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Politics as Usual Won't Stop Mass Shootings – A Discussion with Gun Culture Scholar Pat Blanchfield

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.

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