Something horrible happened on Sunday. 59 people were killed by someone with a gun. Hundreds of people were injured in the ensuing chaos. Terrifying. Unimaginable. But then, we aren’t unfamiliar with these stories in the United States. In the past 5 years, there have been more than 1,500 mass shootings (in which four or more people were shot). But we already know this. We know how the news cycle will go when a white man kills people. Calls for prayers, as if that will help. Calls to stop the politicization of death, as if death isn’t always politicized. Calls to band together as a country, as if that will change anything. Speculation about the mental health of the shooter. Use of the phrase “lone wolf.” Resistance by most politicians to any major political action. Mass shootings shouldn’t feel banal, but they do.
There is a concept called the Overton window that describes the relative acceptability of various political ideas. Ideas that fall within the window are generally acceptable according to public opinion. In a talk by Jaclyn Friedman, author of “Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape,” she urged progressives and leftists not just to hold the line of acceptable political discourse but to continually push it left, no matter how futile it feels. She said that to hold the line means to concede ground to those who would push it right.
Perhaps the financial power of the NRA combined with the passion of NRA superfan voters frightens progressives into taking timid, milquetoast positions on gun control. Perhaps Democrats truly do believe that “we can respect the rights of responsible gun owners while keeping our communities safe.” And increased regulation, banning assault weapons, and making it more difficult for people who are known to be violent (particularly with intimate partners) to obtain guns would certainly be better than nothing. But I think we need to push the Overton window further left. People who oppose gun violence must understand that there is only one way to end it: to eliminate all gun manufacturing and ownership. This is not a politically viable opinion in the United States right now, and it would involve a Constitutional amendment, something that feels like a nightmare to achieve. But most important things will take a long time and a lot of work. There is no other way.
This more extreme anti-gun position must be intertwined with racial justice, disability justice, and feminism. Historically, anti-gun laws have disproportionately targeted communities of color, particularly politicized, strong black communities. If anti-gun activists aren’t actively engaged with racial justice, any gun regulations will just be absorbed into the white supremacist logic of mass incarceration as a reason to further criminalize and pathologize communities of color.
Guns are both a particularly efficient and dangerous weapon, as well as a representation of white cis hetero masculinity at its most toxic. White men are the group most likely to perpetrate mass shootings. The majority of people who commit mass shootings have a history of domestic or intimate partner violence. Black men are more likely to be victims of homicide with guns than any other racial/gender group. Half of women who are murdered are murdered by a current or former intimate partner; half of those deaths are committed with guns. Black women and indigenous women face the highest homicide rates of all women. Black folks are more likely to be killed with guns by police than any other race. To do away with guns means to disarm systems of oppression.
Currently, most Democrats will not say they believe in amending the Constitution to outlaw guns. The liberal party line is that, in addition to banning assault weapons and increasing background checks, mentally ill people should not be able to own guns. This used to make sense to me. But framing gun violence as a mental illness problem is ableist, villainizing those with mental illnesses and ignoring the violence enacted against them. It also obscures the systemic oppression embedded in incidents of gun violence by focusing on the mental state of the shooter rather than their political motives or the socialization that creates violence.
First, people who have mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. It is pretty clearly ableist to construct a specter of mental illness for us to fear rather than address abolish guns and address the roots of gun violence. Additionally, whatever role mental illness plays in incidents of gun violence, it’s not the determining factor. White men kill the most, but they don’t have higher rates of mental illness than people of color and women. Chalking violence up to mental illness, rather than white supremacy, for example, is a way to excuse someone from bearing the full responsibility of, say, shooting 9 black people in a black church after writing a manifesto about how much you hate black people. This discourse about mental illness depoliticizes actions that are explicitly and proudly political. Bringing the question of mental illness into debates about gun control shields white men from bearing the responsibility of their actions while also stigmatizing and pathologizing people with mental illnesses.
Blaming people with mental illnesses broadly for incidents of gun violence absolves the system of interwoven oppressions in which we all live of responsibility for gun violence. It makes gun violence into an individual problem. And sure, in some ways, it is. An individual person makes the choice to be violent. But some violence, even violence perpetrated by individuals, is systemic and structural in nature. We don’t define misogyny/toxic masculinity, Islamophobia, cissexism, heterosexism, or racism as mental illnesses, and yet, those systems of oppression create the context for gun violence, whether that’s the murder of black people by police officers or the murder of women by their intimate partners.
Guns should not be only for people we, as a society, deem worthy of owning them because we do not have an accurate way to determine who can safely own a gun and who cannot. In fact, we can’t even say that anyone can safely own a gun. Guns make it easier for people to commit suicide. Guns make it possible for people to accidentally shoot themselves or other people. If guns exist, there’s a chance they’ll be used.
Of course, guns aren’t the root of violence. People will and do commit violence without guns. That’s why anti-gun activism has to be intertwined with other movements for social justice. We need to interrogate why we have such high rates of violence in the first place– why do we hurt each other so much and in such predictable ways? Why are people of color, women, LGBTQ+ folks, low-income people, and people with disabilities the most likely to experience violence? Preventing violence is a multifaceted project. Ending gun violence is one face of it.