Everyone Deserves to Live: A Feminist Conversation about Gun Violence

This piece was coauthored by Mahroh Jahangiri and Jess Fournier

In the wake of another horrific school shooting in Texas, I am feeling many things, and I imagine that you reading this are too. Sadness, at the loss of ten children the same age as my sister, who will never get to grow up. Rage, at our morally bankrupt politicians and their latest spineless suggestions (less doors in schools, anyone?that mention anything and everything but guns.  

Disappointment, at the fact that this has happened again, despite the badass young people who restarted a national conversation about American gun violence in the wake of Parkland.

I think at this point we all know what the mainstream response to this shooting will be: thoughts & prayers, mental health, calls for high-capacity magazine bans and age limits, NRA fear-mongering. In the aftermath of Santa Fe, there are, understandably, divided responses among the survivors and their community about the proper way to respond to the shooting.  As a feminist and as a young person who has grown up seeing this happen again and again, I feel the same sense of desperation and need for something to be done after so much inaction.

But while I’m heartened to finally see movement on this issue, as a feminist I find myself generally skeptical about methods which rely on the state to fix gun violence. Mahroh and I discussed this and together, we realized this: some reforms pushed by gun reform activists actively deny people freedom. While there are other solutions we support, in order for them to be truly liberatory, they need to be rooted in a far more expansive understanding of what gun violence looks like in people’s everyday lives. 

Let’s start with the demands we disagree with from the gun control movement, because some of these — creating registries and increasing the power of the police — are just terrible ideas.

Jess Fournier: Demands that attribute mass shootings to mental illness and propose limiting medical privacy laws to let healthcare providers collaborate with police are incredibly disappointing. A hyperfocus on mentally ill people as the cause of gun violence is dangerous and ineffective. The vast majority of mentally ill people (who, by the way, make up one in six U.S. adults, including me!) do not commit mass shootings: less than 5% of gun killings in the US are committed by people with a diagnosed mental illness. Banning people with mental health conditions from owning guns wouldn’t have prevented Parkland, and demonizing people with mental health conditions allows for further encroachment on their civil rights.

Mahroh Jahangiri: Right and the same goes for relying on terrorist watch lists. Of those people killed by mass shooters in 2017, there is no clear evidence that any were on a terror watchlist (we would have heard, if otherwise) — so the argument that a watchlist ban would have prevented Parkland is entirely moot. More importantly, watch-lists already exist and while ineffective at preventing mass shootings, they are very effectively used to limit the civil rights and liberties of Muslim communities, prevent our free movement, and place us in indefinite detention in torture cells.

JF:  It has been really encouraging to see black young people — who have historically led gun activism — call out white gun control advocates and show how these racist demands are a direct result of them being silenced before and since the Parkland shooting. Black Parkland survivors have vehemently rejected their peers’ demands to put more cops in schools, which inevitably leads to students of color being assaulted and criminalized by police.

The gun rights movement has a long history of advocating only for the gun rights of white men: the murders of black gun owners like Philando Castile are considered justified, regardless of their legal gun ownership, and black women defending themselves from domestic violence are criminalized. But as the black Parkland students have shown, if the gun control movement does not take into account racism, they may also cause terrible harm.

MJ: Right, Noor Salman’s trial (and thank goodness acquittal) a few weeks ago also reveals the brutal disregard for survivors of color by those prosecuting gun violence. It is both horrifying and not terribly shocking that the only partner of a recent mass shooter to be taken to trial is a Muslim woman married to — and abused by — a Muslim man who committed mass violence.

As an aside, I also want to make a point here about the push to call white mass shooters “terrorists”. Trust me, I’ve spent nearly 20 years fuming about Muslims being labeled as “terrorists” while white men are described as experiencing “mental health issues.” And yet, now that the American left has finally caught up on the absurd racism of this media framing, I find little solace in calling Nicholas Cruz a “terrorist.” Sarah Schulman writes about the Parkland shooter:

The killer’s father died 3 years ago. He started posting scary racist images of guns and hurting animals. Then his mother died 3 months ago. His girlfriend broke up with him and got a new boyfriend. He started telling people he wanted to shoot up the school. He got expelled. Why expel a messed up kid whose parents just died? What do we do with people who cannot handle immense pain and loss? Kick them to the curb and let them buy guns?

I agree and I wonder: does calling individual shooters — many of whom may indeed have been experiencing a mental health crisis — terrorists do anything other than score white people woke internet points? Calling white shooters who are not state agents “terrorists” seems to merely expand the category of people that the state can use other seemingly legitimate forms of gun violence against. I’d rather reject that analysis altogether and instead ask: where could society have better raised these young men so that they didn’t become shooters?

