They Want to Take the Guns, Don’t They?
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.
This interview has been edited for length.
Patrick Blanchfield: I am Patrick Blanchfield, a freelance journalist and writer who writes about violence and guns in American culture and politics. I am also an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
Sarah Jaffe: We have talked before about how hard it is to have a discussion about guns, gun violence, and mass shootings in the framework of resistance. To start off, I thought I would ask you about the discourse that happens after these mass shootings and the lack of political demands on one side and the political demands that are assumed by the people left of center?
PB: The thing that is really striking to me in the wake of all these mass shootings . . . is realizing how much of what people articulate as their immediate political desires are really: “This is how I would like the world to be otherwise. I would like to have a world in which this doesn’t happen. I would like to have a world in which there is no gun violence.” There is a temptation in that space to immediately endorse certain policy propositions. You are so wedded to that outcome that people who are otherwise very self-reflective leftists wind up sounding a lot like proceduralist law enforcement national security Democrats or even “moderate” Republicans. So, if we want to frame this in terms of resistance, the way to think about resistance and gun violence that is the most helpful is to actually resist the immediate framing of it and try to come up with a different handle on it.
SJ: Yes, and that is a really tough thing. We are unfortunately, horrifically, used to these things happening now. We know the political slots we are supposed to fall into, and people tend to talk as if there is a fully fleshed out “gun control” framework that is only being held up by the Republican majority in Congress or by NRA donations.
PB: There is some way in which it is immensely emotionally satisfying and [politically] necessary to see when liberal journalists share that such and such a congressman got ten thousand dollars last year from the NRA. Such and such congressman got fifteen thousand dollars. That is [indicative] of how corrupt our system is and the character of regulatory capture, but on another level, if that were all that was in play, then, it is not a lot of money. That is a couple of dinners at a D.C. steakhouse. Then, the left would just be like, “Give that same Congressman twelve thousand dollars. Give them sixteen thousand dollars. Just outbid the NRA,” but clearly something else is going on because that is not happening. . . . There are anti-gun forces out there that are fairly well moneyed [but] they are not doing that. It doesn’t seem to work.
SJ: One of those people that is ostensibly in this gun control space is Michael Bloomberg who was the mayor of New York under the stop-and-frisk regime that was ostensibly about guns. The whole justification for [the] racist stop-and-frisk policy by the New York Police Department was to find guns. Michael Bloomberg is the tenth richest person in the world. He could easily buy some congressmen if it was about money. The policies that he would put forward as “gun control” are concerning—to say the least.
PB: The moment guns enter the mix, people have this immediate aversive or really enthusiastic response one way or another that has actually been documented by psychologists.
The landscape of gun violence is an organic continuation of the broader landscape of other kinds of violence in this country.
I hold up a photo of a gun in a cognitive psychology lab [and] people are going to have a reaction. . . . It is a super over-coded object. Even saying the word does stuff to people.
There are a lot of us who have very sophisticated politics about things like policing [and] misogynistic violence. . . . [but] the trick is to understand that the phenomenon and the landscape of gun violence is an organic continuation of the broader landscape of other kinds of violence in this country, and just because guns are in the mix doesn’t mean that we should suddenly endorse carceral solutions that we wouldn’t [endorse] for other things. The trick is to not fall into the trap of that immediate desire for a knee-jerk response.
SJ: We have gotten to the point where just a regular old mass shooting isn’t even spectacular enough to get national news coverage. It has to be something like Las Vegas—which is the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. We are not really having a conversation; we are having a war of statements. But, we only have any of this when there is something so horrific that people feel forced to respond.
SJ: Two concepts that I want to have people feel more intellectually limber about, but also capable of thinking their own way through emotionally are gun violence . . . and mass shootings. In mainstream media, [you will oftentimes see numbers] about gun violence or mass shootings . . . that if you push [on] will reveal some really striking agenda-driven . . . omissions. To take one really good example, a lot of people [and] journalists will cite figures on gun homicide that exclude killings by police.
So, the question is: What are we obscuring and what are we gaining politically by comparing ourselves to states that we don’t really resemble versus ones that we actually do? The answer is a type of erasure of the real political asymmetries of power and racial difference in the United States.
