Faculty Writing: American Gun Violence Past and Present

BISR faculty member Patrick Blanchfield penned two pieces recently on the perennially relevant subject of American gun violence, one examining its bloody past, the other meditating on its terrible present.

For the New Republic, Blanchfield reviewed Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second AmendmentDunbar-Ortiz’s book, Blanchfield writes, dismisses the typical focus of the gun debate–the “real” meaning of the 2nd Amendment phrase “well-regulated militia”–as a “red herring.” “What the Second Amendment guarantees is instead something else: ‘the violent appropriation of Native land by white settlers … as an individual right.'” Originally a colony, America from its beginnings depended on gun ownership and usage, because, as Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “Extreme violence, particularly against unarmed families and communities, was an aspect inherent in European colonialism, always with genocidal possibilities, and often with genocidal results.”

Deeply embedded in our history and society, guns shape the American imagination still. Writes Blanchfield: “The right’s talk of preserving American greatness, Dunbar-Ortiz proposes, comes directly from this violent history. From Reagan’s race politics to Trump’s nativism, leaders on the right have articulated the principles that groups of armed American extremists practice. ‘White nationalists are the irregular forces—the voluntary militias—of the actually existing political-economic order,’ she states, succinctly. ‘They are provided for in the Second Amendment.’”

In “The Ghosts of 2012,” published in N+1, Blanchfield finds intimations of 2017, annus horribilis, in two terrible happenings of 2012–the massacre at Sandy Hill, and the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. “[T]he most significant thing about America in 2012,” Blanchfield writes, “is that it was bookended by the murders of children.” The killings provoked reactions both similar and disparate–Sandy Hook was universally mourned; for reasons of white supremacy, a substantial portion of the American population identified strongly with Zimmerman. In any case, the by now routine gun violence of the intervening five years gives us occasion to take stock: “What have we learned about ‘gun violence,’ as a phenomenon and as a political cause, over the last five years?” When a child is murdered, we feel compelled to do something “commensurately drastic and dramatic.” Yet, “the entrenched place of gun violence in American culture, like the power of the gun lobby itself, defies emotionally satisfying panaceas…The most effective paths forward for fighting gun violence…feel unglamorous, even paltry, and carry none of the righteous satisfaction of inflicting humiliation on gun-lobby diehards.”

“It is much easier to hope for a final apocalypse than to wake up each day to yet more destruction of worlds, merciless and unredeemable. And yet we must.”