JF: I appreciate you pointing this out. Like calling someone a criminal, calling someone a terrorist is dehumanizing and meant to distance them from the rest of society. Our entire prison system supports the idea that people who commit violence deserve to be locked away forever. But if we want to stop this violence from happening, I believe we need to consider the humanity of people who have harmed and even murdered. We owe it to ourselves and to the world we want to create.

So we’ve established that the most disturbing “reform measures” are ones that would give the state more license to surveil, imprison, and kill black people and other people of color, Muslims, and disabled people.  But what about other gun control measures, like Vermont raising the gun ownership age to 21 and banning high-capacity magazines? Do we think that kind of reform is useless?

MJ: I don’t think so! I’m truly happy with Vermont raising the age from 18 to 21, etc etc. My issue then is not that remaining gun control demands are nonsensical — they make sense! — it is that they only focus on murders by civilian shooters and do not address the other very important ways in which people are killed with guns: by the state. (They also ignore the reasons — i.e. poverty, racism — many men pick up guns in the first place.)

JF: That makes a lot of sense. Like obviously arming teachers is ridiculous. But we’re missing the larger context of who has the most power to wield and kill with guns in our society: the police and military.

MJ: Yeah. To be clear: every movement has short and long term demands — and I get that raising an age is more doable than abolishing the government’s stockpile of tools of violence.  An expanded anti-racist position on gun control doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do anything immediately to block rifle sales. What it does mean is that we need a far more broader vision of what and who we are fighting for.

To create that vision, let’s talk about who is killed by guns. And who they are killed by.

JF: The Gun Violence Archive reports that 15,593 people in the U.S. were killed by guns last year. 458 people were killed by mass shooters. And approximately 1,147 people (probably more) were killed by police. Every single one of these people is one victim too many. But why don’t we consider people shot by cops as part of the overall narrative of American gun violence?

MJ: As Black Lives Matter activists have been pointing out for decades, police violence is gun violence. To some extent, mainstream and white-led gun control organizations are responding to the demands of black activists to acknowledge the victims of gun violence who are people of color, as evidenced by Naomi Wadler’s speech at the March for Our Lives. But these organizations are unwilling to truly support black victims of gun violence by calling out the most common perpetrators: police officers.  

JF: Last month, campus police at the University of Chicago shot a black student experiencing a mental health crisis. The week before, NYPD murdered Saheed Vassell for the crime of standing on the street in Brooklyn holding a shower head. Family said Mr. Vassell also had mental health issues. But the response from mainstream gun control organizations to two black people with mental health conditions becoming victims of gun violence was noncommittal at best.

Everytown for Gun Safety posted the following statement on Facebook after Saheed Vassell’s murder:

Saheed Vassell, 34, was fatally shot by police in Brooklyn after receiving calls he was threatening people with a gun. The object, however, turned out to be a metal pipe with a knob on it. […] Every day in America, 96 people are shot and killed. This includes shootings by police, which disproportionately affect the Black community. Police shootings are part of the daily toll of everyday gun violence in America, and law enforcement must be part of the solution (italics added)

In other words, these advocates are saying that the solution to law enforcement murdering people of color and people with disabilities is more law enforcement. This is profoundly disturbing.

MJ: Also worth noting is that the issue of agents of the United States government being given the license to shoot people, and the dehumanization of their victims, extends far beyond the U.S.’ domestic police force. While Customs & Border Patrol don’t release statistics on how many people they kill, they also shoot and kill undocumented immigrants. The number of people murdered by U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is so grossly high that it is impossible to accurately count — but can be assumed to be in the millions. 

Central to the gun control movement is the notion that people do not deserve to live in fear of being murdered by a gun. If we know that the only purpose of AR-15s is to kill large numbers of people very quickly in incredibly painful ways that have no purpose in “civilian life,” they are no more moral when the US military is using them to kill people in other countries.

These numbers only capture violence that ends in murder. Does gun violence have to include murder to demand our attention? What if we were to expand our understanding of gun violence to include all of the ways in which guns make it possible for the state to harm, incarcerate, assault, detain, and deport people?

JF: The threat of gun violence (and its ultimate result: death) is central to the state’s control of marginalized and criminalized populations. Police use guns to violently suppress indigenous water protectors and black communities in Ferguson, allow Border Patrol agents and cops to rape undocumented people and people in custody, and prevent people from crossing arbitrary borders.

MJ: Guns aren’t just about individual deaths; the government’s organized control of access to guns is a way to organize and monopolize violence. What would the cops be without guns? What would the military and the state be without them?

 

Ultimately, our vision of an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, pro-feminist gun control is one that not only acknowledges that no one deserves to die, but that everyone deserves to live — and to thrive — free from state as well as interpersonal violence.  

Image credit: Nate Gowdy, The Stranger

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