SJ: The piece that you wrote at n+1 in response to this latest mass shooting was to point out that the thing about mass shootings that is horrifying to the average person—who doesn’t worry about the more everyday gun violence that happens in a lot of places—is that it’s a moment when there is nothing in our systems of inequality that can protect you; it’s a random person shooting random people on the street
PB: The definition of mass shooting . . . is a moving target. [According to the] FBI what constitutes a mass shooting . . . [is when] four or more people are killed in a single setting by one shooter.[*] But, if you were to ask a newscaster, a well-intentioned person, they would tell you it is a shooting [spree] in a church, a school, a college campus, or a business park.
If you have seventeen people shot in fifteen minutes, non-fatally [at] a block party in New Orleans . . . that is, technically speaking, not a “mass shooting.” Certainly not a mass shooting that is reported as such in the mainstream media.
The question then becomes: How do we think about this other category of gun violence in a way that accommodates [the] spectacular acts of violence in Vegas, Sandy Hook, [and] in so many other places but that also doesn’t take them as a radical exception from a norm just because [the latter] happen more often than not to involve white people or wealthy people or people who—this is the implicit logic—“shouldn’t expect to get shot.”
SJ: Trump has used Chicago as an example of a horrifically violent place that has a lot of guns. His response—which is an applause line at his ongoing campaign rallies—is to threaten to send in the military.[**] We see this from Trump regularly in response to the idea of gun violence but also from Democrats who run cities like St. Louis. The response to “regular” gun violence is to just arm the cops more, and the response to spectacular mass shootings is, “We need gun control.”
PB: It is a weird cognitive dissonance because people who are otherwise extremely intellectually sophisticated vis-à-vis things like the war on drugs or occupation-style policing will not . . . question who is going to be going door to door collecting the guns if we want to do an Australian-style buyback—which, of course, we would never do. But, if we do want to take away all the guns, what [would be] the mechanism?
I am not trying to bog us down in the policy, but do we actually think that the enforcement of that will not, in and of itself, [entail] the same horrible injustices and unnecessary violence that our other mechanisms of enforcement do? If we just say, “We are going to stop and frisk black people because they may have drugs,” a lot of liberals are like, “No, no, no.” But because it is guns, suddenly, we are like, “Okay. Do it. Go for it.”
SJ: We saw John Lewis, of all congresspeople, leading this sit-in on the floor of the House for including no fly list data in gun background checks.
PB: That basically means that if you are in any of several highly opaque, incredibly faulty, and constantly metastasizing government databases, you can’t fly and you can’t buy a gun. [I have profound respect for] John Lewis, but it is one of those points that I am like, “Is this the best we can hope for: ‘gun control’ that basically is just another vector for expanding the security state?” The job of leftists is to demand something other than that.
SJ: I was reading interviews with the people at the gun shop in Vegas where Stephen Paddock bought his guns from and they were like, “Yes, he passed the background check. He had never had any criminal offenses.” One of the most common predictors for this kind of gun violence is domestic violence. When we are talking about a warning sign like domestic violence—which is highly likely to be not reported to police in the first place—it would not show up on a background check of a lot of people. People are talking about background checks, background checks have got to be the thing. This guy passed them all.
PB: People doing shoe-leather reporting went to the local Starbucks where [Paddock and his girlfriend] got coffee, and the baristas [said], “Oh yeah, he is the guy who treated his partner like trash every morning.”
This goes to that point where gun violence—whether it be mass shootings or partner murder—is an organic continuum with other kinds of violence in society. . . . In spaces that are already saturated with violence [guns] precipitate or accelerate lethal outcomes. So, whatever our politics are going to be in terms of our responses to gun violence as a category, it has to be coherent [with] our consciousness of those other, broader kinds of violence—rather than just trading one kind of violence for another. It is not like police don’t have a problem with domestic violence in their homes.
SJ: One of the things you were watching on the day after the shooting in Las Vegas was, of course, the gun stocks going up.
