people seem to think that, well, if we just get our guns, and if we just train with them, then we will have power, we’ll be left alone, and then we could actually exercise some sort of political suasion. Right? And the truth of the matter is, I don’t think that left-wing groups, despite what they may or may not profess as their, say, gender politics, et cetera, are immune from things like femicide, are immune from takeover by charismatic leaders who indulge in violence for various reasons that are not productive. Right?
And so, in some ways, I think that there’s a quintessentially American — and again I would trace this back to our settler-colonial history and to other things, idea that somehow if just the right people have guns, they can establish the proper kind of social order. And I think that’s a trap. Now, I’m not saying community self-defense is ipso facto bad, and I’m not saying that mutual aid that involves weapons is necessarily right-wing. But I am saying that there is a way in which in this country, specifically, the focus on the guns to core, unlike the tactical, can erase, it can crowd out thinking about the strategic. And also that, unless there’s a broader ethos of community uplift, then talking about defending a community and not having that notion of mutual aid, of support in other ways, then that’s a problem, right?
That the guns can very well be part of important social movements, and they have been. I think of the Deacons for Defense. I recommend the work of Charles Cobb, a great book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, which I think is a revelatory revisionist history of the civil rights movement, which has otherwise been both whitewashed and had its elements of armed self-defense removed.
There is abundant precedence for people using guns on the left to protect themselves and to protect their communities, but simply freighting the guns themselves and getting savvy with guns as though that’s a solution rather than, at best, part of a broader program of care, or at worst, actually just a new set of problems, that’s dangerous territory. And I think people need to be conscientious about it, they need to know their history and they need to be conscientious about what they choose to do. And again, I’m not telling people what to do, but I’m saying that they should be fully aware of the risks and many of them are. And I can’t judge that either.
KH: Patrick also warned against accepting technological measures that are presented as solutions for mass shootings. Our justified horror over gun violence is often exploited to advance the surveillance state, and as we have discussed previously on this show, technology like ShotSpotter is faulty, harmful and contributes to police violence.
PB: I think the one thing, I guess there are two things. One of which is just very granular about what some of this discourse we’re seeing out of [New York City Mayor Eric] Adam’s office. This whole idea of, well, we don’t just need more cops, we need better surveillance. I want to be very clear that the idea that technologically based tools like something called ShotSpotter which detects gunfire and triangulates and dispatches cops to gunshot locations, which has been tried in various other cities. Or this kind of new generation of supposed gun detection software, where supposedly, an AI camera can pick out, like a captcha, that a person has a gun in their hand, or on their waistband or some shit, and just send cops out there rapidly. That these are, apart from being just heinous ways for the state to funnel money to the private sector, and also outsource liability because all those algorithms, et cetera, are black boxed, it’s that a lot of those things don’t even work. In the hypothetical possible world in which more police surveillance were good thing, police surveillance does not even yield the results of promises to. ShotSpotter is currently embroiled in a whole bunch of lawsuits where it turns out, actually, they have been leaned upon by local police departments to post facto be like, well, yes, our data said there was gunfire there. And of course, it wasn’t. Right? A lot of this data, all these programs that supposedly can detect guns in people’s pockets from a distance, nevermind that the NYPD was literally was pretending that they had this immediately after 911, there’s some interviews we’re like, oh yeah, we can see guns through clothing, which is total bullshit. That doesn’t change the basic equation, right?
All this surveillance stuff, it essentially just adds this additional layer of deniability and impersonality, but at the end of the day, it’s just about dispatching cops to do the usual. Dispatching people with guns, supposedly good guys with guns to tackle the bad guys with guns. And that’s just the usual suspects. All that type of algorithmic stuff is just bullshit.
I think the second thing I’d say is, and this is just for thinking about guns and gun violence more generally, is that there is a way in which, apart from just being traumatizing to witness, or traumatizing to write about or think about, or let alone, I’m not doing this to embarrass, but like the trauma of simply being around these things, being around such events. For a lot of people, when they’re talking about guns, they’re talking on the one hand about race, and I think a lot of political discourse about the discourse about gun control is basically a proxy discourse about race.
But they’re also talking about those fears. They’re talking about fears of helplessness. They’re talking about fears of not having a role in their community. They’re talking about fears that might have everything to do with gentrification, to job loss, to not being a breadwinner, to being scared about how their kids are going to get to school. And I think there is an ingrained reflex in liberal circles and in some leftists to be contemptuous of people who voice these concerns by just being like, “Well, a gun isn’t going to make you feel better. A gun isn’t the answer.” But I think whatever the work of dialogue is that can move forward on these issues, has to involve acknowledging the earnestness of those fears, right?