PB: Arms, as an industry, thrives on people using arms. This is another thing that a lot of specifically white liberals should not view with contempt. When people feel unsafe, when there is the possibility of physical harm—and particularly when you can’t trust the authorities to vindicate your own desire for safety [or when] the authorities may be a source of threat—people make decisions that, from the perspective of those who are more secure, may seem foolish.
They may choose to arm themselves, . . . [and] I have a very hard time begrudging them for making that choice. Yes, the desire to be the person who pulls a gun on a mass shooter to save [themself] is [opposed to] reams of data that say, “That won’t work. You are more likely to get killed by cops.” But people are still in this hard spot where they have to make a choice—and so they buy guns.
There is a way in which the arms industry—which exists thanks in no small part to federal government subsidies—caters to that. But there is also a way in which simply focusing on the manufacturers [that] reap an outrageous profit or focusing on the NRA occludes the fact that people are buying their product regardless of the byzantine politics of lobbying or the subliminal messaging of ads; they are doing it because they feel unsafe. Unless we have a politics that can address those material and emotional conditions of unsafety, people are still going to be buying guns.
SJ: We don’t have a society that makes people feel safe and protected. Obviously, as we mentioned about domestic violence, I think it is worth noting that most of these mass shooters are men—but this points to the bigger, scarier social questions that we have to grapple with. We don’t have a bill we can pass through congress to abolish patriarchy.
PB: I read a lot of gun-centric publications, industry material, and scholarly lit. It is striking how super gendered it all is. It seems crude to say, [but] for a certain sector of the populace, guns are just their big penises.
You see an ad from Bushmaster just prior to the Sandy Hook shooting that was very literally like, “Get your man card back. Buy an AR-15.” If that were in a satirical novel, you couldn’t have a more on the nose “Hey men! Do you feel castrated? Here, buying this gun will remasculinize you.”
SJ: My favorite was the politician who had the bacon on the gun barrel.
PB: It was Ted Cruz! The image of Ted Cruz’s face eating steaming bacon off the barrel of a machine gun—the sizzling and the grease—it’s going to haunt me for the rest of my days.
Also, this implicates a lot of discourse on the left [of], “Well, we just need sufficiently, militantly armed leftists.” I would happy to talk about the role of weapons in leftist organizing over the past century—and that is not a thing to be diminished—but, on another level, I have yet to see a single study that says that leftist men are less likely to shoot their partners.
SJ: We have been talking a lot about what doesn’t work and which solutions are too easy to reach for in these moments. I do want to turn to questions of what can be done. In moments like this, a lot of people want to do something. What are some of the things that you have seen that are doing something that seems positive about the broad issue of guns, violence, healthcare, and safety in America?
PB: There [are] two parts. One is just [to] resist the frame. . . . Instead of even falling into the wormhole of gun control debates on the national level, think about gun deaths on the local level. Think about who in your community is the most vulnerable to winding up dead because of a bullet.
“Hey men! Do you feel castrated? Here, buying this gun will remasculinize you.”
When you start asking that question, you see some really surprising grassroots coalitions [across the country] coming into being [or having been in operation for some time] that are doing really substantive things [to help] lower [the] toll of violence.
One: Where is the activism happening? Two: Where is the room for actual interventions that are meaningful? I won’t get too inside baseball, but the way[s] in which gun laws have taken shape—particularly over the last thirty or forty years—means that most [meaning] interventions are happening on the state or . . . municipal levels. That is legislatively but also in terms of activism.
If you are in a place like Chicago, Louisville, St. Louis, or numerous [other] municipalities, the major driver of gun deaths is “gang violence,” retaliatory violence between social sets that have no course of vindication through law. There is a robust panoply of activist groups that are [working on] this. One example is MASK (Mothers Against Senseless Killing) or . . . Mothers of the Movement, which is an organization of mothers of various high profile young black men and women who have been killed by vigilantes or police.
There are church groups that will . . . patrol the streets at night and talk to people—which, surprisingly, has a real effect. There are a variety of church groups that will also do things like gang outreach . . . not involving the police, which is particularly helpful. [They] know who the young men are in [their] neighborhood who are likely to commit an act of violence and when [they] hear through the grapevine that there is something that has happened for which [someone is] going to retaliate, someone from the church calls them up and says, “Do you really want to do this?” and that stops it. That doesn’t necessarily involve the police, your local senator, or . . .the Democratic Party, but it actually can be meaningful.