I’m borrowing on some work from a dear friend, Jennifer Carlson, I want to strongly recommend. She’s written several books about guns and wrote one called Policing the Second Amendment, which is just a magnificent book. But it is the case that a lot of people turn to guns because they have been traumatized by guns, and they seek with that purchase to make themselves safe. And to the extent to which I think people deserve to be safe and deserve to feel safe, that emotional dimension has to be engaged with.
This is as a base moral imperative, but also, as a necessary prelude to talking about how security theater and police, et cetera, and even the presence of guns themselves actually don’t make people safe or aren’t guaranteed to make people safe. So, I think what I’m trying to say is that the extent to which guns produce, or gun violence produces these concentric widening circles of pain that, like a pebble thrown in water, just keep expanding through space and time and across generations. Instead of being like, “Well, we need to do something so I can stop feeling this pain,” I think what a lot of people need to do is, they need to lean into their pain and talk to one another about painful things.
KH: There are more than 390 million guns in private hands in the United States, and nearly 53 people are killed in the U.S. each day by a firearm. Studies have shown that mass shootings, as a phenomenon, are on the rise, and have been for decades. The United States has not recently plunged itself into chaos, as it may feel to some, but rather, the country has incubated and inflicted so much violence that society is bursting at the seams. Violence is unfolding in ways and in places that we have been conditioned not to expect, because this system, this culture, this way of relating to each other and the world, generates too much death, too spontaneously, too uncontrollably, for the order of things to keep life predictable any longer.
I believe we will continue to see more of this kind of violence, and like Patrick, I think the most effective actions we can take involve addressing the culture of everyday violence we live in. Abolitionist organizers have worked to reduce violence in their communities through a variety of projects, including various forms of mutual aid. In Chicago, the young organizers with GoodKids MadCity are involved with mutual aid efforts, while also pushing for an ordinance called The Peace Book that would reallocate about 2% of the police budget to fund wrap-around services and job opportunities for youth affected by gun violence. Groups like Interrupting Criminalization, Critical Resistance and Project NIA have created a wealth of resources for people who want to do the work of creating safety in their communities without police. We will be including links to some of those resources in the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org.
Ultimately, we cannot expect the state’s formal perpetrators of violence to deliver us from violence, and no grand political gesture or single piece of legislation will do the work that lies before us. The work of building community on a more caring, complex level than most of us have ever experienced only sounds unthinkable to us because our imaginations have been battered by fear and violence. That work will not insulate us from all harm. There are some things that I cannot tell you, or myself, how to avoid. But I do know that the work of creating safety does not happen in the ritualized debates that follow mass shootings. Our waning level of attention to violence runs the risk of fading into normalcy, leading to a near-future where mass shootings hardly garner discussion, unless one happens to obstruct your commute. In this era of mass death in plain sight, people need to matter more to us. That is a political imperative. But it’s one that requires much more of us than engaging in righteous policy debates that wash away within a couple of news cycles.
I’m grateful for people engaged in that deep work. I want to thank Patrick Blanchfield for joining me today to talk about gun culture, mass shootings and where we go from here. I learned a lot from our conversation and I look forward to reading Gunpower. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- You can preorder Patrick’s book Gunpower here.
- You can also follow Patrick on Twitter: @PatBlanchfield
Interested in community-led anti-violence work? Check out these resources:
- The Creative Interventions Toolkit lays out all of Creative Interventions’ strategies, steps, tools and lessons for intervening in situations of interpersonal harm. Thorough and cross referenced; can be used as a complete single document or in sections. The toolkit contains worksheets and handouts to use, as well as checklists and places for notes.
- Anti-Policing Health Toolkit is a compilation of resources created by health workers for the OPP Know Your Options workshops. The intended audience is everyday people, as well as healthcare workers.
- Defund the Police – Invest in Community Care, a guide from Interrupting Criminalization, “highlights considerations for real, meaningful shifts away from law enforcement and towards autonomous, self-determined community-based resources and responses to unmet mental health needs.”
- Critical Resistance’s Abolish Policing Toolkit– “Our Communities, Our Solutions”–includes numerous resources and tools for developing strong abolitionist, grassroots campaigns against policing.
- One Million Experiments offers “snapshots of community-based safety strategies that expand our ideas about what keeps us safe.”
- Death Drive Nation by Patrick Blanchfield
- Do 40% of police families experience domestic violence? by Joshua Klugman
- How the US fails to take away guns from domestic abusers: ‘These deaths are preventable’
- The role of domestic violence in fatal mass shootings in the United States, 2014–2019
Previous episodes to revisit:
- Abolitionists Are Fighting Against the Surveillance State in Their Neighborhoods
- Dean Spade Is Asking Activists, “How Much Bolder Could You Be?”
- Abolition Means Reclaiming the Commons and Rejecting Securitization