A good place to go if you are in an urban setting is to find out what the black churches are doing. If you are in a more rural space, the leading drivers of gun deaths are [likely] suicides and domestic violence. There are surprising activist groups and coalitions that are emerging. For example, in New Hampshire, Kentucky, [and elsewhere], there is something called The Gun Shop Project, which [involves] gun store owners talking to people who come into their shops. They have been trained by medical professionals to look for signs in people who are near suicide, and all they do is ask them, “Do you really want to buy this gun or do you want me to hold it a couple of days?”
A lot of people are like, “Oh my god. Gun shop owners, they are icky.” Sure, you can feel that way, but at the point at which [someone] is taking a sobbing woman or man away from the counter, [saying], “You don’t need this right now. How about you come in the back and have a cup of coffee and call your doctor,” that is a real intervention.
There is room for straight up voting and calling your Senators and for all of that. There is a way in which mass shootings . . . are a trap. I am not saying they are false flags. They are very, very real. I am saying that discursively [and] politically, we have this immense desire to do something in reaction to them that feels emotionally proportional to the horror that they have given us. When you see sixty people dead, it is an understandable emotional view [to say], “I want to take all those guns and I want to melt them into the biggest statue ever.”
Don’t get me wrong, I will show up for the dictatorship of the proletariat that is going to eliminate gun violence through income redistribution.
That is fine, but there is a way in which—given how the news cycle works and given the way in which parties make money, whether they [are] the parties like the Democratic Party or the Republicans or [groups] like the NRA—simply embracing that impulse actually just perpetuates the same sort of status quo.
The reality [is] that there are a ton of things that can lower gun deaths that are not necessarily the same as gun control. For example, the need for trauma centers on the south side of Chicago. You need a Level 1 trauma center in order to vastly increase the likelihood that people who have been shot are not just going to bleed out, [and activists fought for one on the south side of Chicago]. That is an investment of money and infrastructure that has to come from some governmental body and that is something that people can fight for.
Ditto for various national-level programs that will foster that type of gang intervention [work]. . . . If you want to create national level change on this, you need to, unfortunately, check your very understandable desire for single dramatic gestures in favor of viewing the broader phenomenon of gun violence as a disparate collection of individual at-risk groups—each of whom can be helped with different targeted interventions.
SJ: To wrap up, when we point out the structural causes of this, they are the same ones that lead to us not having a universal healthcare system. They are the same structural causes that are causing all sorts of the inequalities that we live with every day. To deal with “gun violence” as an issue, we have to deal with inequality on micro and macro levels—from the fact that the Southside of Chicago didn’t have a Level 1 trauma center to the fact that we don’t have a functioning healthcare system in this country, leading Las Vegas officials to set up a GoFundMe to help the people who were shot in this moment.
PB: It is understandably morally frustrating that, on this issue, you wind up finding the exact same depressing structures that we otherwise confront [elsewhere]. . . . There are no simple easy answers, but there are answers that require work and time. One some level, why would we expect otherwise? [The system is never going to accommodate] radical change. . . . Don’t get me wrong, I will show up for the dictatorship of the proletariat that is going to eliminate gun violence through income redistribution. But, absent that, we need to have something . . . other than just a knee jerk utopianism that just gets hijacked in the favor of a really deadening status quo.
SJ: On that note, how can people keep up with you?
PB: I am on Twitter at @PatBlanchfield. I have got links there. I freelance, so I have got a site that is www.carteblanchfield.com. Anyone who wants to follow me on [thos] spaces [are] more than welcome.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
[*] The FBI has never formally defined “mass shooting;” however, they defined “mass murder” as “a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders. These events typically involved a single location, where the killer murdered a number of victims in an ongoing incident.” In 2013, though, federal statues began defining “mass killing” as three of more people killed, regardless of the weapon used.
[**] In January, President Trump threatened on Twitter to “send in the Feds” if Chicago did not address the number of shootings in the city. Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer later claimed this could mean a great deal of things, including the dispersal of “aid.”